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Mohamed ben Abd el-Krim el-Khatabi

Mohamed ben Abd el-Krim el-Khatabi

The Moroccan Berber leader Mohamed ben Abd el-Krim el-Khatabi (ca. 1882-1963) organized the resistance against European colonialism in northern Mo rocco from 1920 to 1927. He inspired a generation of militant nationalists, who liberated Morocco in 1956.

Son of an Islamic schoolteacher, Abd el-Krim was born at Ajdir in the Rif mountains into the important Berber tribe of the Beni Ouriaghel. After his Koranic studies his family moved to Tetuán in 1892, where he attended a Spanish school and came into contact with European culture. He completed his studies in Fez at the Moslem university of Qarawiyin.

In 1906 Abd el-Krim edited an Arabic supplement of a Spanish newspaper in Melilla. In the following year he became a secretary in the Spanish Bureau of Native Affairs; his work provided him with a precise knowledge of the mining resources of the Rif and the abusive aspects of colonialism. In 1914 he was named the chief religious judge for the region of Melilla and emerged as an important figure in northern Morocco. He was familiar with the Occident and the ideas which agitated the world on the eve of World War I. He commanded enough influence in his tribe to incite the Beni Ouriaghel to fight against the pretender Bou Amara, who revolted against the Moroccan sultan.

In 1917 Abd el-Krim's father was accused by the Spaniards of collusion with the Germans and he took to the maquis. In August 1917 Abd el-Krim was imprisoned for protesting against the French and Spanish presence in Morocco.

A few months after his release in 1919, Abd el-Krim and his younger brother joined their father in the mountains. Their goal was to established an independent state in the Rif. When his father died in September 1920, Abd el-Krim assumed the leadership of the rebellion. He organized the Rifian tribes, uniting them in the face of opposition from leaders of religious orders. He also delegated emissaries to propagandize his cause overseas and to obtain aid from foreigners. Tactically, he prepared for a long guerrilla war, taking advantage of the region's steep mountainous terrain and the inaccessibility of the Rifian coastline.

During the spring of 1921 his forces defeated 50,000 Spanish troops at Anual. They chased the Spaniards to Melilla but failed to attack the city, a strategic error which later cost Abd el-Krim dearly.

Following his success at Anual, Abd el-Krim created a permanent political organization for his conquered territories. The tribal chiefs meeting in a national assembly created the Confederated Republic of the Rif Tribes with a central government presided over by the prince, or emir, Abd el-Krim. His financial resources included tax revenues, ransom demanded for captured Spaniards, and outright subsidies paid by German concerns interested in exploiting the mining riches of the Rif. The army, amounting to about 120,000 men, was well equipped but operated along traditional Moroccan military lines.

Nothing in Abd el-Krim's physical appearance revealed princely qualities. He was short and stout with a ruddy complexion and always dressed in rustic mountaineer robes. Married to four women, as permitted by the Moslem religion, and the father of four children, he nevertheless led an austere life. Although a devout Moslem, he was no fanatic: his ideals were nationalistic, not religious. He was a legendary figure in the whole country, but only a few Rifians met him directly. His despotic temperament made him more feared than loved, and on several occasions he became the target of assassins.

In 1925 the French, fearful of the repercussions of Abd el-Krim's victories on their own protectorate in southern Morocco, advanced on the Rif. Initially, the emir obtained brilliant military victories and even menaced the city of Fez, but a successful counter attack by a coalition of Franco-Spanish forces in 1927 led Abd el-Krim to surrender.

The French deported him with his family to Réunion Island, where he remained in exile for 20 years. In 1947 Paris authorized him to move to France, but during the trip through the Suez Canal he jumped ship and demanded asylum from King Farouk. When Col. Nasser came to power in 1952, Cairo was transformed into the center of the Arab nationalist movements, and the old Abd el-Krim became the historical and spiritual reference for all anti-colonial resistance. He died in Cairo on Feb. 6, 1963, without over having returned to independent Morocco.

Further Reading

Two books dealing with Abd el-Krim and his resistance to colonialism are David S. Woolman, Rebels in the Rif: Abd El Krim and the Rif Rebellion (1968), and Rupert Furneaux, Abdel Krim: Emir of the Rif (1967). □

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