Small Wars Journal

Arab Thoughts on the Italian Colonial Wars in Libya

Tue, 03/06/2012 - 8:04am

The authors wish to thank the John T. Hughes Library in WashingtonDC and University of Iowa Library for making the Arabic book discussed available for analysis and study.

The United States military must begin to gain an appreciation for the nuances, perspectives and history of various guerilla wars of the Middle East.  This history defines the region and inspires both friends and adversaries in the region.  American military leaders of the 21st century need to be comfortable with their knowledge of Palestinian fedayeen tactics to the ongoing Iraqi insurgency.  Undiscovered Arabic volumes exist that highlights the strategy, guerilla organization, tribal wars, tactics, and operational plans written by Islamist militants, the Arab security chiefs who combat them, as well as historians who analyze a host of terrorist wars, colonial wars, and personalities of the Middle East and North Africa.  These Arabic tomes are gems in today’s 21st century American military environment.  This commentary is an exposé of two Libyan historians Dr. Rifaat Abdul-Aziz Said of the Jebel Gharbi University and Mohammed Ahmed al-Tuweer of the April 7th University.  These two acedmics published in 2000, an Arabic book entitled, “Tarikh al-Jihad fee Libya did al-Ghazu al-Italee, 1911-1931” (The history of the Libyan Jihad against the Italian Invasion from 1911-1931).  It was published by Markaz al-Hadarah al-Arabiyah (The Center for Arab Civilization) in Cairo, Egypt.  Although not every aspect of the book will be covered in this exposé, readers will gain a sense of the Arab view of military history when a handful of Ottoman officers, coupled with charismatic Libyan tribal leaders undertook a two decade long resistance against Italian forces attempting to annex Libya from 1911 to 1931.

The Years before the Italian Annexation of Libya  

 Italy was a late-comer among European powers for the race for colonies.  However by the standards of other European nations, arrive to the realization that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling early and saw a chance to create what the dictator Benito Mussolini would later call Italy’s “Fourth shore,” the annexation of the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan.  Italy expected an easy victory against the over indigenous forces and their was the added political pressure ever since Giuseppe Garibaldi unified Italy in 1870, many in power saw it as a necessity to join France and England in establishing colonies.  This was part of the concept of Risorgimento that can be translated as "resurgence", "renewal" or "revival."  It is similar to the American concept of Manifest Destiny.  This sense of Roman resurgence, led Italy to colonial adventures in Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Libya during World War I and II. 

Before Italian colonization, the Italian government in 1907 pursued a subtle policy of settling ever increasing numbers of Italians in Libya. The book highlights the increase in branches of Banco di Roma, which encouraged and catered to the financial needs of Italian land-holders in Libya.  By 1911, when Italy decided to go to war with the Ottoman Empire to annex Libya, Italian investments totaled $35 million which included ports, pier facilities, wheat processing plants, soap factories, ice factories, and agricultural industries centered in Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli (the same Derna and Tripoli made famous by the U.S. Marines led by 1st Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon in 1805).  In 1901, over 1,700 students were in Italian sponsored schools.  It was easy for any great power to fill the void of social and educational services neglected by the Ottoman Empire.  Italy provided health services with clinics in the Libya’s main coastal cities. 

