Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi (1882–1963)
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Mohammed Abd-el-Krim Al-Khattabi became an icon throughout the world for initiating extensively organized resistance initially against the Spanish and then the French imperial powers in the Rif region of northern Morocco during the years 1921–1926, the first country founded after a successful war of decolonization. Unlike most uprisings, achieving independence was not the trigger for his struggle: Abd-el-Krim did not turn resistance fighter against imperialism defined as a means of achieving greater economic progress but rather against exploitation and injustice. Abd-el-Krim was a Rifi, an ethnic group within the region’s larger Berber community, with Tamazight being the native language of the Rifis. Until then, neither of the two powers had ever encountered a firmly united opponent that was astonishingly well organized both politically and militarily. His ability to manage to unify numerous independent tribal leaders or a fragmented society, marked by adherence to different paths (tareeqah) of Sufism (Islamic spiritual sciences) if not blood feuds, for the purpose of setting up a sizeable army, is what makes Abd-el-Krim so unique and the ensuing success of the Rifis unprecedented. His leadership skills, family background, him being a charismatic speaker and judge on Islamic jurisprudence, and farsighted dedication for economic progress were certainly determining factors to attain allegiance. Another factor that makes Abd-el-Krim unparalleled is his successful implementation of socioeconomic reforms based upon Sharia, the Islamic law, and its execution through increased numbers of judges and courts (El-Asrouti 2007, p. 103). He forbade the traditional self-administered justice by appointing a Muslim judge (qadi) – accompanied by two legal officials (‘udul) – for each clan. Until then, the Rifis adhered to common law (urf), which in most instances was contradicting – in particular concerning the rights of women – the Quranic law (El-Asrouti 2007, p. 99). In line with his policy to improve the role of women, his wife endeavored to open a girls’ school (Pennell 1987, p. 113). In an interview with a journalist of the Chicago Tribune, Abd-el-Krim called upon experts ao to help in establishing a school system in the Rif (Sasse 2006, p. 311). He had also plans to establish a university combining traditional and modern sciences (Pennell 1986, p. 149).
Abd-el-Krim surprised most of European and American visitors who met him: Contrary to expectations he was relatively small, slightly plump, and calm. He was always dressed in traditional clothes and wore a turban, and his office was in a rather small clay building. He is described as being down-to-earth, intelligent, energetic, and a man of practical thinking. Western journalists interviewing him invariably express their amazement about his sharp mind and his knowledge about the international political affairs. As a devout Muslim, Abd-el-Krim was driven by the fundamental tenet of Islam. He publicly protested against claims of the French media that he intends to conquer Fes and become sultan of Morocco or become a khalif. He assured that his aim was to defend independency of the Rif and to achieve its recognition by other nations (Bode 1926, p. 18). Abd-el-Krim also emphasized repeatedly that the Riffian tribesmen, who supported him against the Spanish, were driven by fear of losing tribal independence and religious custom and not by nationalism (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 11). Thus, when he raised the issue of freedom, most tribes were on his side (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 11).
Abd-el-Krim was driven by an unshakeable will to fight for a cause: Despite the overwhelming imbalance of power stages against him, there is no question that Abd-el-Krim had any doubts of winning the war against the united armies of Spanish and French colonial powers equipped with the latest war technology. Despite the dead-end situation of his army vis-à-vis a powerful European army, he still believed strongly that he would have triumphed had his policies been carried out and the Sharia been imposed correctly (Pennell 1986, p. 231). In a propaganda speech given, he said “…if you join us, we will be as one. We will defeat the Christians with your help or without it…” (Pennell 1986, p. 83). Abd-el-Krim’s life and his military achievements are briefly summarized in the following.
Abd-el-Krim grew up in Spanish Morocco, a situation that had been long endorsed by the Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz and the members of his family whose lifestyle, let alone their political or financial leadership skills, left much to be desired. It was a relatively war-torn environment, the causes of which ranged from claims to the throne in Morocco to blood feuds between families or tribes. For this reason, Abd-el-Krim mentions in his memoirs that he was used to war and to the smell of gun powder since early childhood (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 41). Abd-el-Krim’s family, briefly referred to as Khattabis here, was from the clan Ait Hattab in the Rif, with the most numerous and powerful tribe Ait Waryiġel under its auspices. Research to date failed to link the line of ancestry of Khattabis to Ait Waryiġel, but there seems to be unanimity among researchers that the Khattabis settled and ruled in the region of the Ait Waryiġel clan, for more than, as put by Abd-el-Krim (1927, p. 39) a 1000 years. Abd-el-Krim claims in his memoires that his ancestry originated from the Arabian peninsula and that they had a sharifian lineage, i.e., descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
Abd-el-Krim’s father was a qadi and governor, as was his grandfather and his mother was the daughter of a qadi (Bode 1926, p. 18). Thus his family enjoyed a good reputation and was influential throughout the region (Abd-el-Krim 1927, pp. 10–11). Abd-el-Krim and his brother, Si M’hammed (1893–1967) – who would later play a significant role in Abd-el-Krim’s successes – pursued Islamic studies from a very young age, their first teachers being their father and their uncle (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 39). At the very beginnings of the twentieth century, at the age of 20, Abd-el-Krim moved to Fes and studied for 2 years at the madrasas Al-Attarin and Saffarin in order to fulfill the entry requirements for the renowned University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, which includes – apart from Arabic language and grammar – memorization of the Quran in full as well as few other texts on Islamic jurisprudence. At the University of al-Qarawiyyin, Abd-el-Krim (then aged 22) begun to advance his Quranic studies. Si M’hammed, in turn, became a qualified mining engineer in Spain (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 10).
Between 1906/1907 and 1913, Abd-el-Krim taught at a school set up by the Spanish while simultaneously writing columns for the Arabic supplement of the Spanish daily newspaper Telegrama del Rif up until 1915. In 1909 and still during the process of his postgraduate studies of Islamic and Spanish law to become an Islamic judge – which he accomplished with an excellent qualification in 1912 at the age of 30 – Abd-el-Krim worked as a Spanish translator and advisor for the Oficina de Asuntos Indigenas, Department of Native Affairs, which was set up for greater citizen oversight and, as Abd-el-Krim would later discover, to submit the population. He translated for diverse mining companies, which inevitably informed him about economic exploitation plans of the colonizers. In 1910 Abd-el-Krim was appointed by the same department as qadi for the Melilla region and in 1914 as supreme judge. As a judge, Abd-el-Krim’s work had mainly to do with the organization of the protectorate, such as the legal aspects of rights and title deeds to the iron deposits of Beni Tuzin, which bordered on his own tribal area.
