On March 9–11, 1977, three buildings in Washington, D.C., were seized by 12 Muslim gunmen, led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who had broken from the Nation of Islam because he blamed them for murder. They took 149 hostages and killed a radio journalist. After a 39-hour standoff, the gunmen surrendered and all remaining hostages were released from the District Building (the 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 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 Chairman have their offices). The gunmen also shot D.C. Protective Service Division police officer Mack Cantrell, who died a few days later in the hospital of a heart attack. Then-City Councilman and future 4-term Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry walked into the hallway after hearing a commotion and was hit by a ricocheted shotgun pellet, which lodged just above his heart. He was taken out through 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."
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."
The leader of the attack was former national secretary of the Nation of Islam Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Khaalis was born Ernest McGhee in Indiana in 1921. 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 Islamic organisation, the "Hanafi Movement". In 1968, he was arrested for attempted extortion but released on grounds of mental illness.
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 judge in the cases had not pursued this link.
On March 9, 1977, seven members of Khaalis' group burst into the headquarters of B'nai B'rith, 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 2:20 pm, two Hanafis entered the District Building, three blocks from the White House. They went to the fifth floor looking for important people to take hostage. When an elevator opened the hostage-takers thought they were under assault and fired, killing Maurice Williams, a reporter for WHUR-FM radio, and injuring security guard Mack Cantrell. Then-councilman 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.
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 Warith Deen Mohammed 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 issued in response 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." He made this determination about the sacrilegious nature of the film based on the mistaken impression that Mohammad was a character seen or heard in the film, which is not the case. The main characters are relatives whose portrayal is not forbidden by religious tradition.
A large part of the negotiations were conducted by 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."
On the evening of the following day, following a number of phone calls, the three ambassadors, along with a few D.C. 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 others 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.
Khaalis died at the Federal Correctional Complex Prison in Butner, North Carolina, on November 13, 2003. Marion Barry recovered from his wounds and was later elected mayor. In 2007, the fifth floor press room at the Wilson Building was named for the slain reporter, Maurice Williams.
John W. King wrote about the Hanafi siege in his book, The Breeding of Contempt. The book chronicles the siege and his family's becoming the first African American family in the Federal Witness Protection Program after the massacre of the Khaalis family.
The siege is mentioned in Joni Mitchell's song "Otis And Marlena" from her 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. In the song, the title characters travel "for sun and fun / While Muslims stick up Washington".
The Jonathan Leaf play The Caterers, which was produced Off Broadway in 2005, portrayed a modern-day version of the siege.