The pretext used by the Italians to declare war on the Ottomans was the charge that Istanbul was not doing enough to protect Italian interests in Libya.  Despite Ottoman moves to rectify any perceived attacks on Italian interests it was of no use, as Rome had made up its mind regarding war.  There was little the Ottomans could do except mine harbors, send out torpedo boats and dispatch an Ottoman ship carrying 10,000 rifles, ammo, clothing and military stores under German colors, which arrived Tripoli in late September 1911.  The Ottomans followed news of Italian reserve call ups when they decided to arm the Libyan population.  So detailed was Ottoman intelligence tracking the call up of Italian soldiers that it decided to respond when Italy announced that males born in 1888 or earlier would be drafted.   Libya was the backwater of the Ottoman Empire, it was cut off from Ottoman civilian and military modernization, called the tanzimaat (reforms) that began in 1839 and ended in 1876.  At one point, the Ottomans maintained 20,000 regular troops in Libya, but incredibly months before the Italian invasion, Ottoman Prime Minister Haqqi Pasha (the title Pasha is an honorific Ottoman title similar to Lord, i.e. Lord Haqqi), ordered the redeployment of 16,000 troops from Libya to suppress a rebellion in Yemen, and with those forces went arsenals of weapons that ended up not where it was needed to repel the Italians, but eventually in Constantinople.   Prime Minister Haqqi Pasha’s options were to redeploy forces to Yemen, either in whole or part, from Beirut or Baghdad, Egypt although nominally an Ottoman province was under a British protectorate since 1882, so the Ottomans could not rely on Cairo.  Prime Minister Haqqi would be blamed for leaving the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli, and other Libyan cities undefended.   In Libyan history today, Haqqi’s decisions were treasonous.  Another blunder of Prime Minister Haqqi was the recall of the popular vali (governor) of Tripoli (Tripoli was the seat of Ottoman rule in Libya and the largest city) Ibrahim Pasha, whose reports to Istanbul about Italian build-ups and intentions since 1907 fell on deaf ears.  Mahmoud Nagy Bey (the title Bey is an Ottoman honorific title similar to sir, i.e. Sir Mahmoud Nagy) and Sadek Bey Representatives of Tripoli to the Ottoman court and national assembly warned Ottoman officials and court of the Sultan of Italian intentions towards Tripoli and Fezzan.    

Italy’s Military Plans and the Ottoman Lack of Response

The initial plans laid by the Italian General Staff called for an invasion force composed of:

  • 34,000 troops
  • 6,300 horses and cavalry
  • 1,050 troop carriers
  • 48 artillery pieces
  • 34 mountain artillery pieces

These initial plans were amended to increase Italian troop strength to 100,000 and include biplanes in the invasion force.  Facing this force were 4,800 Ottoman regulars with a mixture of antiquated guns, rifles and artillery.  The defense of Libya would be hastily prepared and fall on the shoulders of the indigenous population with a few hundred Ottoman officers providing leadership and guidance from 1911 to 1913.

1911-1912:  Opening Stages of the Conflict

A month before the war in late September 1911, a cabinet meeting was convened in Constantinople in which War Minister Shawkat (Pasha), who no doubt was influenced by the Prime Minister, declared Tripoli to be lost.  The cabinet discussed proposals seeking compensation for an Ottoman withdrawal from Tripoli.  This is significant, because only three years later the Ottomans would make the momentous decision to join Germany in a declaration of war against the Triple Entente in World War I.  This begs the question how can the Ottoman government be so reckless in 1914, when exactly three years before it was prepared to abandon Libya to the Italians for financial gain?  As the Italian Navy approached, the Ottoman War Minister sent a cable to Benghazi, informing forces to withdraw to Libya’s interior and muster tribes for guerilla action.  This could be a subject for a future thesis for a War College student.

  • 1 October 1911, the Italian fleet left Naples for Tripoli, Libya.  The naval task force included heavy cruisers, destroyers, battleships, two liners carrying what would be the first of the 100,000 troops committed in Libya. 
  • 3 October 1911, Italians shell Tripoli from the sea.
  • 4 October 1911, Italians shell Tobruk from the sea, and land troops, it is the first Libyan city to be occupied by the Italians.
  • 5 October 1911, after two days of shelling from the sea, the landing of Italian forces in Tripoli begins.  Initially they meet little resistance.
  • 11 October 1911, based on the Ottoman War Minister’s cable Ottoman Colonel Ahmed Essawi and Sheikh Omar al-Mokhtar, with 1,000 tribal fighters stood 20 kilometers from Benghazi.  
  • 23 October 1911, street fighting between Libyan guerillas begins and lasts for three days in Tripoli, these battles would be called by the Arabs by the street names and locations within Tripoli in which they occurred.  Such as the battles of al-Hani, al-Shatt Street, Abu Malyanah, and Sidi Misri.
  • Late October 1911, fighting erupts between Italian forces in the coastal town of Khoms and the indigenous population.  Khalil Pasha sends forces into Khoms and looses 1,200 fighters.  He alleges the brutality of the fighting and the calls for tribal revenge caused him to come out of Khoms with 4,000 volunteers.    

