When Admiral Cappo Farafelli and his battleships reached the North African shores near Tripoli in October 1911, Italy intended to occupy territories under Ottoman suzerainty and would take into account neither Turkish objections nor opposition from the indigenous population.

Constantinople ordered its men, most of whom fled just before the Italians bombed Tripoli for three consecutive days, to surrender. Rome proclaimed victory.

Italian officials asserted that the Libyan people were “committed and strongly bound to Italy''. What followed was a series of battles between the occupiers and guerrillas organised and led by an extraordinary man — Omar Al Mukhtar.

Al Mukhtar awakened among his followers love for their country and duty and put to rest an often-used Western claim that Arabs did not consider their lands dear.

Master strategist

Al Mukhtar embarked on an organised resistance in 1912 at Bir Halgh Barga, not far from Benghazi and close to the Egyptian border. This quiet teacher quickly became a master strategist in desert guerrilla tactics because he knew his country's geography better than most.

Al Mukhtar led his highly mobile groups into skilful and successful battles, before fading into the desert which was a mystery to the Italians.

By attacking outposts, ambushing troops and cutting supply and communication lines, Al Mukhtar and his men outmanoeuvred the intruders.

Before long, he was the undisputed leader of the Sanusi resistance movement, which became a model for others throughout the Arab world.

Sanusi is a Sufi order founded by Sidi Mohammad Bin Ali Al Sanusi in 1843 in Cyrenaica whose theology asserted that believers should aim at communicating with the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in their waking hours and praying to God to be united with the Prophet.

Although the Italian invasion was initially concentrated on coastal cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata and Derna, major battles were soon fought elsewhere as the Libyans stood up against the occupation.

Few villages in the mountains or the desert were spared. After the April 1915 Ghartabiyyah battle, in which the Italians lost thousands of soldiers, the colonial troops gained the upper hand even if they failed to gain full control.

To their credit, the Libyans fought fearlessly; thousands joined the resistance Al Mukhtar organised.

Most hid in the Jabal Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) in northeast Libya from where the resistance launched its fiercest assaults on the hapless Italians.

Fearing defeat, Rome dispatched a notorious officer, Pietro Badoglio, to pacify Libya, granting him carte blanche to resort to any method, including inhuman measures, to quickly end the resistance.

With such a mandate, the officer fought the guerrillas and imposed harsh punishment on ordinary people, whose only crime was to help the resistance.

After extensive negotiations, Badoglio reached a compromise with Al Mukhtar, although Italian sources falsely described the situation as an act of complete submission on the part of the resistance leader.

By the end of October 1929, Al Mukhtar denounced the compromise and re-established a unity of action among his forces. As Badoglio's brutal techniques proved insufficient, then rising Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who would become better known as Il Duce (Supreme Leader of Fascism), sent another high-ranking officer, General Rodolfo Graziani, to hone his atrocious methods in Libya.

Graziani versus Al Mukhtar

Historians differ on the issue but Graziani apparently agreed to go to Libya if and only if Mussolini gave him a free hand to behave without any consideration for Italian rules and laws. What Graziani proposed to do was unquestionably monstrous — to dispose of half the population, if need be, to control Libya.

Graziani wanted to strangulate Libya to prevent Al Mukhtar and his men from receiving material assistance from neighbouring Egypt. Towards that end, he ordered the construction of a 300-kilometre, 2-metre high by 3-metre wide wall from Bardiyat Slaiman port to Al Jagboub in the south along the Egyptian border.

Moreover, he authorised the creation of several concentration camps — in Al Aghaylha, Al Maghrun, Soluq and Al Abiyar among others — where thousands of Libyans were forced to live under complete Italian military control.

Those who escaped detention fled to the Jabal Al Akhdar or hid deep in the desert, living in severe conditions. These measures caused the deaths of thousands of men, women, elderly folk and children — directly through public hangings and shootings or indirectly due to hunger and illness.

Graziani placed over 100,000 Libyans in his infamous concentration camps between 1929 and 1931 and, according to authors Hala Khamis Nassar and Marco Boggero, who penned the essay titled Legacy of Libyan Freedom Fighter — Omar Al Mukhtar (published in The Journal of North African Studies in June), an estimated 40,000 were killed in these facilities.

Life was miserable in the camps and thousands died of hunger or illness. In the words of Dr Todesky, chairman of the Italian Army Health Department: “From May 1930 to September 1930, more than 80,000 Libyans were forced to leave their land and live in concentration camps; they were taken 300 at a time, watched by soldiers to make sure that the Libyans went directly to the concentration camps … By the end of 1930 all Libyans who live[d] in tents were forced to go and live in the camps; 55 per cent of the Libyans died in the camps.''

A leading Libyan historian, Mahmoud Ali Al Tayyeb, said that in November 1930 at least 17 funerals were held each day in these camps.

