When Muslims Invented Guerrilla Warfare and Launched Decolonization

Muslims have a military history worth taking pride in.

It begins with the Prophet ﷺ himself, and then his Companions (may Allah be pleased with all of them).

A notable battle was that of Firaz in the year 634 (12AH): Khalid Ibn al-Walid (radiyAllahu ‘anhu) was victorious, which in and of itself is unsurprising (as he never lost), but he did so against the combined strength of both the Persian and Byzantine empires which had formed an alliance to fight against the Muslims.

Islam was such a tremendous force that these sworn enemies⁠—who had been warring against each other for literally centuries⁠—had to put their bloody history aside and join together in order to even stand a chance. Yet, despite vastly outnumbering the Muslims, they still suffered a complete and utter defeat.

Other glorious battles and wars followed throughout Muslim history, and one in particular which is somehow still underrated is the battle of Annual. This battle occurred approximately 101 years ago and lasted for a few weeks⁠—from the end of July 1921 up until the beginning of August 1921⁠.

The battle took place between the Spanish army and the Riffian tribes of Morocco which were under the command of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, who in August 1925 appeared on the cover of TIME magazine for his victory.

In sha’ Allah we’ll be taking a look at why this battle was so crucial and why it remains relevant even today.

Western Humiliation

The 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, which concluded in a Japanese victory, is often seen as a determining moment because it was the first time during the modern period that “non-Whites” had defeated a “White” power. And this too, at the height of European colonialism, when “Whites” seemed to be apparently undefeatable.

The Japanese victory had an effect on the Muslim world too (especially in the Ottoman Empire⁠—a long-standing enemy of Russia). It invoked aspirations. The fact that an “Eastern power” had defeated a “Western” one gave rise to renewed optimism among Muslims. For instance, Zafar Ali Khan, a scholar who represented Muslim nationalism within the Indian subcontinent, had decided to write a play about it.

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Yet despite Japan not technically being a “Western power,” it had still been modernized since the Meiji Era, and thus somewhat crypto-Western. Thus the war between Russia and Japan became the war between two countries trying to modernize rather than a war between a Western and Eastern nation. In order words, it was about trying to ape the West.

This is why the 1921 battle of Annual is a better example of an East versus West conflict. In this case, it was a conflict between Spain, which was a European power, and the Riffian tribes of Morocco, which were seen as being “barbarian Muslims.”

The Riffians are a Berber ethnic group with a patriarchal population living in the mountains. From a Western perspective they were more “archaic” than the Japanese since the Japanese had been on a modernization drive for a long time.

The battle itself was the result of a long process of colonial encroachment by Spain. The Riffian tribes, finally having had enough, decided to revolt.

This article provides some perspective regarding what Spain still considers to be “the disaster of Annual”:

The Battle of Annual, which began on July 21, was an unmitigated disaster – a mixture of ineptitude and vainglorious overreach. “A classic example of military incompetence,” wrote historian Antony Beevor.

The Rifs under Muhammad Abdel Krim al-Khattabi, more commonly known as Abdel Krim and once a civil servant with the colonial regime, routed the invaders.

The Spanish were more than 100km from their coastal base in Melilla with no supply lines or communications, but Silvestre was pugnacious and eager to please the king.

He also went against the orders of his commanding officer and warnings of retribution from Abdel Krim. The upper estimate is that Spain lost 22,000 troops at Annual and in subsequent fighting as they retreated to Melilla, most of the casualties barely literate, ill-trained and ill-equipped conscripts ridden with typhus or malaria. Exhausted and with morale extinguished, their retreat descended into chaos.

By comparison, only around 800 Rif guerrillas were reported dead. Disgraced, Silvestre almost certainly killed himself, although his remains were never found.

So despite being outnumbered, and with Spain having utilized drastic methods, the Riffians had lost far fewer men than the Spaniards. ‘Abd al-Karim would of course lose years later, with the French coming to the aid of the Spaniards, but this is something which reminds us of the Muslim victories of old.

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The article then goes on to show how this humiliating defeat influenced much of Spain’s 20th-century politics, including the dictatorship of Franco.

The Father of Modern Guerrilla Warfare and Decolonization

As mentioned earlier, this battle was a symbolic one. This is because even if it wasn’t the first time “non-Whites” had triumphed over “Whites” during modern times (Russo-Japanese War), it was still the first time that a “modern” European colonial power was defeated by “barbaric” “pre-modern” people.

And this would go on to influence all the later decolonization movements to come, not only in the Muslim world but also far beyond that.

Abd al-Karim’s guerrilla tactics in particular will remain a long-lasting legacy of his.

In a 2015 article titled “Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi: The Unknown Mentor of Che Guevara,” we read (p. 6):

Scholarly studies on Abd-el-Krim and the Rif War frequently characterize Abd-el-Krim as co-inventor of modern guerilla tactics.

Some of the tactics and methods that are mentioned in the literature with great amazement are as follows: the use of trenches (e.g., on May 3, 1925 General Colombat was unable to break through the Berber trenches encircling Bibane, despite six hours of fighting); caves dug in the slopes; extensive use of granite ramparts, rocks, boulder-strewn summits in the hills as concealment=cover from which to target the enemy; the use of smokeless-powder rifles that made it impossible to locate its user; hiding cannons in caves and using these exclusively at night, which made their discovery impossible.

Worldwide research on the Rif War is unanimous that the war tactics of the Rifis were emulated during other rebellions such as the Druze War of Syria with France (1925–1927), the Algerian War of Independence with France (1954–1962) and the Vietnam War with the United States (1946–1954). Twentieth-century Anti-Colonial revolutionary leaders—such as the Vietnamese leaders Hoˆ Chi Minh (1890–1969) and Vo Nguyen Giap (1911–2013), the Yugoslav leader Tito (1892–1980), and Che Guevera—are specifically mentioned as being influenced by the military tactics of Abd-el-Krim. In this regard, Seymour says, ‘‘a great Muslim anti-imperialist fighter (whose successful tactics would inspire Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara).’’ It has also been alleged that Abd-el-Krim had become an established key figure in the field of politico-military advice for revolutionary leaders during his time in exile in Egypt. Sneevliet, for instance, mentions that, ‘‘Revolutionary leaders of the world always paid him a visit when they came to Egypt.’

So it becomes clear that ‘Abd al-Karim can be considered the spiritual father of decolonization for the following reasons:

  • For being a “pre-modern” force having defeated a “modern” military power, and thus inspiring hope within others; and also
  • Because of the actual tactics employed by them, ultimately giving rise to the very same modern guerilla warfare which would be used during decolonial battles.

It’s also worth noting that Richard A. Gabriel (one of Canada’s most influential military historians) says that the real “father” of guerrilla warfare is none other than the Prophet ﷺ himself, but this could be the subject of another article.

Anyway, it is quite fitting that the decolonial movement was actually launched by a Muslim, since Islam alone can liberate man and societies from all forms of slavery and ensure that submission is to Allah alone.

But what is truly unfortunate is that neither the battle of Annual nor ‘Abd al-Karim are given the place they deserve within public discourse (unlike Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh for example, who were both directly inspired by him), even among Muslims.

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