The Battle of Annual: When 4,000 Tribesmen Destroyed an Organized Army of 20,000 Troops

July 22, 1921 is a day to remember and celebrate for all Moroccans and a day to forget for Spaniards.

Battle of Annual in Morocco's Rif

July 22, 1921 is a day to remember and celebrate for all Moroccans and a day to forget for Spaniards.

The day marks the anniversary of a historic victory of Mohammed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi and his army of tribesmen over the army of Spanish colonizers led by General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre at the Battle of Annual, 120 kilometers west of Melilla and the city of Nador, in the north of Morocco.

Historical Background

Morocco faced severe internal problems at the beginning of the 20th century with political and social crises due to the vulnerability of the state administration and its security apparatus.  Colonial pressures mounted as a result of a power void and the internal state of anarchy. The monarch Moulay Abdul Aziz had ascended to the throne in 1894 at the age of 14, but he was too young and inexperienced to rule the country on his own. He was, therefore, under the guardianship of his minister Ahmed bin Musa, nicknamed “Bahmad.” After the death of his guardian minister in 1900, Sultan Moulay Abdel Aziz faced a number of problems, principal of which were a severe financial crisis and the emergence of insurrections in various parts of the country.   

The Europeans, taking advantage of his young age and lack of experience, sold Sultan Moulay Abdul Aziz new mechanical inventions that were all the rage — such as bicycles — at inflated prices, paid for by the state treasury. At the same time, military expenditures skyrocketed as the sultanate secured arms to subdue several revolutions throughout the country. To counter the fiscal deficit, the sultan imposed what was called the “Order Tax,” but the rich Moroccan elite thwarted its imposition: tribal leaders, zaouiyas, religious leaders, and senior officials all opposed it. Having no other alternatives, Morocco was forced to borrow from European countries.  However, this did not solve the severe financial crisis, and it resulted in multifaceted adverse implications.

With the Sultan’s coffers strained and tensions mounting, tribal leader Al-Jilali bin Idris Zerhouni, nicknamed “Bouhmara,” took this as his opportunity in 1902 to lead a rebellion in eastern and rural Morocco, with the support of both the Spanish and the French. To legitimize his uprising, Bouhmara claimed that he was Mohammed Ben Hassan I, the true heir to the throne. This claim initially gained him wide support, and he began to expand his influence within the tribes located in the center, north, and east of Morocco. He imposed his own taxes on the inhabitants of the areas under his control and appointed his representatives and officials. Bouhmara also forged relations and signed treaties with foreign countries, especially Spain and France. However, with the diminishing tribal support especially in the Rif region, his revolt was quashed, and he was arrested on August 21, 1909, and sentenced to be executed in Fes on September 13 of the same year.  By this time, Sultan Moulay Abdel Hafiz (1908-1912) was on the throne, his predecessor having abdicated in November 1908 after the great decline of his popularity among people.

Mohammed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi
Mohammed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi

Colonial pressures on Morocco persisted during the reign of Sultan Moulay Abdel Hafiz, and in 1912 a French protectorate was imposed on Morocco pursuant to the treaty of Fes on March 30, 1912. By this time, the Spanish had infiltrated the northern city of Laraiche (1911), and later invaded other cities such as Tetouan, Nador, and Al-Houceima. This military invasion of Morocco by France and Spain following imposition of the protectorate led to the emergence of Moroccan armed resistance in various parts of the country. The resistance force that emerged in the Rif Region in the north of Morocco was led by the legendary liberationist and freedom fighter Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi.

Emergence of Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khatabi

Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi, born to a respectable and wealthy family (his father was the tribal judge, or qadi) in the town of Ajdir near Al Houceima in the northern Rif of Morocco in 1882.  He was a member of the Beni Ouryaghel tribe, one of the largest Amazigh tribes in the Rif region. Having had a traditional education during his childhood studying the Koran and classical Arabic, he was sent by his father Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi, to the University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fes to further his studies in Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence. Upon his graduation, he moved to the Spanish enclave of Melilla where he worked first as a teacher, then as a judge, and finally as a chief judge in 1914. He also worked as a journalist at Telegram Del Rif newspaper, for which he used to write a daily column.

When Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi (the father) refused to cooperate with Spain regarding its amphibious landing in Al-Houceima in return for supplying the Rif resistance with arms to fight the French, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim was jailed in Melilla for eleven month in 1915 on charges of communicating and conspiring with Germany. Later, the trial court acquitted him of all charges, and he resumed his job as a judge in Melilla.

When his father died in 1920, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim returned to his birthplace where he then embarked on a mission to liberate his country from foreign domination, taking up arms against the Spanish and French occupiers. Due to his leadership and exceptional oratory skills, as well as his political savviness and charismatic personality, he managed to unite the warring tribes of the Rif in one goal: to fight and expel the colonizers.  He led many military skirmishes against the Spanish and the French in the Rif region, using guerrilla warfare tactics, but his most historic victory was the Battle of Annual, or what the Spanish call now the “Annual Disaster.”