Initially, thus both father and son were loyal to the Spanish. For this loyalty the Khattabis are taunted by researchers in the field: Fleming (1991), e.g., notes that “Abd-el-Krim and his father also helped organize a Spanish faction in their home kabyle. For this act, the elder Abd-el-Krim was awarded the Cross of Military Merit and an annual pension of fifty pesetas, while the younger was named qadi al qudat, or chief Islamic judge of the Melillan region” (p. 61). Abd-el-Krim justified this loyalty with the belief that the Spanish would bring economic progress and that without any foreign involvement this would not be possible. In fact, among several other economic deficiencies in the region, a major hindrance to development was poor infrastructure. Due to its geographical location and surrounding mountain ranges, the region was relatively isolated from the rest of the country. Hence, the Rif was relatively poor vis-à-vis the rest of the country, a phenomenon known as “Mezzogiorno effect.” Terhorst (1925), a German diplomat and eyewitness of those times, describes the Rif region as follows: “2,000 meter high, gloomy, coarse and steep mountain chain extends along the North African Mediterranean coast between Melilla and Ceuta. The veil of the unexplored stretches mysteriously over this stage-like mountain world. The Rif is still a mystery, has still something dark, unknown to the European. Two Englishmen tried to move deeper into the mountains; but no one ever heard anything from them. Apparently a Frenchmen has managed to cross the Rif in 1600” (p. 154). Yet another reason for their loyalty to the Spanish was the idea of using the Spanish as a shield against the French colonial powers. The Khattabis were ardent opponents of any French involvement in the region. The sultan had signed the Act of the Conference of Algeciras on 7 April 1906, which had entitled also the French to establish a protectorate over Morocco. Since 1912 France maintained a troop of around 75,000 men in Morocco. These were divided into two groups, one into east and the other into west, and each was under the command of a division general. Two-thirds of the regular army consisted of African nationals including Moroccan (Bode 1926, p. 19). Later during the resistance, a significant number of indigenous legionnaires both from the Spanish and French protectorate armies would change sides: In July 1921, for instance, nearly 5,000 were recorded to have deserted (Sasse 2006, p. 100).
The loyalty of the Khattabis changed in 1914 when the Spanish gradually began to advance into Beni Urriaguel. Abd-el-Krim and his family began to experience unfair practices inflicted on the locals directly. The French, who had gained control over the heartland of Morocco, were equally not in an amicable relationship with the local population. The Spanish authorities began to cut the incomes of the tribal leaders, including the father of Abd-el-Krim, and instead were paying bribes to tribesmen whom they expected to help in their efforts to expand into the Central Rif more readily. Abd-el-Krim started taking action by criticizing such corrupt practices as well as colonialism as a driver for economic progress, first through his job as journalist (Ayache 1981, p. 182). In 1915, when questioned by his employer, Abd-el-Krim told that both he and his father were supporters of the Young Turks and were working for the revolt of Islam against the Allies, particularly the French. Moreover, he candidly stated that any Spanish interference in these schemes would prove to be a fatal error (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 44; Ayache 1981, p. 217). For saying this, Abd-el-Krim was imprisoned on 6 September 1915, by the Spanish for almost 1 year. On 23 December 1915, Abd-el-Krim attempted to escape with a rope far too short at the other end but failed after breaking his leg, which would leave him slightly limping for the rest of his life. He was eventually released in return for his father’s support for the landing of the Spanish at the Bay of Al Hoceima (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 46).
The uneasy relationship finally came to an end in 1918 when the Spanish continued to subjugate more tribes. Dissent among the population was exacerbated by a bad harvest, which was further complicating the already prevalent poor economic conditions (Pennell 1986, p. 65). Abd-el-Krim’s father began to initiate an organized resistance (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 41 and 55). In order to strengthen unity among the tribes and to put an end to blood feuds, monetary fines charged for murder (haqq) – which had been abolished by the Spanish – were reintroduced and extended to apply to collaborators as well. The Rifis felt the reward of unity when they foiled a major attack led by General Manuel Fernández Silvestre (1871 Cuba – 1921 Annual, Rif) from the sea. Nevertheless, the general still managed to enter by using a different route later on. Confronted by the imminent threat of Spanish invasion, Abd-el-Krim’s father started a campaign but died unexpectedly in August 1919. There were speculations that his father’s death was due to a poison administered by the Spanish (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 57). With his death, the troop (harakah) disintegrated so that the Spanish could proceed with their plans for invasion without any resistance up until the beginning of 1921. Along these developments Abd-el-Krim, together with his brother, continued the campaign to form an inter-tribal alliance. Abd-el-Krim realized that Islamic concept of unity was the main peacemaking element which could help the Riffians find supratribal consciousness and identity (Pennell 1986, p. 238). He maintained a tolerant disposition toward tribal leaders with different ideologies and would endorse the legitimacy of their statuses among their respective tribes as long as they agreed to accept him as a leader. Soon, the brothers’ endeavors bore fruit. Abd-el-Krim, being a charismatic leader and an impressive preacher, recorded more success than his father or any other Berber rebel leaders ever managed to achieve: In April 1921, at the age of 39, Abd-el-Krim was elected by 50 Sheikhs as their military leader. Political as well as religious decisions equally fell within the scope of Abd-el-Krim’s duty. An oath of allegiance, consisting of one page, was designed according to a traditional homage document. It expressed that the signatories are committed to him with their hearts and tongues, that they compliantly obey him with their heads and rush to him with their feet, and that they will not be disobedient to him, and that they will not stray from the joint path of the community. The document ends with the sentence: “We pay homage to you, we recognize you as the Head, and entrust you to guide us with justice, kindness and truthfulness and to judge between us justly” (El-Asrouti 2007, p. 79). In the oath Abd-el-Krim is addressed as khalif although Abd-el-Krim repeatedly denied that he aspired the status of the khalif.