What the Libyans and Ottomans learned from these skirmishes was that the Italians when pressured, retreated into their fortifications, and that machine guns (a foretaste of World War I when machine guns were used in trench warfare) would take a heavy toll on Libyan tribesmen.  The Libyan tribes would remain 25 kilometers from Tripoli monitoring the rhythm of the city and Italians and engaged in harassment tactics through 1912.  Initially the Italians, between 1911 and 1912, were attacked for their weapons, until deliveries of Mauser rifles arrived from Germany and Constantinople to the port of Berka located in east Libya near Benghazi. 

Ottoman and German Officers Organize Libyan Tribal Resistance

In Italy’s Parliament, deputies were divided on the Libyan campaign and parliament was split.  Ironically, Benito Mussolini, who less than two decades later would advocate a reconquista (re-conquest) of Libya as fascist dictator, in 1911 was an outspoken critic of the Libyan war as a firebrand journalist.  What settled was outlined by Ottoman General Anwar Bey, who outlined an operational objective of containing the Italians in coastal towns and cities and wearing them down with psychological and guerilla operations.  Anwar Bey had with him an extraordinary staff that included Mutafa Kemal Bey (later Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey), and Aziz al-Masry (who would be Iraqi Commander-in-Chief under King Feisal I and an ardent Arab nationalist).

Many of these betrayed Ottoman officers would form into the Young Fedayeen Officers, known in the west as the Young Turks, they included not only Mustafa Kemal in Libya, but leaders of this movement like Djemal Pasha and Talaat Pasha.  Before the arrival of the Italian forces in 1911, cells led by the Ottoman officers had Libyans infiltrate Italian industry, reconnoiter roads, and take a census of all males able to bear arms in Tripoli and Derna.  Some of these reports were sent to Istanbul but ignored.    

After 1912:  Italians Widen the Conflict with the Ottomans

Frustrated, Rome would widen its strategy, taking the Ottoman possessions of the Dodecanese Islands, and encouraging Albanian and Macedonian independence movements to underline the Ottoman Empire.  Italy also attempted temporary blockades of Beirut, Hodeida in Yemen, and the Dardanelles, in an effort to get the Ottomans to sue for peace.   The Italians saw the center of gravity in Constantinople instead of within the Libyan tribes themselves.  In October 1912, the Ottomans signed a truce with Italy, but the tribal insurgency took on a momentum of its own.  Ottoman officers fighting in Libya felt betrayed by the Sultan and some elected to stay and fight on.  The tribal insurgency split into two factions by late 1912.  One group led by Sheikh Mohammed Farahat al-Zawi argued it was pointless to resist the Italian technological superiority and sought an accommodation with Rome.  The other faction led by Suleiman al-Bahrooni, who was an Ottoman delegate representing Tripoli took the jihad to the mountains and deserts.  Al-Bahrooni escaped to French Tunisia in 1913, and then to Constantinople.  He would return to Libya clandestinely with Turkish officers to stir up the Sanussi Rebellion that would threaten Egypt, and draw in England.  By 1914, the Ottomans joined the Germans in declaring war against Britain, Italy and France and saw in stirring up the Libyan Sanussi tribal confederacy a means to divert British forces away from an Ottoman invading army attempting to capture the Suez Canal.  Anwar Pasha who has since been recalled from Libya to Constantinople, convinced Ottoman War Minister Shawkat Pasha to undertake clandestine operations in Libya.  Upon his arrival into Libya from Egypt, he sent his deputies to Ottoman strongholds in Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Misturah, Khoms, and Tripoli.  Anwar Pasha organized a command structure around the Ottoman General Nash’at Pasha who became Commander in Chief at the town of Aziziyah.  Arab volunteers were trained by Moheiddine Bey and German advisers.  Not to different from that way Baron von Steuben trained the American Revolutionary Army in the regular drill of the eighteenth century.  The way Anwar Pasha organized the Libyan resistance was:

  • Colonel Khalil Muzafar Bey, Commanding with LT Hassan Fahmy as his deputy, organizing hundreds of tribesmen in Jebel Maqrab, in the mountainous regions of Libya. 
  • At Benghazi, Colonel Aziz al-Masry, commanded with Suleiman al-Askary as his deputy. 
  • At Tobruk Colonel Shalaby Adham, commanded with Major Nazeem Islam as his deputy. 

