Omar al-Mukhtar

Omar al-Mukhtar (about ca. 1860-1931), national hero of Libya and member of the Senusy, a religious organization with administrative and military functions, led the anticolonial resistance in Cirenaica from 1923 to 1931, when he was captured by the Italians and condemned to death.

Little is known of Omar al-Mukhtar until the last decade of his life when he became the undisputed leader of the Senusist resistance in Cirenaica. Even his date of birth is uncertain, somewhere between 1856 and 1862, in el Batwan in oriental Cirenaica. For eight years he studied in the koran school of Giarabub, the Senusy's holy city. He taught in a Senusist zawiya but also took part in military operations against the Italians and the allies during World War I.

When the Italians openly attacked Senusy in the spring of 1923 (at the end of April the existing agreements were formally denounced) Omar was among the most competent and active figures in organizing and coordinating the resistance. In his capacity as representative of the Senusy he had assumed command of the guerrilla forces that often baffled and confounded the regular Italian forces.

In the mountainous region of Gebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain) Italian Governor Mombelli succeeded in 1924 in activating a counter-guerrilla force that inflicted a harsh defeat on the rebels in April 1925. Omar then quickly modified his own tactics and was able to count on constant help from Egypt.

In March 1927, notwithstanding the occupation of Giarabub (February 1926) and the reenforcement of the oppression under then Governor Teruzzi, Omar surprised an Italian military force at Raheiba. Following successive clashes in various localities of Gebel, Omar was forced to withdraw. Between 1927 and 1928 Omar fully reorganized the Senusite forces, who were being hunted constantly by the Italians. Even General Teruzzi recognized Omar's qualities of "exceptional perseverance and strong will power."

Pietro Badoglio, the new governor of Libya (January 1929), after extensive negotiations was able to reach a compromise with Omar similar to previous Italo-Senusite accords. Italian sources falsely described the situation as an act of complete submission by Omar. This attitude was confirmed by Italian leaders, including Badoglio (who probably supported the misleading statement hoping to break anti-Italian resistance).

At the end of October 1929 Omar denounced the compromise and reestablished a unity of action among Libyan forces, preparing himself for the ultimate confrontation with General Rodolfo Graziani, the military commander from March 1930. Having failed in a massive offensive in June against Omar's forces, Graziani, in full accord with Badoglio, De Bono (minister of the colonies), and Benito Mussolini, initiated a strong plan to decisively break off the Cirenaica resistance. The plan was to transfer the Gebel population (around 100,000 persons) to concentration camps on the coast and to close the border with Egypt from the coast at Giarabub, thus preventing any foreign help to the fighters and breaking up the solidarity of the population.

From the beginning of 1931 the measures taken by Graziani took their toll on the Senusist resistance. The rebels were deprived of help and reinforcements, spied upon, hit by Italian aircraft, and pursued by the Italian forces aided by local informers. In spite of hardships and increasing risks, Omar courageously continued the fight, but on September 11, 1931, he was ambushed near Zonta. With dignity and calm he faced up to the immediate situation and accepted his death sentence with the words: "From God we came and to God we must return." The execution of the old fighter—carried out in the concentration camp of Solluq on September 16—caused great indignation in the Arab world.

Omar's implacable adversary, General Graziani, has given us this physical and moral description, which is not lacking in admiration: "Of medium height, stout, with white hair, beard and moustache. Omar was endowed with a quick and lively intelligence; was knowledgeable in religious matters, and revealed an energetic and impetuous character, unselfish and uncompromising; ultimately, he remained very religious and poor, even though he had been one of the most important Senusist figures."

In later times author A. Del Boca judged him: "Omar is not only an example of religious faith and a born fighter but also the builder of that perfect military-political organization, which for ten years kept in check troops under four governors."

The memory of Omar remained alive. Libya, independent, monarchic, and revolutionary, declared him its national hero. His life was depicted by Anthony Quinn in the movie "The Lion of the Desert," produced by Siro-American Akkad.

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Further Reading on Omar al-Mukhtar

The religious organization that provided the military base of Omar al-Mukhtar is discussed in E.E. Evans Pritchard, The Senusy of Cirenaica (Oxford, 1949). Two other relevant books are in Italian: Omar al-Mukhtar e la riconquista fascista della Libia (Omar al-Mukhtar and the fascist reconquest of Libya), by various authors (Milan, 1981); and A. Del Boca, Gli italiani in Libia: Dal fascismo a Gheddafi (The Italians in Libya: From fascism to Gheddafi), (Bari, 1988).