Soon after his election, Abd-el-Krim managed to unite the various independent and quarrelsome tribes in the Rif to the point where he could field an army of some 65,000 men (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 94; Hart 1976, p. 388). Abd-el-Krim’s efforts of unification also involved cooperation with other rebel leaders. One of the most troublesome for the imperialist powers was El Raisuli (1871–1925). Immediately before Abd-el-Krim’s revolt, Raisuli had for some years led an ardent resistance against the colonial powers in the Jibala region (western zone of the Rif occupied by Spain). Raisuli’s war tactics entailed piracy, in particular maritime. Raisuli refused Abd- el-Krim’s invitation to join him. He was captured in 1925 and imprisoned (Furneaux 1967, p. 133). Eventually he died in captivity as a prisoner of Abd-el-Krim in 1925.
Despite the lack of support from other rebel leaders, Abd-el-Krim recorded two victories on a single day and proved that the oath was well-deserved: In a surprise attack on 2 June 1921 launched on Dhar Ubarran, about 600 Spanish soldiers were killed. Similarly, General Silvestre’s troops ended with a defeat in Sidi Idris (Pennell 1986, p. 81). These victories encouraged more and more men to join Abd-el-Krim’s troops. The success of the Rifis in the ensuing Battle of Annual on July 17, which lasted for 5 days, was unprecedented in the history of any battle of this kind. One of the participating soldiers, Chaaib Si-Mohand N’aali, reports in a documentary: “Abd-el-Krim was our leader. We encircled the Spanish troops. They resisted. But they were afraid and exhausted. We wiped them out.” There are significant discrepancies in the literature concerning the number of troops on both sides: The estimated numbers for the Spanish troops range between 25,000 and 30,000 (Hart 1976, p. 374) and for the Rifis 3000 (El-Asrouti 2007; p. 61, 92, 95). Woolman (1968, p. 149) considers in addition to the regular also the local army and estimates the total number of the Rifi Army to have been around 80,000. The Spanish death toll is estimated to have been between 8,000 and 10,000 (Sasse 2006, p. 40; El-Asrouti 2007, p. 61). Other historians set the death toll higher, at up to between 13,000 and 19,000 fatalities including captives (Hart 1976, p. 374). Out of panic and fear, not least induced by General Silvestre’s decision to retreat the very next day, many Spanish soldiers fled the battlefield. The general eventually lost his life in this battle. Large amounts of war booty had fallen into the hands of Rifis. About 700 Spanish solders were captured, which were kept for a ransom. Abd-el-Krim warned from the start to impose death sentences upon those who abused or tortured prisoners of war or mutilated dead bodies (Pennell 1986, p. 81). In his memoires Abd-el-Krim states that the death toll of his enemies would have reached hardly conceivable dimensions had he not done this (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 72). For the Rifis the defeat of their opponents was an “absolute miracle” – as Krim’s brother had called it: Abd-el-Krim ordered that Quranic verses be recited and prayers of thanks performed for the attained and the upcoming victory over the Spanish (Pennell 1986, p. 168). The colonial forces, in turn, dubbed the clash as “the Disaster of Annual.” The reconquest of the areas lost in the past continued, and the Rif Republic was proclaimed on 1 February 1923. The humiliating failure of the Spanish military contributed to the instability of the Spanish government, and on 13 September 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera (1870–1930) assumed absolute powers as a dictator following a coup d’état.
Bode, a German author, summarizes his impressions in his book on Abd-el-Krim published in 1926 on how the Muslim world felt about the Rif resistance, namely, that not Mustafa Kemal Paşa but Abd-el-Krim became the champion of Islam (Bode 1926, p. 55). Abd-el-Krim received innumerable financial supporters and collaborators – including Turks and Germans – for his cause. Large amounts of monies were collected in Madras, Delhi, Kalkutta, Syria, and Lebanon to help “Muslims in Morocco” (Bode 1926, p. 24, p. 55). Abd-el-Krim sent letters – through journalists or envoys – to heads of states across the world asking for acceptance of his newly founded country. Abd-el-Krim also had plans to abandon the Spanish currency and introduce own currency, namely, “Riffan,” for the Rif instead. Through one of his European collaborateurs, namely, Captain Charles A. P. Gardiner, an English arms smuggler and speculator, the notes were printed in England on the 10 October 1923, but these were disposed off into the sea after Abd-el-Krim refused to pay the excessive price Gardiner was asking (Sasse 2006, p. 178 and 304).
In July 1924, the Spanish experienced another crushing defeat in Chaouen. As in 1921, this was also a surprise attack where the Spanish had to give up one post after another. Concerning the death toll on both sides during this clash, there are significant disparities in the literature, too. The Spanish, according to one source, lost about 10,000 soldiers (Pennell 1986, p. 176).
But the tide began to turn. Since the beginning of 1924, the Rifis were observing problems initiated now by the French colonial powers: The Ouergha Valley, one of the most fertile regions of the Rif, was an important source of supply for agricultural produce to Rifis, and it began to be of interest to the French, too. Under the excuse of rearrangement of plot boundaries, the French began to build blockhouses and military posts around the valley. Food was already short due to embargos, and Abd-el-Krim forbade food exports and threatened any infringement with hard penalties. There was another reason for food shortage, notably contaminated soil: the Spanish had resorted to using the acutely poisonous chemical warfare agent S-Lost (Yperite) or mustard gas by aerochemical method for the first time in history starting in 1921 and on a large scale in 1924 in the Rif (Kunz and Müller 1990, p. 175). The poison was sourced from Germany and produced in Spain under the supervision of the German chemist Hugo G. A. Stoltzenberg (1883–1974). No one was spared from this atrocity: Not only were the guerilla fighters their target but also villages and water resources. The Ouergha Valley was largely spared from this contamination.
