Abdelkrim El Khattabi: The Warrior Who Perfected the Art of Guerilla Warfare

Abdelkrim El Khattabi (1882-1963), whose real name is Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi was a military leader from the Rif area of northeastern Morocco. He became the leader of a resistance movement against the French and Spanish colonial powers. He inspired independence movements fighting against colonialism worldwide.

Born in Ajdir, Morocco, son of a judge of the Ait Yusuf clan of the Aït Waryaghal tribe, Abdelkrim was educated in traditional Quranic schools and at the Quaraouiyine University in Fez. Between 1908 and 1915 he was a journalist in the daily newspaper “Rif Telegraph” in Melilla.

Around 1915 he was appointed head of judges of Melilla. At that time, he began to oppose Spanish rule, and in 1917 he was imprisoned for voicing his opposition to Spanish expansion beyond the territories already occupied. Shortly after getting out of jail he returned to his native village Ajdir in 1919 and, with his brother, he started to unite the Rif tribes to resist the occupation and fight for independence.

In early 1921, Spanish troops started marching into northeastern Morocco from the coastal areas they already held. The Spanish General Manuel Fernández Silvestre had penetrated several miles into the Rif when Abdelkrim sends him a warning: “if you cross the Amekran river, we would consider it an act of war”. Fernández Silvestre reportedly laughed as he read the message. He has 24,000 soldiers equipped with modern weapons and artillery. They did not encounter any kind of resistance during the march in the countryside, and so the general thought control of this area will be a piece of cake. But Abdelkrim’s plan was to lure those forces deep into the high mountain areas. On July 22, 1921 after the Spanish forces occupied the encampment of Anwal, they were attacked by 3,000 Rif fighters commanded by Abdelkrim. Overwhelmed by the surprise attack, General Silvestre, who had arrived at Anwal only the day before, decided to withdraw. Under heavy fire and exhausted by the intense heat, the Spanish troops broke into a confused crowd and were shot down or knifed by the tribesmen.

After the battle, Abdelkrim’s men began to advance eastward, where they overran more than 130 Spanish posts. The Spanish garrisons were destroyed without mounting a coordinated response to the attacks. At the end of August 1921, Spain had lost all the territories it had gained in the area since 1909 and Spanish troops and civilians were able to retreat to the Moroccan territories occupied by France.

For Spain, the battle of Anwal and subsequent fighting was a real disaster. Nearly 22,000 Spanish soldiers were killed including general Manuel Fernández Silvestre, 700 were taken prisoner and many more wounded. Abdelkrim lost around 800 men but got his hands on 11,000 rifles, 3,000 carbines, 1,000 muskets, 60 machine guns, 2,000 horses, 1,500 mules, 100 cannons, and a large quantity of ammunition. Abdelkrim remarked later: “In just one night, Spain supplied us with all the equipment which we needed to carry on a big war.”

This was the first defeat in Africa of a European colonial power, with a modern and well-equipped army, at the hands of resistance fighters with no resources, no organization, and no logistics. This was also the first time in history that tunnel warfare was utilized alongside modern guerrilla tactics.

The battle of Anwal had a worldwide impact, from a psychological and political point of view, because it showed that with reduced manpower, light weapons, and high mobility, it is possible to defeat traditional armies. It also made the Spanish army resort to horrible tactics against indigenous population including the use of chemical weapons.

In a telegram sent by the High Commissioner of Spanish Morocco Dámaso Berenguer on August 12, 1921 to the Spanish minister of War, Berenguer stated:

I have been obstinately resistant to the use of suffocating gases against these indigenous peoples but after what they have done, and of their treacherous and deceptive conduct, I have to use them with true joy.

With his success, Abdelkrim proclaims in 1922 the Confederate Republic of the Rif Tribes. This republic had a crucial impact on international opinion, because it was the first republic resulting from a war of decolonization in the twentieth century. Abdelkrim creates a parliament who elects a government. This first government created a currency and a state bank, a modern and independent justice, road infrastructure, introduced the telephone and telegram, erected bridges, put in place a structured irrigation, imposed order and security and above all banned vendetta, clan wars and built schools.

Banknotes of the new republic

Banknotes of the new republic

Many engineers, adventurers and businessmen from France, Spain, Germany, Britain and America supported Abdelkrim’s fight for independence. Thus around 1923, Ajdir the capital of the new Republic, had everything to modestly claim this status. In fact, next to the parliament, Abdelkrim erected schools, administrative establishments, a court of justice, a library, an archive center, ministries, military bases …

AbdelKrim with Spanish entrepreneur Horacio Echevarrieta

AbdelKrim with Spanish entrepreneur Horacio Echevarrieta

In 1924, Spain withdraws its troops from the territories it occupied along the Moroccan coast. France, which in any case had claims to the Southern Rif, realized that allowing another colonial power to be defeated in North Africa by natives would create a dangerous precedent for its own territories, and decided to enter to the conflict.

Starting 1925, Abdelkrim’s republic had to face an alliance of French forces led by Philippe Pétain (around 200,000 men) and Spanish forces led by Miguel Primo de Rivera (around 300,000 men). Facing intense resistance, the Spanish army intensifies the use of chemical weapons against the Rif civilian population. Seeing the threat of genocide, Abdelkrim surrenders as a prisoner of war on May 26, 1926 demanding that civilians be spared.

Despite this surrender, the Spanish army continues using chemical weapons against the civilian populace making the Moroccans of the Rif area the first civilians gassed massively in history, next to Iraqi Kurds gassed by the British. It is estimated that more than 150,000 Rif civilians were killed in the years 1925-1926.

The use of chemical weapons against the Rif was first described in an article of a (now defunct) Francophone daily newspaper published in Tangier called La Dépêche marocaine dated on November 27, 1921. Historian Juan Pando has been the only Spanish historian to have confirmed the usage of mustard gas starting in 1923. Spanish newspaper La Correspondencia de España published an article called Cartas de un soldado (Letters of a soldier) on August 16, 1923 which backed the usage of mustard gas. According to military aviation general Hidalgo de Cisneros in his autobiographical book Cambio de rumbo, he was the first war fighter to drop a 100-kilogram mustard gas bomb from his Farman F60 Goliath aircraft in the summer of 1924. About 127 fighters and bombers flew in the campaign, dropping around 1,680 bombs each day. Thirteen of these planes were stationed in the military air base of Seville. The mustard gas bombs were brought from the stockpiles of Germany and delivered to Melilla before being carried on Farman F60 Goliath airplanes.

After his surrender to the French in 1926, Abdelkrim was exiled to the Island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He lived there until May 1947 when he was embarked on a ship bound for the city of Marseille in France. When the boat stopped in the Egyptian port of Suez before crossing the canal, Abdelkrim managed to escape. He was granted asylum in Egypt where he spent the rest of his life. There he organized and led the “Arab Maghreb Liberation Committee”, whose Jaysh Al Tahrir (Liberation Army) resisted French occupation in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

When Abdelkrim El-Khattabi died in 1963 in Cairo, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser honored him with a national funeral.