The Battle of Annual

The Spanish colonial administration had relied heavily upon General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre to lead the Spanish invasion of the northern area of Morocco and strengthen the foundations of the Spanish protectorate that had been imposed in November 1912. Yet this mission was easier said than done. The Jbala tribes under the leadership and command of Mulai Ahmed Raisuni rose up against the Spanish infiltration and impeded its advancement west.

The mission of General Silvestre would become even harder when Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi succeeded in mobilizing the hitherto conflicting tribes of Banu Ouryaghel, Temsaman, Banu Touzine, Banu Walishik, Banu Sa’id and Bquiwa, among others, against the Spanish presence in the Rif. Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi visited the souks (weekly markets) and eloquently spoke to people about the forming of a haraka (movement) to fight the invading Spaniards.  

General Silvestre was a close friend of the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII, who had placed high hopes on him. Before embarking on the formidable mission of subduing the Riffian armed resistance, he had promised his king and his troops to crush the resistance in a matter of a few hours and drink tea at the house of Mohammed Ben Abdelkarim. Yet, when the siege of the Spanish troops at Annual lasted much longer, General Silvestre had to order his troops to drink their own urine to survive.

The number of Spanish troops who fought in the Annual Battle varies from one account to another. But most historians agree that it was around 25,000 troops. The resistance fighters numbered only 4,000 tribesmen with rudimentary weapons and resources. These 4,000 guerrilla warfare fighters were not professionally trained in the then current military technology and tactics, and were vastly outnumbered by the organized Spanish army. But what they lacked in numbers and resources, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi made up for in inspiring the spirit of bravery and sacrifice in each and every one of them.

The Battle of Annual lasted for five consecutive days and resulted in a humiliating defeat of the Spanish forces. Of the 25,000 troops, it is said that only 600 managed to escape, while General Silvestre is said to have committed suicide. This sweeping victory over the Spaniards resounded internationally. In his anti-imperialist struggle, for example, the Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara was inspired by the guerilla tactics implemented by Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi.  It was thought that the spirit of Jihad and resistance Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi instilled in his men was what had made them unstoppable.

The army of Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim pursued the retreating Spanish army, and inflicted on them several other defeats in in other places such as Driouch, Jabal Al-Arawi, and Silwan. Abdelkarim’s forces chased the Spanish army all the way to Melilla and would have been able to expel the Spanish from it, but he issued an order to stop and not to enter the city for international, political, and military considerations. However, he would later regret this decision bitterly. He says in his memoirs:

“After the Battle of Mount Al-Arwi, we arrived at the walls of Melilla and stopped right there. My military apparatus was still in the making. It was necessary then to walk wisely, and I learned that the Spanish government had made a high appeal to the whole country and was prepared to send all its military supplies to Morocco. I, for my part, was interested in doubling and reorganizing my forces. I made an appeal to all the inhabitants of the west Rif, and to my soldiers and the new battalions that had recently arrived, with all strength, not to shed the prisoners’ blood and not to mistreat them, but at the same time I recommended them, and with the same emphasis, not to occupy Melilla so as not to provoke international complications. I regret this bitterly because it was my greatest mistake.”

Mohammed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi in the Time Magazine

Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi led his liberation war against the French and the Spanish until May 26, 1926, when he finally surrendered to the French, signaling the end of his heroic and epic career. The French exiled him to Reunion Island near Madagascar, but after three years he managed to escape to Cairo where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1963.

While the French and Spanish colonialists eventually managed to bring the Rif resistance under control, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim’s guerrilla warfare and tunnel-digging tactics remained the most adopted by freedom movements around the world to prevail over their occupiers. After the arrival of the revolutionist Che Guevara in Cairo in 1959, he immediately sought to visit Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim at his house. When they met, the first thing Che Guevara said was, “Prince, … I came to Cairo specially to learn from you.”

The “Annual Disaster,” as the Spanish now call it, had significant consequences for Spain. The defeat led to many political and social aftershocks, the most immediate of which was the military coup led by Primo de Rivera in 1923. Thirteen years afterwards, after the failure of the promises of Primo de Rivera and his “Spain regeneration policy,” coupled with the state of disillusionment that reigned in Spain, internal political conflicts especially between the Republicans and Nationalists mounted to a devastating civil war that started in 1936, sparked by a revolt of Spanish military forces in Morocco that then spread to Spain.

Today on the anniversary of his epic battle, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of anti-colonial resistance. He was a leader with a distinguished record of anti-colonial struggle that gained him international recognition, and secured him a position along with the most famous freedom fighters and anti-colonial activists such as Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, and Nelson Mandela. Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim Al-Khattabi not only is significant to Morocco, but to all nations that have suffered or still suffer under occupation and colonialism. The “Lion of the Rif,” as people in Morocco call him, is an immortal legend and hero for oppressed people all over the world.