They would provide the flexibility of using tribal tactics, with regular combat tactics and support one another against Italian forces that venture into valleys, mountains, or the desert.  Anwar Pasha would take command of guerilla operations in Derna, his deputy was Nuri Bey and his advisors included Mustafa Kemal as well as select Germans.  Colonel Sarkis Rasheed organized a General Staff for Anwar and Nash’at Pashas.  They also established armories, weapons repair facilities, a bullet manufacturing facility Ayn Bu Mansur, a village deep in Libya’s interior.  The group established guerilla schools that trained 1,000 young boys and 500 young women in various subjects to include guerilla tactics.  Their newspaper al-Jihad, provided information on the course of the war and regular pay was established for vounteers of one Gold Sovereign about the size of a five dollar gold piece per volunteer per month.

Anwar Pasha Organizes Libyan Irregulars and Ottoman Trained Regulars

Anwar Pasha knew the bulk of his forces were tribal irregulars and what this volume reveals is that he and his staff devised an organization that was semi-structured along regular military lines.  Each camp was composed of a cluster of tents, what is interesting is that each tent had 15 mujaheeds (fighters) from the same tribe, each tent had a regular corporal or sergeant appointed by the tribal sheikh and then trained by the Ottomans in NCO duties.  This way the tribal and Ottoman authority was mixed, and the tribes benefited from a trained NCO from their own tribe selected by the tribal elders.  In addition tribal elders could be seen providing education as a benefit to the sons of other clan leaders within the tribe.  Each tent was tended to by one woman who not only drew provisions and cooked them, but cleaned, mended clothes, and brought water and food on the battlefield while clearing the wounded from the field of conflict.  The book notes that about 500 women served in this capacity.  In addition, to the monthly gold sovereign, provisions per person per day were assessed at two silver piasters, the equivalent of 50 cents in 1912 dollars.  Every 50 fighters has a tribal elder as leader, 150 fighters with their three tribal elders as leaders had over them an Ottoman officer assisted by NCOs.  Every tribe was expected to levy a battalion or about 500-1000 fighters that was co-commanded between an Ottoman Colonel or higher and the head of each tribe. 

Every family of a tribal member killed in combat was afforded a weekly stipend and free provisions.  Tribes fought for each other first, then for loyalty to the Muslim cause, they were also attracted to the Ottoman benefits like regular food, pay, access to horses and donkeys and amazingly regular meals of meat were quite an attraction.  As this force was being organized and leading battles to contain Italian forces to the coast, Ahmed Sherief a leader of the Sannussi order (a religious fundamentalist order) bypassed the Egyptian government then controlled by Britain, to appeal to the Sheikhs of Cairo’s al-Azhar Rectory, support the Libyan cleric was able to acquire.  The Italians would dominate the coastal cities due to maritime dominance, but their permanent power could not extend beyond the range of naval gunfire. 

1913-1915:  Italian Forces Expand into Libya’s Interior, the Fezzan

In December 1913 the Italians garrisoned regular forces in the interior of Libya, a region called the Fezzan.  However it took Italians until August 1913 before their foothold was established and only in garrison and oasis towns.  The Italians by 1915 has several weaknesses to their strategy of subjugating Libya, such as a lack of:

  • good intelligence on the Ottomans in Libya, the tribes and German advisors;
  • understanding of the nuances of the different tribes in Libya;
  • comprehending how tribal levies worked, how they were supplied and commanded;
  • protected logistics routes for Italian forces garrisoned on the edge of the Sahara and in Libya’s interior; and
  • an appreciation for the cumulative effects of Libyan guerilla operations.

