Rif War

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One of the most successful Moroccan attempts to resist an initial European invasion, 19211926.

The Treaty of Fes (1912), imposing a French protectorate over Morocco, assigned northern and
southern zones to Spain. Until the end of World War I, the Spanish army and economy were not strong enough to take advantage of this. But, in 1919, the Spanish army began to push westward from Melilla into the Rif mountains, and a loosely organized coalition was formed to oppose it. In 1920 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi took over leadership of the coalition and set about creating unity based on the strict imposition of the shariʿa, allied with European military techniques.

By June 1921 Spanish military intelligence was warning that Abd al-Karim's supporters could resist further Spanish advances, despite the 25,000 troops in the eastern zone. The warnings were ignored, new advance garrisons set up, and on 2 June the Rifis attacked a post at Dahar Abarran. The garrison was withdrawn, but other posts came under attack. On 22 July, the main Spanish forward base at Anwal withdrew with heavy casualties. The retreat became a rout, and by 9 August all Spanish positions outside Melilla were lost and over 13,000 soldiers killed. Melilla was not occupied because Abd al-Karim, concerned that he might lose control, wanted to avoid the slaughter of civilians.

In little more than a year, Spanish forces had almost regained their old lines, but Abd al-Karim used the supplies they had abandoned to equip a regular army. He capitalized on the prestige of his victory to institutionalize a bureaucratic government in the central Rif, staffed largely by members of his own family. He emphasized the shariʿa, both for ideological reasons and to ensure order. An infrastructureroads and a telegraph systemwas built to maintain control and better fight the Spanish. In February 1923 he received formal bayʿas (declarations of allegiance) from the central Rif tribes and established a Rifi state.

Abd al-Karim overcame such local opponents as Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Raysuni, a sharif of the Jibala mountains, and Abd al-Rahman al-Darqawi, head of the Darqawiyya tariqa whose headquarters at Amjutt were just over the figurative border of the French zone. Both of the local chiefs resented Abd al-Karim's growing authority, but in doing so came into conflict with the French and Spanish. The attack on isolated Spanish outposts in the Jibala began in August 1925, and in November Spanish forces withdrew from the town of Shawin. The Spanish army lost around 10,000 men.

Abd al-Karim was reluctant to attack the French zone. He did not want to have to fight two European armies. He agreed because he needed to secure food supplies and deal with the Darqawiyya and because of pressure from some of his commanders. The attack on Amjutt in April 1925 succeeded, and Rifi forces moved on Fez, overrunning many French positions. The French army held the Rifi attack, and in June 1925 a conference in Madrid agreed on a joint Franco-Spanish campaign to crush the Rifis.

In September 1925 Spanish landings at Alhucemas and French advances from the south were coordinated. By the winter, the Rif was surrounded and running out of food. The following April, brief peace negotiations at Oujda, in eastern Morocco, failed and Rifi resistance collapsed. On 15 May 1926, Abd al-Karim surrendered to the French.

see also khattabi, muhammad ibn abd alkarim al-; shariʿa.


Pennell, C. R. A Country with a Government and a Flag: The Rif War in Morocco, 19211926. Wisbech, U.K.: Middle East and North African Studies Press, 1986.

Woolman, David. Rebels in the Rif, Abd el-Krim and the Rif Rebellion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.

c. r. pennell