This is the second of a two-part post. Read the first post, Paladins of the Desert I: Deliberation and deceit in Cyrenaica, here.

There was nothing in the Bedouin way of life which gave an opening to the usurer. For there was in Cyrenaica no client peasantry bound by debt, no need of protection, and trade monopoly to the towns. The Bedouin did not settle on the land where they would be an easy prey to the usurer, overseer, and tax collector.*

In the end it was not these advanced ideas of anti-colonialism which were able to build a viable and united resistance, but the Bedouin stateless society, which managed to develop the rudiments of a state in the face of external attack, and which converted its physical means of primary resistance into a prolonged popular and guerrilla war against the colonising enemy.**

Having conquered southern Tripolitania and Fezzan, General Rodolfo Graziani would govern Cyrenaica for four years, during which time he would crush the remaining pockets of the Libyan resistance, and irreparably destroy the tradition structures of Bedouin society.

On his arrival to the territory, Graziani was instructed by Mussolini to make an absolute distinction between tribesman who had submitted to the Italian forces (and who should be offered protection by the Italians), and those who had refused. Graziani however did no such thing, and considered the entire Cyrenaican population in rebellion, and the entire socio-political order in need of shattering. Ruth First suggests the aim of the reconquest of the territory was not just to quash the remaining resistance, but to finally abolish the Bedouin way of life, and transform the Bedouins into peasants, tenants of the state, and wage labourers. While a banking institution instigated the invasion of Libya in 1911, following the pacification of the country, credit lending companies would become the administrative vehicle for mass colonisation in Libya. The Bedouin provided a cheap reserve of labour for general, unskilled work and seasonal labour on colonist farms. But before this, Graziani would enforce a series of brutal measures that he declared he would follow through “to the end, even if the whole population of Cyrenaica was to perish”.

Since there was evidence to suggest that pro-Italian Libyan forces had provided the Libyan resistance with information regarding the movements of Italian troops, and in some cases had even provided them with supplies, Graziani started by disbanded pro-Italian Libyan contingents, replacing them with units of Christian Eritreans. Any contact with the Libyan resistance was made a capital offence. Other offences included the possession of arms, and paying tribute to the Sanussiya. In other measures, Sanussi property was confiscated, zawiyas attacked and forcibly closed, and Sheykhs arrested on thin charges and exiled (most to the island of Ustica).

Graziani instituted the airborne flying court, tribunale volante, a military court flow from point to point to conduct in spectacular fashion, public trials and executions. In his book Cirenaica Pacificata, Graziani describes a particular case bought before the flying court in June 1930. The court conveyed in Shahaat to judge a case of treason. The accused, Hamad bu ‘Abdu Rabbah el-Derssi, the chief of a branch of the Derssa Tribe, was found guilty of supplying the Libyan resistance with arms, and executed by firing squad in the town central square in front of members of his tribe later the same day.

The policy of clearing the Jebel began in June 1930. Within nine months, the entire nomadic population was forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in fifteen concentration camps on the coastal strip between Benghazi and el-Agheila. Wandering nomadic Bedouins, who roamed across vast open spaces, were now confined to straight rows of tents, within barbed wire enclosures, and with limited access to food and medical care. It has been said that “Bedouins die in a cage”; more than half of the nomadic population of Cyrenainca (at least 50000) lost their lives in these camps.

The locations of the fifteen concentrations camps in Cyrenaica. Taken from Gustavo Ottolenghi’s Gil Italiani e il Colonialismo: I campi di Detenzioni Italiani in Africa.
Panoramic views of the tents in four camps near Benghazi. Clockwise from top right: Coefia, Sidi Chalifia, Driania, and Suani el-Terra.