Under pressure from his people to take action, Abd-el-Krim decided to attack the French. With this decision, as he later admitted, he made the greatest strategic mistake since he took up the leadership of the resistance: He had not foreseen that the two competing imperial powers would eventually unite their manpower and resources against the Rifi resistance. Initially the French, as the Spanish had earlier, were recording significant losses. Out of desperation and the fear of losing even Fes, the French General Lyautey (1854–1934) saw no other solution than a joint operation with the Spanish to defeat the Rifis. Now the Spanish with 200,000 and the French with 160,000 men supported with the latest war technology were confronting the Rifi troops, consisting of about 60,000–80,000 men (Sasse 2006, p. 51). Pröbster (1925) makes the following statement concerning the number of troops on each side: “On the 9th July 1925 the French decided to increase the number of their troops to 150,000. The Spanish army consisted of about 100,000 Soldiers. In contrast, the number of the Rifis were at most 40,000–50,000. The aim of the Franco-Spanish army consisting of a quarter million men was to destroy the Rif republic founded by Abd-el-Krim” (p. 154). With regard to the number of Rifi troops, Pröbster (1925) adds: “Marshal Pétain estimates this figure to be between 30,000 and 40,000” (p. 158). The number of dead and missing French soldiers between April 1925 and May 1926 was 2,162 (Sasse 2006, p. 56). The territories lost were gradually reconquered, and on 26 May 1926, Mulay Muhend, the lion of the Rif, as Abd-el-Krim is remembered by the Rifis, was forced to surrender to the French forces. After being imprisoned for 2 months in Fes, Abd-el-Krim was exiled on the 28 August 1926 together with his two wives and children, his brother, his uncle, and their families – altogether 30 people (Malbert 2016) – to the French island La Réunion, located in the east of Madagascar. The family lived at several accommodations including Chateau Morange – an impressive colonial castle – and then Castel Fleuri. The Réunionese felt proud having Emir Abd-el-Krim’s arrival, and soon the Riffians made friendship – despite initial reservations of the authorities – with some members of the Indo-Muslim community of about 1,500 Gujaratis from India (Malbert 2016). Abd-el-Krim remained discrete, would meet only few families, and had good relationship with the governor. The authorities would appoint Ismail Dindar, a tailor, to cater for the families’ traditional clothing and halal food requirements (Malbert 2016). Dindar eventually became Abd-el-Krim’s best friend. One year before leaving Réunion (in 1946), Abd-el-Krim befriended Raymond Vergès, the leader of the Réunion Communist Party (Malbert 2016). He used to spend his time teaching Arabic and Quran, which he knew by heart, to the children in the family and the children of Dindar, and from 1937 onward – as by then surveillance of the family was reduced – also discovering the island and hunting. The family would grow sugar cane, mango, litchi, and guava in their garden and geranium on a large plot of land they had acquired. The family was granted a pension and would complement their income by selling geranium oil in their shop in Saint-Denis (Malbert 2016). In an interview conducted in 2013 Abd-el-Krim’s daughter Meryem el-Khattabi (1939–2017) noted that her father used to say to his children that the island was a kind of “Kindergarten managed by the French.”
In 1947 a decision was made to relocate Abd-el-Krim and his family of about 41 (some sources state 52) people to Southern France. The Greek ship “SS Katoomba” was hired for this purpose. However, during the transfer, Abd-el-Krim and his family managed to escape in Egypt. Abd-el-Krim’s escape was planned and orchestrated by his admirers: On 23 May 1947, Mohamed Ali Eltaher, the president of the Palestinian Committee in Egypt, received a telegram from Abdo Hussein Eladhal, briefly informing that the ship with Abd-el-Krim on board had left the harbor of Aden on the 23 May. On 27 May, Eltaher informed King Farouk (1920–1965) of Egypt, via a telegram, about Abd-el-Krim’s arrival at the Suez Canal and asked for his support in freeing him, as the ship once in Egyptian waters would lose authority from France. On 30 May at Suez harbor, Abd-el-Krim was visited in the night by Eltaher accompanied by few other men from the Arab Maghreb Bureau and the king’s representatives to discuss the escape plan and the king’s proposal of an asylum in Egypt. Abd-el-Krim showed no reservations but said that he would also consult the matter with his family and come up with a final decision once in Port Said after the ship had passed the Suez Canal. In Port Said, Abd-el-Krim endorsed his acceptance and left the ship with his family pretending to visit the city.
Abd-el-Krim lived henceforth in Cairo. In January, 1948, he announced the formation of the National Liberation Committee of North Africans – supporting the liberation of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – and presided over it until his death in 1963. His daughter Meryem el-Khattabi stated in an interview in 2013 that Abd-el-Krim would send fighters on a mission (Fidayins) for the armed struggle. As during his struggle in the Rif, he was counting on support from Germany to arm Algerian rebels. Abd-el-Krim’s influence seems to have gone beyond the Maghreb countries, as there are claims that, for instance, Ho Chi Minh and Abd-el-Krim had cooperated during the war in Vietnam against the imperial powers: Minh asked Abd-el-Krim for support upon which the latter persuaded the Maghreb soldiers fighting in Indochina on the side of the French to change fronts (Sneevliet 1942, footnote 2). Similarly, when consulted as to which course of action to take upon the imminent creation of Israel, Abd-el-Krim replied: “Don’t worry, do nothing. We cannot win that war for two reasons: We will either be defeated by the little Jewish state, and we will become a laughing-stock across the world; or we will win, and we will have the whole world against us. So what to do? Let the Jews colonize the Palestinians. We will be dealing with a classic colonial situation, and the Palestinians will liberate themselves, as Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians will one day liberate themselves” (Barrada and Sitbon 2004, p. 98). There is also evidence that Che had met Abd-el-Krim twice in 1959 in the Moroccan embassy in Cairo (Er 2015). In 1958, 2 years after Morocco became independent, the King of Morocco, Mohammed V, declared Abd-el-Krim as a national hero, ordered the release of all his confiscated properties in Ajdir, and invited him during a personal visit in Cairo in 1960 to return to the Rif. Abd-el-Krim refused this invitation, stating that the country had not become fully independent (Woolman 1968, pp. 227–229).