Libyans in concentration camps received meagre sustenance.

The condition of the guerrillas was far worse.
To say that Al Mukhtar and his men were deprived of reinforcements, spied upon, hit by Italian aircraft and pursued by Italian forces aided by local informers, would be gross understatements.

By early 1931 even food became scarce and, before long, vital ammunition ran out. Despite such hardship, Al Mukhtar kept fighting, even after he fell seriously ill.

Arrest and execution

Fighting against great odds and, perhaps inevitably after a 20-year guerrilla engagement, Al Mukhtar was ambushed, wounded in battle and subsequently captured by the Italian army in the desert near the city of Zaltan, about 150 miles south of Benghazi, on September 11, 1931. Fatigue or his innate dignity compelled Al Mukhtar to remain calm.

He understood his situation and accepted his fate. His jailers were overwhelmed by his steadfastness and several interrogators later confessed that Al Mukhtar looked them in the eye and read verses of peace from the Quran as he was interrogated and tortured.

As expected, he was tried by a kangaroo court, convicted and sentenced to death. Al Mukhtar welcomed the verdict quoting from the Quran: “From God we came and to God we must return.''

Rome hoped that the speedy execution of the old fighter five days after his arrest — carried out in the concentration camp of Salluq in front of many of his followers on September 16, 1931 — would wither the resistance.

Remarkably, the Libyan resistance was not silenced, even if it was significantly weakened.

Italy lost the moral high ground since it opted to ignore World War treaties, international law or humanitarian considerations for an individual well advanced in age. Even in this feeble condition, Al Mukhtar — who was known as the “Nimr Al Sahrah'' (The Lion of the Desert) — instilled such fear in most Italian hearts that no great indignation anywhere around the Arab world would budge the callous decision to hang him.

Legacy and impact on Libya

Al Mukhtar's final years were immortalised in the 1981 film Lion of the Desert, starring Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed and Irene Papas.

The film climaxes with the execution, when the old man's glasses fall to the floor. A boy fetches the spectacles and hands them to his mother, perhaps to preserve a simple memento of the Libyan hero.

In real life, Al Mukhtar's impact was far greater, as all three Libyan regimes — monarchic, revolutionary and military — declared him their national hero (today, his face is on the Libyan 10-dinar bill).

Beyond the symbolic, however, his historic character crossed Libyan boundaries as he contributed to the formation of different forms of Arab nationalism.

Over the years, his memory defined Libyan opposition against the Italians and later against those who were power hungry.

In all instances, Al Mukhtar taught Libyans to love, protect and defend their land and their freedoms.

He also taught an entire generation to fight as religious men, proclaiming the words of God in every battle, assuming that no one but Libyans had any right over their country.

It may be safe to conclude that he invented Libyan nationalism in the modern sense of the word, rejected foreign domination and, most importantly, refused to submit to the usurper.

A humble individual from a modest background, Al Mukhtar did not venture out of Libya to defy order but simply defended his flock and his land. Even if colonial times defined sovereignty in peculiar terms — granting the powerful intrinsic privileges — Al Mukhtar stood up for what were his rights.

He was a devoted practitioner of freedom, whose basic understanding of authority compelled him to fight and die for his nation.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2008.

This article is the eighth in a series, which appears on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.


Omar Al Mukhtar Bin Omar Bin Farhat was probably born around 1860 although various birthdates range from 1856 and 1862.

Little is known of his early life except that he saw light in the Ghayth family, which was part of the Farhat clan and which was a branch of the Manfahah Badu tribe from Burqah, Libya. His father was a courageous man and a fighter, which meant that he was frequently absent from home.

His mother, Ayshah Bint Mohair, taught the young man and his brothers piety and religious values and may be said to have raised Al Mukhtar on a more or less exclusive basis.

As he grew older, Al Mukhtar was assigned by Ahmad Sharif Al Sanusi as a teacher in a Sanusian school, which allowed him to delve in teaching positions for much of his life.

Al Mukhtar's son, Al Haj Mohammad Omar Al Mukhtar, fought alongside his father as the former developed a hugely successful technique, based on small-scale and swift attacks, which were followed by rapid retreats into the desert. These methods led Italian forces to resort to poison gas and a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing.

Holy cities were attacked, the ‘zawias' (residential complexes used by the clergy as forms of monasteries) were expropriated and religious leaders expelled.

When all else failed, Italian troops cut supply lines by building an enormous wall along the Egyptian border, but to no avail.

After a decades-long guerrilla commitment, Al Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in September 1931 during a fierce battle that pitted a few thousand of his men against more than 20,000 well-equipped troops that possessed aircraft and modern weapons.

He was submitted to a mock trial and hanged as a bandit in front of his own people at Solush after which he became a martyr of the Cyrenaican rebellion.