Battles fought were at the choosing of the Libyans and urban rebellions were capitalized on by the guerillas.  Battles and urban riots included the Busifi Rebellion, the Battle of Wadi Marseet and the Battle of Qurdabiyah.  The last battle saw massive Italian losses, and kept Italian forces in towns and villages where they could benefit from massive firepower. 

1915-1916:  The Sanussi Rebellion, a Religious Movement Re-awakens

Another development of December 1915 began to occur, when a religious rebellion was stirred up by Ottoman and German agents called the Sanussi Rebellion.  For several months the Sanussis tied down a combined Anglo-Egyptian force in the Western Desert lasting until March 1916.  In that period of time the Egyptian oasis of Siwa was taken and the Egyptian coastal city of Mersa Matruh threatened.  Among those captured inciting the rebellion was the Ottoman officer and Arab nationalist Jafar al-Askary.  The Anglo-Egyptian force pushed the Sannussis back into Libya, and captured the town of Salum.  The British were able to negotiate with the Sanussi leader Ahmed Sherief, and secured an agreement to evacuate Egyptian territory and return the occupied Siwa Oasis abck to Egyptian control.  Of note, 145 Egyptians in the Anglo-Egyptian force defected to the Sanussis, the highest ranking member being General Saleh Harb.  It was only through sheer luck Ahmed Sherief and his forces escaped an ambush, in the Battle of Bir Tunis, from a British flying armored columns as rain caused sand to turn to mud, and British tanks and trucks could not catch up with the Sanussis.  Sherief withdrew to Sidi Barrani and British armor caught up with him there and the British conducted a combined land and sea bombardment, it is in this battle that Colonel Jafar al-Askary surrendered.  This defeat changed Ahmed Sherief’s perspective; he felt used by Ottoman and German advisors and began hardening his movement into a nationalist one.  Ahmed Sherief would spend weeks in the Western Desert town oasis of Jaghbub recovering.  The success of Ahmed Sherief in harassing the British in Egypt, caught the notice of the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed V, who had Sherief smuggled by submarine from Libya to Istanbul.  He would lay aside his feelings of nationalism temporarily and cooperate with the Ottomans to whip up support for a jihad against the Triple Entente.  After World War I he settled in Medina, (located in present day Saudi Arabia) and in 1933 he died in the Prophet’s city of Medina.  In March 1918, a German submarine disgorged Prince Uthman Fouad, a relative of the Ottoman Sultan, who replaced Nuri Pasha as Commander of Ottoman Forces in North Africa.  With the Prince Fouad were German and Ottoman military advisers.  Prince Fuad continued the operational objective of a stalemate between Italian forces in garrison and guerilla forces roaming free and striking at their choosing. 

1919-1923:  Italian and Libyan Agreement Reached and Broken

By mid-1919, Italy and the Sanussis began what would be a series of agreements were concluded and broken between the Italians and indigenous Libyan mujahideen united by the religious Sanussi order until the arrival of the fascists in 1922.  These agreements included:

  • Bani Suwani Discussions, April 1919:  Began a serious dialogue between the Libyan insurgents and Italians.  This set the stage for the promulgation of a Basic Law (Provisional Constitution) in June 1919, and the creation of Tripolitania Republic. The Libyan tribes saw this republic as a step towards creating national independence, while Italy could maintain the façade of maintaining a protectorate in Tripoli.  
  • Rajma Truce, October 1920.
  • Bu-Maryam Agreement, November 1921: This was a significant agreement as it combined Italians and Libyan military camps, at the ratio of 10 Italian to 8 Libyan fighters posted in every military installation.
  • Mistarah Conference, created and ratified the autonomous Tripolitania Republic.