Publications on Abd-el-Krim and His Struggle
Abd-el-Krim’s resistance made headlines throughout the world right from the beginning. The continual media coverage on the Rif War is certainly associated with the impact of the amazement with which the world had followed the relative success of the Rifis against the technologically far better equipped imperial powers. It should therefore come as no surprise that his failure and capture was covered in newspapers under praiseworthy and eulogistic headings such as “Like Prometheus Chained to a Rock,” (San Francisco Chronicle, 24 October 1926). Abd-el-Krim’s biography – based upon a relatively short interview – was published very soon after his capture. A French journalist had a rare chance to conduct an interview with him as soon as he was captured and published it in the form of a biography in 1927. The interview was conducted in French, and as Abd-el-Krim could not speak French, his brother acted as translator. Given the worldwide reputation of Abd-el-Krim, the rather short book was circulated widely. Its German translation came out in the very same year. The Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong is said to have held a copy of it and that he expressed his admiration for Abd-el-Krim’s leadership by telling a Palestinian delegation of Fatah in 1971 the following: “You have come to me to hear me speaking about a people’s liberations war, but in your own recent history you have Abd-el-Krim. He is of one the most important inspiration sources, of which I have learned what the people’s liberations war exactly is” (Sneevliet 1942, footnote 2). However, given the continuous media coverage of the Rif War and interviews conducted by the American journalist Mowrer (in October 1924) – published in Chicago Daily News from November 1924 to early January 1925 – and Vincent Sheean (in 1925) with his 1926 book An American Among the Riffi, the biography did not contain much more information.
Books of history tend to avoid mentioning wars that went against their interests: Although Abd-el-Krim and the Rif War made continuous headlines during the 1920s, it is largely ignored in the historical literature. Abd-el- Krim’s resistance had led to the loss of thousands of lives, and his ideology was based upon Islamic ideals. Headings of more recent scholarly literature on the Rif War involve phrases such as “a forgotten war” or referring to Abd-el-Krim “the unknown or forgotten leader.” His struggle and his motives were also falsified in his home country until recently: Moroccan schoolbooks briefly mention about Abd-el-Krim by underlining that he had fought against the colonizers for the Moroccan throne.
In contrast to scholarly literature, it is an unprecedented phenomenon that Krim’s resistance continues to be used generation after generation as a setting for novels and films across nations (Er and Rich 2015). Initiated in Hollywood, since its beginning, the Rif War is continuously being portrayed across nations in the fiction genre, where it is generally used as danger setting for adventurers. Now as then, these publications do not purport to provide a realistic recount or enact realistic scenes on the Rif War but to associate it with extreme brutality and promiscuous behavior purportedly justified by Islamic teachings, a system of explanation much rooted in orientalism (Er and Rich 2015). These novels and films present their own thematic settings while giving a false image of Abe-el-Krim, namely, as a lover of Western women. No evidence exists that Abd-el-Krim was promiscuous or had any relationship with Western women. According to the norms and traditions of the time, Abd-el-Krim had two wives called Thaimunt and Fatima; both women were sisters of his close confidants and ministers Si Mohammed Boujibar and Si Mohammed Mohammedine Hitmi (Woolman 1968, p. 207; Sasse 2006, p. 44). From these marriages Abd-el-Krim had 11 children, 6 of which were born in Réunion. With regard to brutality with which the Rifis allegedly had conducted the revolt, there is sufficient evidence by the imperial powers on propaganda to perpetrate massacre on the Rifis (Er and Rich 2015), if the use of mustard gas for the first time in the history of mankind is not sufficient proof thereof.
The Military Techniques
The military techniques and tactics applied by the Rifis during the clashes earned the greatest admiration of not only the opponent soldiers but also the high-rank officers. In the context of the El Mers campaign on 24 June 1923 in which the French forces had 200 casualties, Windrow (2010), for instance, remarks: “Prince Aage [a French captain of royal descent] saw them coming in from his left front; he took professional pleasure in the skill with which they alternated between mounted movements and skirmishing on foot with carbines” (p. 482). In order to get thorough understandings of the diaries of the operations, remnants of the battles including ruins of buildings such as forts, trenches, or hills never ceased to be subject to scrutiny by military experts and historians since the end of the Rif War (Windrow 2010, p. 525). Scholarly studies on Abd-el-Krim and the Rif War frequently characterize Abd-el-Krim as co-inventor of modern guerilla tactics. Abd-el-Krim adhered to Islamic teachings on self-glorification and megalomania, when he was asked to comment on his successes: To the question of Paul Scott Mowrer (1887–1971), a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, in 1924, as to who actually planned the Annual victory Abd-el-Krim responded “God planned it but I was present.”
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) (Sasse 2006, p. 96). Twentieth-century anti-colonial revolutionary leaders – such as the Vietnamese leaders Hô Chi Minh (1890–1969) and Võ Nguyén Giáp (1911–2013) and the Yugoslav leader Tito (1892–1980) – are specifically mentioned as being influenced by the military tactics of Abd-el-Krim (Seymour 2008, p. 62; Sneevliet 1942, footnote 2). There is evidence that in particular Che Guevara (1928–1967) – who is considered as the most successful anti-imperialist guerilla leader to date – employed the tactics and methods, which were devised by the Rifis (Er 2015). The link between Abd-el-Krim and Che comes through, the Spanish Republican veteran of the Moroccan colonial campaign, Alberto Bayo (born in 1892 in Cuba – died in 1967 in Cuba), the much respected guerilla trainer of Che. Bayo had joined the Spanish army in 1916 and had become a pilot in the Air Force. His first assignments in Morocco are recorded to have started in 1919. Eventually, Bayo joined the elite corps Legion Española (the Spanish Foreign Legion), which was specifically founded to combat the rebels in Morocco. As a pilot Bayo had also dropped chemical war agents into the Rif. It was also during one of his missions in the Rif sometime between September 1924 and 1925, when he was seriously wounded and even lost one eye (Dosal 2010, p. 49). Bayo, already 64, had fought for 11 years against the Rifi rebels – the only guerrilla war he fought against – and had participated in the subsequent Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), when he was approached by Castro in 1956 for the purpose of training his soldiers in Mexico for the Granma expedition against the Batista regime (Dosal 2010, p. 49). The Castro brothers as well as Che Guevara took part in the training sessions. Generally, most of the successes of the rebels against the Batista forces are claimed to have been due to Bayo’s tactical teachings.
