1977 Hanafi Siege

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The 1977 Hanafi Siege refers to an incident that occurred March 9–11, 1977, in which three buildings in Washington, D.C. were seized by 12 African-American Muslim gunmen, led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who took 149 hostages and killed a radio journalist and a police officer. After a 39-hour standoff all other hostages were released from the District Building (city hall; now called the John A. Wilson Building), B'nai B'rith headquarters, and the Islamic Center of Washington.

One of those killed was 24-year-old Maurice Williams, a young radio reporter from WHUR-FM, who stepped off a fifth floor elevator into the crisis. (The fifth floor is where the Mayor and City Council President have their offices). The gunmen also shot DC Protective Service Division, Police Officer Mack Cantrell, who died a few days later in the hospital of a heart attack. Then-D.C. council member, later twice mayor, Marion Barry walked into the hallway of the District Building after hearing a commotion and was hit by a ricocheted shotgun pellet just above his heart. He was taken out a window and rushed to a hospital.

The gunmen had several demands. They "wanted the government to hand over a group of men who had been convicted of killing seven relatives – mostly children – of takeover leader Hamaas Khaalis. They also demanded that the movie Mohammad, Messenger of God be destroyed because they considered it sacrilegious."[1]

Time magazine noted: "That the toll was not higher was in part a tribute to the primary tactic U.S. law enforcement officials are now using to thwart terrorists—patience. But most of all, perhaps, it was due to the courageous intervention of three Muslim ambassadors, Egypt's Ashraf Ghorbal, Pakistan's Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan and Iran's Ardeshir Zahedi."[2]

Causes of the siege

The leader of the siege was former national secretary of the Nation of Islam, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Khaalis was born in Indiana in 1921 and named Ernest McGhee. Discharged from the U.S. Army on grounds of mental instability, he worked as a jazz drummer in New York City before converting to Islam and changing his name to Hamaas Khaalis. He became prominent in the ministries and school of the Nation of Islam and was appointed its national secretary in the early 1950s.

Khaalis split with the Nation of Islam in 1958 to found a rival orthodox Islamic organisation, the "Hanafi Movement."[3] In 1968 he was arrested for attempted extortion but released on grounds of mental illness.[2]

In 1972 he published an open letter attacking the leadership and beliefs of the Nation of Islam. A year later five men broke into Khaalis' Washington home and murdered five of his children, his nine-day-old grandson and another man. The murderers were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. A grief-stricken Khaalis claimed the men were associated with the Nation of Islam, and that the Jewish judge in the cases had not pursued this link.

The takeovers in Washington

On March 9, 1977, seven members of Khaalis' group burst into the headquarters of B'nai B'rith, just a few miles south of Khaalis' headquarters, and took over 100 hostages. Less than an hour later, three men entered the Islamic Center of Washington, and took eleven hostages. At 2:20pm, two Hanafis entered the District Building, three blocks from the White House. They went to the fifth floor looking for important hostages. When an elevator opened the hostage-takers thought they were under assault and fired, killing Maurice Williams, and injuring security guard Mack Cantrell. Marion Barry was struck by a ricochet in the chest, and two others were wounded. "Throughout the siege Khaalis denounced the Jewish judge who had presided at the trial of his family's killers. 'The Jews control the courts and the press,'" he repeatedly charged.[2]

The demands

Khaalis and his followers wanted those convicted for the 1973 murders handed over to them, presumably for execution. They also wanted to receive visits from Wallace Muhammad and champion boxer Muhammad Ali, long an active Black Muslim supporter. Khaalis also demanded that he be refunded $750 in legal fees caused by a contempt of court citation due to his misbehavior in the trial of his children's killers. Time noted: "He also wanted the recently released film Mohammad, Messenger of God, to be banned on the grounds that it is sacrilegious. Khaalis' concern over the film was thought to have triggered the attack."[2]


A large part of the negotiations were the three Muslim ambassadors, who "read to the gunmen passages from the Quran that they said demonstrated Islam’s compassion and mercy. They urged the gunmen to surrender. These ambassadors relied on their religious faith for compassion and tolerance."[4]

On the evening of the following day, following a number of phone calls, the three ambassadors, along with a few DC officials, (including police commander Joseph O'Brien, who had investigated the murder of Khaalis' children and was trusted by Khaalis) met with the Hanafis. Finally, Khaalis, and the other involved in the hostage taking at the two sites where no one was killed, were allowed to be charged and then freed on their own recognizance. All were later tried and convicted, with Khaalis receiving a sentence of 21 to 120 years for his role. [5] He died at the Federal Complex Prison in Butner, North Carolina on November 13, 2003.

In 2007, the fifth floor press room at DC's Wilson Building was named for the slain radio reporter Maurice Williams.[6]

In popular culture

The Jonathan Leaf play The Caterers, which was produced Off Broadway in 2005, portrayed a modern-day version of the siege.

The siege is mentioned in Joni Mitchell's song "Otis And Marlene" from her 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, in which the title characters travel "for sun and fun/ While Muslims stick up Washington".

John W. King wrote about the Hanafi siege in his book, The Breeding of Contempt, which chronicles the siege, and his family's entrance as the first African American family in the Federal Witness Protection Program due to the massacre of the Khaalis family.


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  1. Theresa Vargas (March 12, 2007). "'Some Things You Never Forget': Thirty years ago, gunmen stormed three D.C. buildings, taking 150 hostages and one life". Washington Post. p. B01. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "The 38 Hours: Trial by Terror". Time magazine. March 21, 1977. 
  3. "Media Guide to Islam". Mediaguidetoislam.sfsu.edu. Retrieved 2010-06-13. 
  4. Daniel S. Mariaschin (March 8, 2007). "Wakeup call for the world: Don't ignore Iran's threats". New Jersey Jewish Standard. 
  5. "Emergence of Islam in the African-American Community". Answering-islam.de. Retrieved 2010-06-13. 
  6. "Press Room at Wilson Building Being Renamed". WJLA TV-7 News. March 12, 2007.