LIBYA – WAS OMAR MUKHTAR OR T.E. LAWRENCE THE BEST GUERILLA LEADER?
Yesterday was the anniversary of the execution of Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar. This is a short note in memoriam.
The Italian occupation of Libya, which commenced in 1911, entered an aggressive phase during Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Then Italians colonists launched a campaign of ‘re-conquest’. They began to pacify the defiant tribes with no little brutality.
Organised resistance by the tribes was impossible so they pursued a classical guerrilla war where Italian sentries were shot, supply columns ambushed, and communications interrupted. There was a succession of small actions and acts of sabotage in different parts of the country.
At first the Italians responded by courting the favour of those tribes, or parts of tribes, near the towns. By offering employment, subsidies and arms, they hoped to turn them against the rebels. In their minds there were two types of tribe, the sottomessi, that is the submitted, and the rebelli,
They thought they had gained the loyalty of the sottomessi to support them against the rebelli. They were to be constantly disappointed. The sottomessi supplied arms, ammunition, food, intelligence, shelter and funds to the rebelli. Sometimes the tribal sheiks would arrange amongst themselves who would submit and who would take the field.
To their consternation, the Italians had overlooked or misinterpreted, as many do, the powerful Bedouin law. The nine Sa’adi tribes of East Libya and their clients were all Bedouin, jealous of each other and hostile to tribes other than their own. The males of each tribe were duty-bound to avenge a slain kinsman. The group of males within the tribe who shoulder this collective responsibility is called the amara dam. The other side of this coin is the duty to protect and aid a living kinsman. This is at the root of Bedouin values. The common ancestry and the kinship of the Sa’adi tribes overrode the lesser demands. The tribes were united by blood, Islam and a common way of life against the Italians.
As the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote of the Second Senussi War. “The entire population thus took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” However the guerrilla war was led by some notable families who have received less attention than they deserve. They were the Abbar and the Kizzih of the Awaquir, the Saif al Nasr of the Aulad Suliman, the Bu Baker bu Hadduth of the Bara’asa, the Lataiwish of the Magharba, the Abdalla of the Abaidat, the Asbali of the Arafa, the Suwaikir and the Ilwani of the Abid and the Bu Khatara bu Halaiqua of the Hasa. The homelands of the tribes which these families led stretched from the desert south of the present city of Sirte to the Marmarica in the east around the city of Tobruk. All of this territory was ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The tribal leaders were formidable but they needed the coordinating hand of a leader. They found it in the person of Omar Mukhtar who brought not only his considerable energy and talents into the field but also the network of Senussi lodges and intelligent personnel stretched throughout the tribal homelands. The Islamic Senussi order had for a long time planted seminaries amongst the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Libya. They were staffed by a leader or sheik and a band of the Ikwan (brothers) who educated the young and gave religious and practical leadership.
In the Senussi sheik, Omar Mukhtar, they had a leader who, though he was more than sixty, was an experienced soldier, a talented tactician with an almost unique ability to keep the peace between the fractious tribal detachments which he commanded, perhaps because of his Bedouin birth. His parents were members of a Minifa (Marabtin al-sadqan) tribe from the Marmarica. Between 1912 and 1931 he planned all the gruella operations, gathered and evaluated the intelligence, organised the logistics and finance and led a band of his own.
The Italians response grew more heavy handed as the war progressed. They found that the sottomessi were supplying the rebellei, so they commenced by disarming the non-combatant tribesmen. They went on to harsher methods to stop the flow of rebel volunteers, ammunition and weapons, money and food from the sottomessi. They used the well tried methods of arrests, restricting civilian movements, deportations, aerial bombardment and strafing of recalcitrant tribes. They blocked and poisoned desert wells, confiscated precious livestock and barbed wire was liberally strewn around to restrict the seasonal migrations. The rate of executions was alarming but it was in concentration camps that the sottomessi who were much depleted in health, morale and numbers.
They went after the Senussi lodges, destroying them and deporting their leaders. They captured Omar Mukhtar in September 1931 when he was ambushed near Baida. He was wounded in an arm. His horse was shot and pinned him to the ground. He was taken prisoner and tried in a hurry. The Italians made a spectacle of his final moments. He was hanged at a place called Suluq before an audience of 20,000 Libyans assembled there by their colonial masters. The rebellion was ended. A number of tribal leaders attempted to escape to Egypt.
The work of British WWI leader of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, T.E. Lawrence, is now studied by military personnel as the consummate strategist of guerrilla warfare. He was, first and foremost, an intellectual soldier. He wrote this in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.‘Suppose we were an influence (as we might be), an idea, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, and nourished through long stems to the head, we might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target. He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at.’
Omar Mukhtar’s most formidable enemy the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote this: ‘[the situation was] like a poisoned organism which sets up at one point of the body, a poisoned bube. The bube in this case was the fighting band of Omar al Mukhtar, resulting from the entire infection,.. the entire population took part in the rebellion.’ Guerrilla warfare is most successful when these conditions prevail but in the end the Italians intimidated, decimated and bribed the population into submission. Omar Mukhtar was an octogenarian and still fighting when others of that age are hors de combat! There is a lesson in this for soldiers and geriatrics!
So was Omar Muhktar or T.E. Lawrence the best guerrilla leader?
Omar Mukhtar coordinated and led the Cyrenaican tribes in a guerrilla war against the Christian Italian occupiers of their homelands. The Italians had displaced the tribes from the more fertile regions in the Gebel Akhdar and replaced them with Italian colonists who were given plots of land on which on which to farm.
Whilst giving proper weight to the tribal leaders already mentioned above, it is clear that the overall strategy and coordination of the long and brutal battle to regain their land was exercised by one charismatic and talented man in the person of Omar Mukhtar. He was able to use the extensive network of Senussi Ikwan who were trusted by the tribal leaders.
It is clear that the Senussi leadership brought the tribes together in a battle against a common enemy but it must not be forgotten that the sense of kinship amongst the nine Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica was a major factor in keeping the revolt going. Nor should we forget that Omar Mukhtar was able lead a legitimate jihad against the Christian colonists. His rebellion was crushed and he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Libyans assembled by the Italians in September 1931.
To criticise T.E. Lawrence is unpopular, especially in Britain. He was elevated to hero status after the Great War for his role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks which supported the British and Commonwealth armies in the capture of Damascus in October 1917. Lawrence was, in fact, a British Liaison Officer attached to the Sherifan leader, Emir Feisal.
Lawrence was not the only British officer involved in the affair but he was notably influential, not least because he was the conduit through which the large British subsides reached the key players in the Arab Revolt. He was able to persuade the British to wager huge amounts of money on the Sherifan leadership of whom they knew very little.
After the war he gained what we now call ‘celebrity status’ as the ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ through the person of an American showman called Lowell Thomas who toured around the UK and USA with a slide show in which he portrayed Lawrence as a romantic hero. After World War One there was a deep need amongst the British to find an individual war hero to offset mass slaughter of trench warfare in which individuality was destroyed.
John Oakes (with thanks to the historian and anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard)
Update 22nd January 2013
An Omar Mukhtar museum is planned for Benghazi according to the Libya Herald
Update 12th November 2014
It is reported that the statue of Omar Mukhtar has disappeared from Tripoli.