Between 1919 and 1923, the Tripolitania Republic formed ministries, a shura (consultative) council, divans and began taking the shape of a government.  The book does not discuss who led this republic from the Libyan side, it intimates that the leader of the Sanussi movement represented all Libyan factions.  However what evolved was the Tripolitania Republic being a vassal state of Italy, with the then Colonel Rodolfo Graziani (he would rise to Field Marshal in World War II) the real power in this arrangement. Despite the Italian arrangement being so one-sided, the creation of this republic seemed to have calmed violence significantly.  However with the rise of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the gradual headway towards establishing a civil society was lost in favor of direct action to once again re-annex Libya.

1923-1931:  Mussolini’s Reconquista, Italy Initiates the Second Conquest of Libya

In April 1923, the agreements reached between the Sanussi leadership and Italy were cancelled by the fascist government in Rome.  The second phase of Italy’s colonial war began from 1922 to 1931, known as the reconquista (re-conquest).  Factors that drove the re-conquest were:

  • An Italy that was among the victors of World War I, and the redirection of Italian arms that were bogged down in the war, in places like the Austrian-Italian front, and battles like Caporetto.
  • The re-organization, restructuring and re-arming of Italy under the fascist dictator Mussolini.
  • Having shared co-command with Libyan forces from 1919 to 1923, there was confidence among the Italian General Staff that they understood the capabilities of the Libyan resistance and could now divert their entire energies at defeating the Libyan insurgents. 
  • The mujhaideen forces lapsed into internecine tribal fighting and disagreements. 
  • Italy felt left behind in the talks of imposing a mandatory system on the old Ottoman domains with France and Britain enjoying the lion’s share of the colonial spoils. 

Before the formal break between Rome and the Tripolitania Republic, their occurred a series of skirmishes that reinforced Italian confidence they could re-take Libya.  The Battle of Qasr Ahmed at Misturah in late January 1922, saw new tactics such as the use of combined air, sea, ground artillery and mechanized cavalry to defeat a mujahideen force.

Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955), as a General fighting in the North African Deserts in World War II.  During the Italian Conquest of Libya he was a key figure in suppressing the Libyan insurgency and was credited with the capture of Shiekh Omar al-Mukhtar. 

The Italians led by Rodolfo Graziani, divided their force into between four units, a fixing force of two infantry forces of approximately 1,500 troops supported by about 100 cavalry and 4 artillery batteries.  The other two, would consist of a mobile force of two mobile cavalry forces of a mix of 300 horses and mechanized transport each.  It also included a light artillery battery and 250 camel corps.  The camels although slow was the only way to pursue insurgents into the Sahara.  Supporting this force was the battleship Roma (for coastal engagements) and biplanes that enveloped the mobile Libyan mujahideen force.  The Italians were able to concentrate forces such as February 1923, when 8,000 Italian forces supported by air bombers, reconnaissance and aerial machine guns, were concentrated against 800 guerillas, and the Libyan force was decimated.  From 1923 to 1924, the Italians used envelopment to clear coastal towns, and from 1924 to 1928 they subjugated Libya’s interior, leading to the capitulation of Mohammed Rida al-Sanussi.  From 1929 to 1931, the interior Fezzan province that borders modern day Chad was pacified.  No longer were the Italians restricted to garrison but were now on the offensive.

Sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar:  Rebel Leader, Martyr and Arab Military Hero

The isolation of Omar al-Mukhtar, among the most charismatic of the Libyan mujhaideen leaders, represents not only the final phase of the Libyan resistance to Italy, but also a phase that isolated the Libyan populace from their Italian occupiers.  The Italian strategy, in late 1930, was to cut off Mukhtar from his people, and his tribe.  They accomplished this partly by placing a good portion of the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountain) region (Libya’s north eastern region bordering Egypt), and its villages in concentration camps.  So effective were the concentration camps that livestock depleted, from 1.3 million heads in 1910, to under 140,000 heads in 1933.   The concentration camps, though tactically effective, caused the death of thousands of Libyan families, who were nomadic and not used to confinement.  It served to cause long-term alienation, and was seared not only in Libya’s collective memory, but the Arab world as a whole.  The Italians placed logistical centers in the open desert to attract guerillas and entice them to attack bringing them out in the open for a rapid reaction force that included air support.  The Italians also built a 300 kilometer wire along the Egyptian-Libyan border from the coast in Bordiyah to the oasis town of Jaghbub.   The Graziani Line was reinforced with three central defense forts, six smaller outposts, and the line had three airstrips dedicated to it with four planes each.  It took over 8,000 troops to man the line, with 200 trucks and 2,500 laborers to build and maintain the fence.  Ferries shipped supplies and troops from Italy and the major Libyan cities of Benghazi to and Tripoli to Bordiah. 