The occupation of Fezzan had cut off the Libyan resistance’s local source of arms and supplies from the west of the country, and the mujahideen were forced to rely on Egypt for the bare necessities. These supplies came though the port of al-Sallum, and were paid for by Bedouin produce, money raised from custom charges, and funds collected throughout the Muslim world. To sever the resistance from its remaining source of supplies, in 1930 Graziani began building a 170 mile long barbed wire fence, the Frontier Wire, along the Egyptian border from the Bardia Oasis near the coast, to just north of the Jarabub Oasis. Behind it, nine fortified military posts and three airfields from which motorised patrols and aircrafts provided constant surveillance. Anyone trying to penetrate the fence, which was thirty feet wide and five feet high, and which Graziani compared to the Great Wall of China, was shot on the spot.

The construction of the barbed-wire fence, September 1931. Evans-Pritchard notes Italy’s remarkable expenditure on barbed wire on an ever increasing scale during the reconquest of Cyrenaica: between the fence and camp enclosures, 14111000 lire was spent over the period 1930-31.
A piece in the British newspaper The Sphere, published in April 1932 suggests that Graziani’s Frontier Wire starved the mujahideen into submission, and marked the beginning of the end for the Libyan resistance.

When Graziani landed in Benghazi in March 1930, fighting between Italian forces and the Libyan resistance had resumed five months previously following the ceasefire of 1929. The mujahideen had lost 380 men during this period. Omar al-Mukhtar himself was wounded at Wadi Mahaggia in January 1930. But the Libyan resistance had also inflicted on the Italian forces 114 casualties (12 Italian officers and 102 Ascari officers). Despite the ferocity of Graziani’s subsequent offensive in Cyrenaica, by the summer of 1930, hundreds of mujahideen continued to harass Italian forces, forcing Italian posts and patrols to remain always on the alert. The bands of Baragit ‘Abid and ‘Auaghir, commanded by Abd el-Hamid el-Habbar made up 300 men, 380 men of the Brahasa Dorsa band were commanded by Osman Sciami, and a further 380 men of the Hasa ‘Abeidat were commanded by Fadil bu-‘Omar. The Magharba tribe under the command of their chief Salih al-Ataywish continued to fight in the western coast of Cyrenainca, and deep in the south, the Zuwayyia tribe, led by 90 year old Abu Karayyim, fought desperately against the occupiers despite the loss of their tribal centre, the Jalu oasis. By September 1930 however, 60 Libyan fighters, including Fadil bu-‘Omar were killed, and a further 70 died in fighting at Wadi ed-Sana’a in October 1930 (after which time Omar al-Mukthar’s spectacles were recovered by his pursuers).

Omar al-Mukhtar’s spectacles at the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli.

Kufra was one of the final territories where anti-Italian forces were congregating, the final outpost of the Libyan resistance. Hundreds of Libyan resistance fighters that had escaped from Tripolitania and Fezzan sought refuge in Kufra, and it remained at that time the only region in the entire country where the Sanussi flag still waved. Any strategic advantage of capturing Kufra was fairly insignificant for the Italian forces. Despite this, Graziani considered the capturing of Kufra an opportunity to inflict the final humiliation on the rebellion by planting the Italian flag in La Mecca della Sanussiya. Graziani’s plan to seize Kufra involved a caravan of camel bourne troops (camels totalling 3500), armoured cars, cavalry, aircraft logistical support (provided by 20 aircrafts), 300 lorries, 2255 rifles, and 3 guns, all of which began moving to close in on the district in December 1930.

The Libyan resistance faced the Italian cavalry in the Battle of Kufra on January 19th 1931. Four hundred tribesmen were defeated by colonial troops and were finally dispersed with the aids of Italian aircrafts, a hundred of which were killed. In the following week, the fleeing population of Kufra were subjected to low level bombing and machine gunning which left a further one hundred dead, and two hundred and fifty captured (two hundred of these were non combatants, including women and children). A further (unspecified) number of civilians were found by Italian troops, dead from exhaustion by a well in the days following.