With regard to the source of Bayo’s expertise on guerilla tactics, Abel and Fisch (2011) comment that through North African guerillas Bayo had discovered methods of fighting that occupied him for the rest of his life, and as a theoretician of these, he had attained popularity all over the world. The extent of Bayo’s admiration for the tactics of the Rifis is put by Hansen (1960) as follows: “Castro succeeded in persuading Colonel Alberto Bayo to give a select group of cadres theoretical and practical training in guerrilla warfare. Bayo was well-known in Latin America as an expert in this field, having served in the Spanish forces that fought Abd El Krim in Morocco. The colonel became an admirer of the Moroccan guerrilla fighters and made a study of their tactics, which he sought, unsuccessfully, to place at the disposal of the Republican government of Spain in the civil war against Franco.”
Similarly, Fidel Castro (1926–2016), yet another role model for Che, mentions in his biography (Castro and Ramonet 2008, p. 162, 168; Balfour 2002) that he read about the Battle of Annual, one of the most successful attacks against the Spanish initiated by Abd-el-Krim in 1921. Castro and Ramonet (2008) further says: “Later, in the twenties, Franco took part in a colonial war, in Morocco, in which the army had massive casualties. There was one battle, at Annual, in which Spain lost over 3,000 men. I’ve read the whole history of that war” (p. 496). Castro makes a few statements regarding the teachings of Bayo with reference to the Rif War. In his autobiography Castro comments that, “Bayo taught us how to set up a guerilla to break a defence the way Moroccans of Abd-el-krim faced with the Spanish.” Castro and Ramonet (2008) further says: “Bayo never went beyond teaching what a guerrilla fighter should do to break through a perimeter when he’s surrounded, on the basis of his experience of the times Abd el-Krim’s Moroccans, in the war in the Rif, broke through the Spanish lines that encircled them” (p. 174). Research demonstrates in fact that there are a number of tactical similarities between the tactical teachings of Bayo as well as the operational methods used by Che during his battles in Cuba and the methods applied by the Rifis under Abd-el-Krim’s leadership (Er 2015).
Abd-el-Krim’s Strategic Innovations
There was no shortage of trained men in the Rif. A description of the Riffians’ personality and prowess is provided in Terhorst: “They are big and tough people, who can easily overcome any pains and labour. They are good riders and shooters, as it is the pride of any Rifi to own a gun. In order to possess a gun a Rifi works hard from a very young age and saves up to acquire one. The death of an enemy makes little difference if it is for getting a gun for it” (Terhorst, p. 173). Researchers on the Rif War unanimously agree that the contentious spirit of the Rifis – not least triggered by the idea of jihad and martyrdom – was one of the main determinants of their success. Another factor that gave the Rifis a competitive edge was their ability to cope with the demands of the guerrilla life in a challenging environment. The Rifi warriors were used to the difficulties associated with living in the Atlas Mountains, had a good knowledge of the topology of the Rif, and were extraordinarily acclimatized to both the excessive heat and the cold rainy seasons (Pechkoff 1926, p. 141, 211, 228). For this reason, Abd-el-Krim himself once made the supercilious statement that one Rifi would beat any ten Frenchmen (Woolman 1968, p. 184). Abd-el-Krim also appointed a general for each region (Sasse 2006, p. 96). Being vital for the success of their resistance, Krim’s best warriors never fought jointly against the enemy. Each used to take leadership responsibilities for subgroups of warriors during a military operation and was under direct control of Abd-el-Krim (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 94; Hart 1976, p. 388).
During the battles and ambush attacks, the Rifis are also known to have used mountains, cliffs, and bushes in an astonishing way, for their own advantage. Some of the war tactics and methods that were specific for the Rifis include the following: caves dug in the slopes (Windrow 2010, pp. 523–524); extensive use of granite ramparts, rocks, and 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; and hiding cannons in caves and using these exclusively at night, which made their discovery impossible (Woolman 1968, p. 108; Windrow 2010, p. 555). Most operations were conducted in the night. Apart from these, few other guerilla tactics are still mentioned in the literature as having been typical for the Rifis. These fall into three different categories of defense techniques, namely, siege war, attack on armored cars, and bayonet-versus-knife fighting.
The siege war techniques used by the Rifi soldiers are the most enthusiastically and vividly described methods that can be found in the literature on the Rif War. Woolman (1968) refers to one such siege tactics as follows: “Mhamed Abd el Krim’s strategy and tactics were simple but effective. The Rifians were to surround each small enemy outpost and attempt to take it by sneak attack. If this failed, they were to wait for the garrison to run short of water or bullets, then kill the besieged men as they made a break for freedom. These tactics worked to perfection in eastern Spanish Morocco during the Annual rout” (p. 156). Abd-el-Krim himself sees as the reason for the success in Dhar Ubarran and Sidi Idris on 2 June 1921 the division of the Spanish troops into blockhouses which were encircled by the Rifi armies in a surprise attack (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 67).
Another innovative siege warfare technique applied by the Rifis was the so-called double ring of trenches dug around posts or camps, which they used to beat back resupply attempts or to prevent access by rescue parties (Windrow 2010, p. 532). Only a few incidents are known where foreign legionnaires succeeded to get through the camps (Windrow 2010, p. 533). In the rare case where legionnaires managed to break through the first one, they would be held back by the second ring. On 3 May 1925, General Colombat was unable to break through the Berber trenches encircling Bibane, despite 6 h of fighting (Windrow 2010, p. 511).
Kunz and Müller (1990) mention the Rifi tactics of attacking armored vehicles, which they claim was also successfully practiced later on by other infantrymen from across the world. By referring to Woolman (1968), the authors describe the method: “While some men controlled the tank’s crew through rifle shots into the vision slits, the others used to creep up onto the vehicle to throw grenades (produced by local craftsmen) into the hatch”(p. 58). Woolman’s (1968) version is as follows: “The Spanish opened fire as soon as the enemy appeared, but although the guns brought down some of the Rifian attackers, others dropped to the ground and waited until the cars lumbered closer. Jumping up, the Rifians surrounded each car, fired their rifles through the ports, and set fire to the gasoline tanks, thus completely destroying the armored car” (p. 104). Windrow (2010, p. 498) states that the Rifis would lay flat to avoid being seen by the crew. The first of such attacks known to have taken place was on 18 March 1922 against the Spanish tank company equipped with 12 French Renault FT-17s. In a joint operation with the legion infantry, their task was to drive the tribe Beni Said from the towns of Tugunz and Ambar (Scurr 1985). The legion suffered 86 casualties during this counter-attack by the rebels.