Photo taken of Libyan Resistance Leader Omar Mukhtar, a Quranic teacher who understood tribal balances and went on to frustrate Italian forces from 1911 to 1931.  This photo was taken before his execution by the Italians in late 1931. 

Omar al-Mukhtar was able to sustain a resistance force in the Jebel al-Akhdar (Green Mountain) region and project it in other areas of Libya from 1911 to 1931 because of:

  • Unity of Command:  Mukhtar’s charisma and his ability to combine a deep religious understanding leading him to settle differences among tribes gave him much credibility. It helped that he was also a Quranic teacher in which the children of many tribesmen learn from.  He was reputed to be an kind and warm teacher. 
  • Mukhtar trained tribal forces in guerilla tactics, he paid attention to logitics, medical and acquired ammo and guns for the tribes. 
  • The tribes came almost exclusively from Libya’s central region, a more homogenous group than in Libya’s northern coastal tribes.
  • Mukhtar maximized Libya’s numerous smuggling routes into Egypt and back to supplement war income, import supplies, and as a venue of escape from pursuing Italian forces. 
  • Mukhtar took Islamic donations seriously, personally signing each receipt for the Zakat (obligatory Muslim alms tax) that was now levied on each village and directed to the war effort against the Italians.  There was no double taxing of villages with those possessing a receipt from Mukhtar for that year.
  • Mukhtar levied a tariff on traffic between Egypt and Libya to supplement the war income. 

The Italians building the Graziani Line seriously impaired the reliance Mukhtar had on capitalizing on the Egyptian-Libyan border both tactically and economically.  The Italians captured Mukhtar in an ambush in which he was cornered, injured and had his horse shot from under him.  After a sham trial by the Italians, he was executed by public hanging at the concentration camp at Solloquon, where his followers were held.   With the death of Mukhtar the Libyan resistance collapsed and Libya became a colony until    


Future American military leaders must begin an immersion in the Arab accounts of key aspects of military history.  As the United States increases its engagement in the Middle East understanding the region’s history will help in the constructive interchange between the United States and its friends in the Arab world.  The Arab perspective of the Italian colonial wars in Libya, are relevant as they demonstrate how for instance Ottoman officers were able to improvise a tribal force with regular troops and tactics.  Understanding the details of this history undermines an al-Qaida ally the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), because the Libyan resistance to Italy drew down when they were able to declare their own autonomous republic (the Tripolitania Republic), it was only after the fascists broke their agreements in 1922 that the guerilla war started again in force.  They understood the Quranic injunction of ceasing jihad against an oppressor and not transgress the bounds set forth by God, something al-Qaida does not acknowledge in their ideological diatribe and selective reading of the Quran.  Omar al-Mukhtar, the Sanussi Rebellion, and Libyan resistance to Italy never included the tactic of suicide and were directed at Italian forces, unlike the LIFG and al-Qaida that praise, encourage and employ suicide as a tactic today.  The LIFG and their al-Qaida and even the Taliban were amateurs when it came to cultivating tribal alliances.  Finally, Ahmed Sherief unlike al-Qaida was willing to accept German help to combat the Italians.  Usama Bin Laden did not show the same level of realism in strategy in his so-called jihad.  Omar al-Mukhtar used his skill as an arbiter and schoolteacher to influence many Libyan tribes in his sector to accept his leadership. Today the LIFG is split between those who wish to transform it into a political Islamist party, one of among many, and those who wish to continue violent direct action.  The struggle will be determined in part by a better understanding of Islamic history generally, and Libyan history specifically. 