Kufra, circa 1930. In late January 1931 Muhammad Assad was sent on a mission by Sayyid Ahmed al-Sharif, the Grand Sanussi, to Cyrenaica to meet with Omar al-Mukthar and his men in a last ditch attempt to use Kufra as base of future operations. Unbeknownst to Assad, Kufra had already been lost by then. A mujahid that survived the attack on Kufra recounted to him: “I could hear the screams of the women as they were being raped by the Italian soldiers & Eritrean askaris. An Italian general had assembled all the surviving people before the tomb of Sayyid Muhammed al-Mahdi; and before their eyes he tore a copy of the Koran into pieces, threw it to the ground and set his boot upon it shouting “Let your Bedouin prophet help you now if he can”. Then he ordered the palm trees of the oasis to be cut down and the wells destroyed & all the books of Sayyid Ahmed’s library burned. On the next day he commanded that some of our elders and ‘ulama be taken up in an aeroplane and they were hurled out of the plane high above the ground to be smashed to death. All through the second night I heard from my hiding place the cries of our women and the laughter of the soldiers and their their rifle shots.”.

There is a lengthy catalogue of war crimes perpetrated by General Graziani, for which he was never called to account. It is suggested that the Italians deliberately bombed civilians, killing vast numbers of women, children and old people; that they raped and disembowelled women, threw prisoners alive from aeroplanes, and ran over others with tanks. Suspects were hanged or shot in the back, tribal villages – according to [Knud] Holmboe -were being bombed with mustard gas by the spring of 1930. Holmboe noted that during the time he was in Cyrenaica “thirty executions took place daily . . . The land swam in blood!”.***

With the clearing of Cyrenaincan hinterlands of its nomadic population well underway, and the final outpost of the Libyan rebellion conquered, Graziani turned his attention to launching the final hunt for Omar al-Mukhtar. On finding and identifying Mukhtar’s gold spectacles and their silver chain, which were lost in battle in October 1930, Graziani is said to have declared: “Now we have the spectacles; the head will follow one day”.

The Italians estimated that Mukhtar’s forces totalled to 150 men operating in a network of semi-Independent groups cooperating with each other but not centrally directed. In early September 1931, the colonial forces received news that the band of Brahasa Dorsa, reinforced by Mukhtar’s ‘Abeidat band were in the south of al-Bayda. On September 9th the mujahideen were sighted near Slonta, and the following day three Eritrean battalions moved into the area. Mukhar’s men were attacked on September 11th at Wadi bu-Toga, but managed to move through enemy lines. As they dispersed, a small group of Libyan fighters on horseback were sighted by Italian aircraft. The closest Italian squadron was informed, and proceeded to pursue the mujahideen. Deprived of rest and of food, and with horses in a similar state, Mukhtar and sixty fighters were gradually overtaken by 5000 Italian infantry and cavalry, some on horseback and others in armed vehicles. The battle lasted is said to have lasted eight hours. Eleven Libyan fighters were killed, and the horse of the twelfth fighter, Omar al-Mukhtar, was shot from under him, wounding him in the arm and trapping him beneath his dead mount. A letter to the Grand Sanussi by surviving resistance fighters suggests that Mukhtar escaped from under his horse and began walking slowly and heavily in an attempt to escape. When the Italian squadron overtook him, Mukhtar, who was wounded in his left arm, made no effort to defend himself. The following day he was taken abroad the destroyer Orsini to Benghazi, where he was formally identified and interrogated at the investigative office of Benghazi Regional Prison on September 15th. It was here where Mukhtar was joined by Graziani, who in his account of this meeting, could not hide or deny the dignity and serenity demonstrated by the leader of the mujahideen. The mock-trial, which lasted just thirty minutes, took place later than day at the Palazzo del Littorio. The public prosecutor Giuseppe Bedendo used constant sarcasm and vituperation against Mukhtar, and no one doubted that a death sentence would be pronounced. When the sentence was passed, Mukhtar merely observed: from God we have come and to God we must return. The condemned man’s indifference (perhaps instead of a desperate outburst, or a public declaration of remorse or repentance) was not the reaction the colonial authorities were hoping for, and a public execution was arranged in haste.

