July 22, 1921 marks the historic victory of Mohammed Ben Abd al-Krim 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.
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 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 revolts 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, zawiyas (religious monasteries), 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 the people.
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 Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi.
Emergence of Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi
Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim 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, where he used to write a daily column.
When his father Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi 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 11 months 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.
After the death of his father in 1920, Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim returned to his birthplace where he then embarked on a mission to liberate his country from foreign domination.
After the death of his father in 1920, Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim 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 advance to the west.
The mission of General Silvestre would become even harder when Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim 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 Abd al-Krim. 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 military technology and tactics of the time, and were vastly outnumbered by the organized Spanish army. But what they lacked in numbers and resources, Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi made up for by 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 Abd al-Krim 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 Abd al-Krim pursued the retreating Spanish army, and inflicted several other defeats on them 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 enter the city for international, political, and military considerations. However, he would later bitterly regret his decision. 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 a strong appeal to all the inhabitants of the west Rif, and to my soldiers and the new battalions that had recently arrived, not to shed the prisoners’ blood and or mistreat them, but at the same time I urged them, and with the same emphasis, not to occupy Melilla so as not to provoke international complications. I regret this bitterly. It was my greatest mistake,” Abdelkarim wrote.
Mohamed Ben Abd al-Krim 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 Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi is remembered as one of the greatest leaders of anti-colonial resistance fighters. 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.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2018 under the title “The Battle of Annual: When 4,000 Tribesmen Destroyed an Organized Army of 20,000 Troops”