Another lesson to be learned is Italy’s insistence on negotiating with the Ottomans, and not capitalizing on talks with the Ottomans and the local Libyan tribes.  It took the Italians over a decade to find the right tactical response to the Libyan insurgency, developing a war of maneuver with fixed and flying columns, the use of airpower and naval gunfire support that offered Colonel Graziani maneuver and the ability to concentrate firepower on a mobile force.  In addition, it gave Italian forces the ability to take the battle into insurgent territory.  

American military planners and our Arab allies must reclaim and discuss the details of Arab colonial wars, to prevent any Islamist militant group from expropriating this history and twisting it.  It is vital that the United States realizes that we are in a war between the constructive and destructive interpretation of Middle Eastern history and theology.  Learning from Arabic books can give us the strategic and tactical edge.   The authors of this commentary dream of American war colleges, military academy, and NCO academy classes that have concentrations in Islam, Islamist Militant Theory, and Arab Ways of Warfare that highlight the Libyan-Italian War among other wars of significance to the region.  This is what the 21st century American military professional must now master as we engage in the Global War on Terrorism.  For further study of the Italian colonial wars in Libya read the out-of-print, “Fourth Shore: The Italian Colonization of Libya,” by Claudio G. Segre (University of Chicago Press, 1974) and watch the late Moustapha Akkad’s “Lion of the Desert,” a movie made in 1981 about Omar al-Mukhtar.  After you have read and watched this film, read “Italo-Turkish Diplomacy and the War Over Libya” by Timothy Childs (Brill Academic Publishers, 1997).  One final thought, to demonstrate the example of Islamist militants murdering Arab and Muslim creativity, among the dozens of Arabs killed in the 2005 Amman Hotel Bombings, among them was Moustapha Akkad and his daughter, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took credit for these bombings.  

Categories: insurgency - Libya

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.  

PS1 (AW/SW) David Tranberg, USN, is an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland with an interest in strategy, Middle East affairs and terrorism. PS1 Tranberg currently is assigned to the Pentagon.



Tue, 03/06/2012 - 10:45pm

A really terrific article! The jihads conducted by these Sufi leaders like Omar Mukhtar and the Algerian Emir Abdel Qader really demonstrate how far from the values of Islam today's terrorists are! It is a descent into barbarism and I hope these contrasts can be exploited. FYI: To add to the horrible irony, Mustafa Aqqad's films on the Prophet and on Omar Mukhtar have been on various jihadi websites.

Just a few quick points on the text:
-Ottoman officer Abdel-Aziz El Masri was, in fact, Egyptian and later became commander of the Egyptian Army. It was Jaafer al Askari who was the Iraqi Ottoman officer who was captured by the British and then joined the Hashemites and served as military commander-in-chief in Iraq and briefly PM under King Feisal. [This was at the urging of his brother-in-law and early supporter of the Arab Revolt, Nuri El Said, the PM killed during the revolution that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq.] Suleiman al Askari was his brother.
-Enver [Anwar] was a military disaster, and it has been said that it was the officers under his command who made the operation in Libya work. He led Ottoman troops in WWI into a disaster at Sarikimish, costing the lives of many thousands. One of the triumverate ruling the country during WWI, he was an important architect of the Armenian genocide.
-The YoungTurks actually started around 1886, and in their newer form, as the Committee for Union and Progress [CUP], spread through the ranks of Ottoman officers mainly stationed in Salonika and the Balkans. By 1911 they had already overthrown Sultan Abdul Hamid II [1908]and were themselves ruling the Empire under a series of figurehead sultans until 1923. Mustafa Kemal was careful not to be formally associated with the CUP, though he shared their goals.

What is fascinating here is the different viewpoints of the participants in these events of so long ago. It would be interesting to see the references used by the two authors of the Libyan book. I really look forward to your work on Iraq from the Ottomans to King Feisal, as there is so much important revisionist historical research going on over the last 20 years about the Ottoman Arabs that challenges the nationalist narratives held for the past many decades.