A further tactical approach that was identified as being unique to the Rifis relates to the use of bayonet-versus-knife fighting. Windrow (2010) describes this method as follows: “it was whichever side showed the most aggression that had the essential advantage. On the receiving end of a determined bayonet-charge the Berbers, like any other fighting men, would themselves ‘float’, and this tactic – if exactly timed, and carried out with real resolve – was successfully employed often enough for veteran officers to regard it as a panacea against any threat within 100 yards” (p. 471).
In additions to these, further guerilla tactics and methods are mentioned in the literature, which had caught the attention of witnesses of the clashes. One frequently described tactics relate to demoralization of the enemy by repeating the strike and run tactic until the enemy is demoralized and takes a static and defensive posture. Windrow (2010) describes the battle of the highly organized French company III/3rd REI on 6 May 1922 with the Rifis: “Any halt other than to deliver a rapid fusillade encouraged the Berbers to concentrate their own fire, pinning the platoon down and creating a static target towards which the tribesmen were instinctively drawn” (p. 470). During this clash, the French had 99 casualties (40% of their strength which included 17 killed, 64 wounded, and 18 missing). Rifis managed to apply this tactic even at a larger scale. During the winter of 1923–1924, for instance, more than a quarter of the foreign army was tied down in static positions without any plans to regain the initiative (Windrow 2010, p. 498). Woolman (1968) cites the description of a Spanish legionnaire on how the Rifis used to defend themselves: “Abd el Krim’s characteristic fighting tactics are to withdraw or retreat while the enemy advances, but at the first halt of the latter, to start sniping, at which the Moroccans are experts. And it is very difficult to shoot them down as they never collect in large groups, but in isolated bevies which are continually on the move; whereas the French and Spanish troops, moving in concentrated masses, are easy targets” (p. 184).
Yet another method relates to the method of preventing relief columns from joining one another (Woolman 1968, p. 90, 104, 136). At the end of July 1924, to mention one example, the Oued Laou outpost line near Tetouan was isolated by Krim’s forces, and any relief attempt was fiercely attacked (Windrow 2010, p. 498). “It took 8th Company no less than three hours to get within 50 yards of the base of the rocks by alternate fire and rushes, but they were then pinned down, and two messengers sent back to appeal for artillery support were both shot as they ran” (Windrow 2010, p. 541).
The Rifis also used the presence of two imperial powers in their fighting arena to their advantage: After an operation into the French protectorate, Abd-el-Krim could always switch to his base in the Spanish territory. French were not authorized to follow him there as they wanted to avoid clashes with the Spaniards. At times Abd-el-Krim’s success against the French was also due to misleading information he was disseminating: As opposed to his true intention, he would announce that his main target would be the north, i.e., the Spaniards.
The tactic of systematically targeting the vanguard during an ambush was yet another prime tactic of the Rifis. Windrow (2010) writes: “The Berbers did not give junior leaders the luxury of much time to think, and the man with the coloured képi and Sam Browne belt was a priority target” (p. 470). Referring to the clashes during July 1925, Windrow (2010) writes: “The bereaved II/1st Foreign, south of Ouezzane, had been led by Captain Derain, doubling up in command of the battalion and his own 5th Company due to the heavy officer casualties” (p. 543).
Windrow (2010) gives description in the context of clashes on the hills: “The moment of first occupying a summit was among the most dangerous, since the Berbers often counter-attacked immediately before the soldiers could organize a perimeter or set up machine guns…. As the first platoons reached a crest … tribesmen who had dropped a little way down the reverse slope might fire into their faces and launch an uphill rush at extraordinary speed” (p. 483). Windrow further notes, “A few tribesmen noted for their ambush skills had been watching and remembering every detail for several days; the best shots with the best rifles occupied a height from which they could see far along the back-trail or even the fort gates, while those with old muskets hid themselves among the rocks and trees a few yards from the track. However antique their weapons, the first blast at point-blank range could always drop one or two légionnaires in their tracks” (p. 491). The diaries of former legionnaires often mention fear of going outside an outpost or fort, let alone being sent to the front line. For this reason, the front line was also used as a punitive measure for those who broke the rules or committed offenses in the army. Given the great danger looming outside outposts and forts, foreign legionnaires would only go out if it was an absolute necessity, such as in case of water shortage after the area was checked and guarded by spahis, as described by Windrow (2010): “If there were any Spahis with the main garrison they rode out first and occupied high points, but in all cases the machine guns in the watchtowers were cocked, riflemen manned the walls, and look-outs scanned the surrounding terrain with binoculars while the water parties led the mules to the river or well. Such corvées were preceded by an advance guard which went beyond the watering point to picket any overlooking crest” (p. 491). However: “The routes and timetables of both corvées and supply parties inevitably became predictable, and by the tenth time an NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] had carried out this duty without incident it was equally inevitable that he tended to relax his vigilance …. This was the moment at which the Berbers would strike” (Windrow 2010, p. 491). Routs triggered by fear were frequently observed during the Rif War. Windrow (2010) gives a description: “On 3 September, near Souk de Ait Bazza, a series of fierce attacks on a Moroccan Skirmisher battalion ‘produit un léger flottement’; this elegantly phrased panic (‘a light floating … ’) was quelled by charges that cost two companies of I/2nd REI another 33 men killed” (p. 484). Referring to the incident of Annual, Windrow (2010) notes: “The withdrawal on 22 June  soon degenerated into a rout, and many men were ambushed and cut down. Silvestre and his staff all died; the body of the native affairs officer Colonel Morales was handed back later” (p. 464). Concerning the persistency with which the Rifis defended their posts using aforementioned tactics, Woolman (1968) says: “The forces at Melilla now numbered 36,000; led by Generals Sanjurjo and Calvalcanti, the Spanish slowly pushed their way to Nador, which they retook on August 13. Under intermittent attack from snipers, the Spanish struggled slowly onward; it took them almost two months to advance the few miles between Nador and Zeluan” (p. 103).