Muhammad az-Zuwayy recounts to Muhammad Asad details of Omar al-Mukhtar’s arrest: “He was brought before General Graziani who asked him: “what would you say if the Italian government in its great clemency would allow you to live?” Would you be prepared to promise that you will spend your remaining years in peace?” But Sidi Omar replied: “I shall not cease to fight against you and your people until either you leave my country or I leave my life. And I swear to you, by Him who knows what is in men’s hearts that if my hands were not bound this very moment, I would fight thee with my bare hands, old & broken as I am”.
Mukhtar and sixty mujahideen were on their way to visit the tomb of Prophet’s ﷺ companion Ruifaa ben Thabet in al-Bayda (pictured) when they were attacked by Italian forces.

The morning following the trial, at 9am on September 16th 1931, Mukhtar was executed at the Soluk concentration camp in front of 20000 prisoners. The Libyan resistance died with him. Trapped, fragmented, and hunted by land and air, sixty resistance fighters assembled on December 9th 1931 and agreed to end the struggle; their options being either surrender to the Italians, or flee to Egypt. Of the three of Mukhtar’ lieutenants who attempted to cross Graziani’s barbed wire fence into Egypt, only ‘Abd al -Hamid al-‘Abbas succeeded. Uthman Shami surrender himself to Italian forces, and Yusuf bu-Rahil, Mukhtar’s successor, was killed in the final battle of the war on December 19th 1931. The following month, in January 1932, General Badolglio announced that the rebellion in Cyrenaica had been defeated.

Muhammad Asad met with Omar al-Mukhtar eight months before the latter’s capture and execution. He laments the mujahid’s death in his book The Road to Mecca: “Omar al-Mukhtar – dead… That lion of Cyrenaica, whose seventy-odd years did not prevent him from fighting, to the last, for his country’s freedom: dead… For ten long, grim years he was the soul of his people’s resistance against hopeless odds – against Italian armies ten times more numerous than his – cars, aeroplanes and artillery – while Omar and his half-starved mujahideen had nothing but rifles and a few horses with which to wage a desperate guerrilla warfare in a country that had been turned into one huge prison camp.”

Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation is often described as Sanussi-led. As Ruth First suggests however, the Sanussi family’s role in the resistance was largely “inconspicuous and inglorious”. The Italians themselves recognised that few within the Sanussi family had the heart (after years of fighting) to sustain the struggle against them. Writing to De Bono in June 1929 (soon after the Sidi al-Rhouma meeting), Badoglio admits that he believes that Sanussi political influence in Cyrenaica was completely destroyed, and that “members of the Sanussi family, with the exception of Ahmed as-Sharif, were a bunch of degenerates who are interested only in living as comfortably as possible”. The Italians also recognised that unlike in Tripolitania, the armed struggle in Cyrenaica was led by a single figure, who was supported by devoted and disciplined lieutenants. This made their attempts at sowing discord between rival tribal chiefs and dividing the resistance futile.

Despite being hunted incessantly, and after years of hardship and hunger, the mujadideen’s bravery, mobility, and knowledge of the Cyrenaican hinterlands enabled them to inflict great casualties on the occupiers. This unconquerable, rebellious, and stateless society, who were detested by the Italians, considered barbarians and treated as such, for twenty years led the most sustained and united resistance against the brutal occupation of Libya.

Selected bibliography

Asad M., 1954. Road to Mecca. Simon and Schuster.

*Evans-Pritchard E., 1949. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford University Press.

**First R., 1974. Libya: The Elusive Revolution. Penguin.

***Gooch J., 2005. Re-conquest and Suppression: FascistItaly’s Pacification of Libya and Ethiopia, 1922–39. Journal of Strategic Studies.

Graziani R., 1932. Cirenaica pacificata. Mondadori.

Ottolenghi G., 1997. Gil Italiani e il Colonialismo: I campi di Detenzioni Italiani in Africa. Sugarco Edizioni.

Ryan E., 2020. Religion as Resistance. Oxford University Press.

Santarelli E, Rochat G, Rainero R, Goglia L, Gilbert J., 1986. Omar Mukhtar: The Italian Reconquest of Libya. Darf Publishers

Simons G,. 1996. The Fourth Shore. In: Libya: The Struggle for Survival. Palgrave Macmillan.