Conduct of Operations
Abd-el-Krim’s aim was to create the nucleus of an army modeled to some degree on Western standards. Abd-el-Krim’s regular troops (about 10,000 men) consisting of infantry and artillery wore military uniforms (Bode 1926, p. 22; Furneaux 1967, p. 117). The traditional tribal dress was retained in most cases, but the soldiers wore different colors of turbans to denote their rank (Windrow 2010, p. 497).
Despite their tactical innovations and fighting expertise, the Rifis were heavily reliant upon weapons from the Western world. Krim was actually very keen to get whatever modern technology he could and even planned to start a small air force in the Rif (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 103). An agreement for the purchase of four military planes was made with a French company, but only one could be smuggled into the Rif from Algeria in December 1923 (Sasse 2006, p. 196). By the end of the war, Spanish troops confiscated 53 boxes containing a dismantled machine made in France (Sasse 2006, p. 203). Between 1926 and 1930, no fewer than 124,269 rifles, 232 machine guns, 128 artillery pieces with 4549 grenades, and 7 mortars were collected from the Riffians by the Spanish (Woolman 1968, p. 213; Sasse 2006, p. 203). Abd-el-Krim also knew the risks associated with a total dependence on arms imports and initiated the production of explosives: As the local Jewish population was primarily engaged in metalwork, Abd-el-Krim commissioned them to produce hand grenades using Spanish sardine cans and unexploded ordnance (Abd-el-Krim 1927, p. 95; Coon 1931, p. 65). At the end of the war, the Spanish confiscated 1,480 such handmade explosives (Sasse 2006, p. 132 and p. 203). Empty cartridge cases were refilled; new ones were manufactured in a production unit employing 60 workers (Sasse 2006, p. 192).
The Rifis were heavily reliant upon know-how from outside the borders of their own country, particularly with regard to technology-intensive weapons systems. Some of the guns, tanks, and even aircraft which were shot down needed repair. No Riffian was trained for this purpose, and European deserters as well as volunteers had to be employed for this task (Sasse 2006, p. 130, 133, 199). Desertions were not least encouraged by Abd-el-Krim’s communist supporters orchestrated from the Soviet Union, pacifists, and social democrats. Their efforts incorporated propaganda through flyers and speakers inducing several French soldiers to join Abd-el-Krim’s forces. The number of European deserters between 1921 and 1926 was estimated to have been at least 150, and the majority of these were Germans (Sasse 2006, p. 105). Increasing number of German deserters was recorded especially in 1924 due to Abd-el-Krim’s plans to attack the French-occupied Morocco. Among the deserters, Abd-el-Krim was especially keen on those who were able to impart their technical skills on the usage of the arms confiscated during the Battle of Annual and Monte Arruit. The most prominent trainers are known by name (see Sasse 2006, pp. 100–101).
Abd-el-Krim, like his father, stood also for modernization. He saw that building a road network would be a major advantage militarily as it would facilitate the transportation of confiscated heavy artillery (Sasse 2006, p. 125). In 1921 the road between Ajdir and Ait Kamara was built under the supervision of Si M’hammed, while in July 1922, about 60 Germans, mostly deserters from the French Foreign Legion, took over the supervision and management of further roads (Sasse 2006, p. 126).
Espionage service and intelligence support from the populace and the Rifi guerilla fighters also played a significant role for the success of the Rif resistance. Abd-el-Krim’s scouts would inform him about every negligence in the guard duty and security service of the enemy so that an advantage could be taken instantly. Thus, setting up a telephone network was one of Abd-el-Krim’s priorities (Sasse 2006, p. 122). The task of setting up a telephone system was accomplished Rifis who had gained experience from the Algerian telephone services as well as deserting Europeans (Sasse 2006, pp. 117–119, 122–123). Abd-el-Krim was connected with all sections of his front by cable reel telephone. The maintenance and operation of about 77 telephone stations – mostly located in the conquered Spanish blockhouses – were also done by deserters and local youngsters trained for the purpose (Sasse 2006, p. 119 and 123). In 1925 Abd-el-Krim availed of about 30 radio transmitters and receivers and 4 telegraph stations, which kept him informed about the latest military reports of the French and Spanish (Sasse 2006, p. 121 and 124). Even the cavalry availed of wireless and impact resistant “saddle apparatus” (Sasse 2006, p. 121). Chain of command and transmission was set up excellently: Behind the front there was a row of headquarters which were connected with the reserves by telephone and light cars.
Abd-el-Krim repeatedly pleaded for peace and end of the war and asked for negotiations, but his requests remained unanswered. In this regard Krim said that the Spanish intended to annihilate the Rifis and pointed to the futility of the accusation that the Rifis were defending their freedom and religion only (Abd-el-Krim 1927). The refusal of his demands for self-determination in accordance with international law only prolonged the war, led to more deaths, and caused immense costs and massive political turmoil – a development that was to have a decisive influence on the later history of Spain, France, and ultimately Europe: Given the hardships and difficulties of fighting in the Rif, the Rif provided the perfect venue for advancing military and political ambitions for few unscrupulous officers. One such officer was the Spaniard Francisco Franco (1892–1975), who had joined the Moroccan colonial troops in 1913. When 23 he became a captain in 1916 and then the youngest major in the Spanish army after receiving a medal for bravery in 1917 for surviving a severe injury in 1916. Franco was second-in-command for the Spanish Foreign Legion which had experienced a crushing defeat in 1921 at Annual, and in 1923 he had become a commander of the legion. As colonel – supported by French troops invading from the south – he led troops ashore at Al Hoceima in 1925, marking the beginnings of the end of the Rif War. He was then promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1926. The Rif War could be suppressed entirely in 1934, but it had left severe marks upon the Spanish political climate. The calamities of the ensuing Spanish Civil War in 1934 ending with Franco’s victory in 1939 and the World War II were worse than what the Rifis had ever experienced. Abd-el-Krim’s (1927) concluding remarks in his memoires that the war was imposed upon the Rifis and that not only the Rifis have been defeated but that the imperial powers had lost the war too, as the successes of the Rifis had given them pride, hope, and self-confidence that could not be annihilated by any defeat, seems to have been a prelude for Franco’s dictatorship and the consequences this had upon France and later history.
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