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Africa During the Scramble: The Desert Order

By Gary Oswald

The traditional Senussi banner, later used as inspiration of the flag of Cyrenaica and eventually incorporated into the flag of Libya. Shared under the CC0 licence.

The fate of the Senussi family is heavily entwined with the modern history of Libya, they were the royal family of the Kingdom of Libya, which existed from 1951 to 1969 and were the leaders of the armies of the Senussi order during their wars with Italy from 1911 to 1932. But the Senussi were not originally either politicians or Libyans and the Senussi order was not originally formed as a military order, but a religious one. Indeed for much of the early history of the order they tried their best to avoid being dragged into any kind of conflict or state politics. The missionary lodges of the order were bonded to the nomadic traders and herdsmen of the Sahara desert and so viewed national borders and thus wars between nations as rather irrelevant. Their focus was not on the governing states but the nomadic clans and were normally happy to collaborate with any government that would collaborate with them.

Their founder, Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, had formed the Senussi order for purely religious reasons, they were an orthodox Sunni order who wished to spread their particular version of Islam, which emphasised asceticism and traditionalism. Followers of the Senussi were discouraged from drinking alcohol, smoking, taking snuff, singing and dancing. They were fundamentalists but they weren't really jihadists. Their aim was primarily peaceful conversion of what they viewed as lax Muslims towards a more vigorous strict faith.

There was, however, infrastructure attached to that order, the lodges which filled multiple roles in the community. Primarily, the lodge was a centre of trade, agriculture, animal husbandry and banking, because the order wished to be self sufficient and be able to provide charity but not rely on it. The lodge also became a hub of education and academia, because religious teaching was a large part of their mission. And the members of the Senussi often took on roles of mediators and judges on disputes between the various clans, because that was the traditional role of religious orders in areas with weak overall state unity. There were armed guards among the order, the desert was a dangerous place, but the lodges were far more social and commercial centres and refuges than forts.

Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi was born in the Regency of Algiers in 1783 and studied in Fez under the Tijāniyyah Dervishes of Morocco. He attempted to learn and teach in the great Islamic centres of Cairo and Mecca but his fundamentalism meant he clashed with the other Islamic leaders and so he set up his first lodge instead with the Bedouin nomads of Saudi Arabia in 1837. This was the original headquarters of the order, but Senussi would not remain in Arabia for long, the authorities in Mecca protested against him and he left, at their demand, to return to Algeria in 1841. Unfortunately Algeria had been invaded in France in 1830 and in 1841 was the site of a bitter war between the French invaders and Emir Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine. Rather than join Abdelkader in his fight Senussi instead turned around at the border and settled down in Libya, which had just recently been taken into full Ottoman control, after years of self governance. Senussi would return to Mecca as soon as he was allowed to but the majority of his followers and family remained in Libya.

Thus, by accident, the head quarters of the lodge became the Libyan region of Cyrenaica (one of the three traditional regions of Libya alongside Tripolitania and Fezzan) from 1843 onwards. There at Jaghbub, a remote desert village where no government could enforce their laws, they built a great Islamic university, one of the largest in all of Africa. This was the centre of their power, and from there the Senussi picked up followers and converts from the oasis towns and nomadic peoples of North Africa, with 60 lodges springing up across the Sahara from Morocco to Sudan and Senussi propaganda reaching as far as Senegal. The power of the Senussi was within the desert and the trans Saharan trading routes, within the urban cities of the Nile Valley and Tripolitania they found far fewer recruits, and so they largely grew outside of the Ottoman or Egyptian power centres. They were instead creating their own networks of power and influence in areas that had never really fell under state control, with the desert people of Libya and Western Egypt looking far more to Jaghbub than Cairo or Tripoli. They cooperated reluctantly with the Ottoman governance of Libya, encouraging the desert people to pay taxes in return for complete tax immunity of their own lodges. But they did so as an almost allied state, where the Lodge leader in Benghazi acted as kind of an ambassador for the self governing nomads, rather than as an organisation which existed in Ottoman towns such as Tripoli.

The exception to this lack of involvement with other states was in the Wadai Empire of modern day Chad and the Central African Republic, who sat on the trans Saharan trade route between Nigeria and Libya. One of the Wadai leaders, Muhammad Sharif who had come to the throne in 1838 with the help of the Darfur Sultanate, had met and befriended as-Senussi in Mecca and so when the Senussi began to grow in the Sahara, he quickly invited their preachers into his country and from there they also moved into Darfur.

By the 1870s all of the countries the Senussi operated in were under threat from European advancement, with the Scramble for Africa starting and the Ottomans the sick man of Europe. However the Senussi preached pacifism, they had never fought any war as an order and so when the first requests for aid came in, they refused them. They refused to fight for Darfur against Egypt when asked to in 1875, for the Ottomans against Russia when asked in 1876, for Egypt against the UK when asked in 1879 or for the Mahdi against the British and Egyptians when asked in 1881. These were not popular decisions, the Senussi had made their reputation on providing aid and charity to the faithful and so turning down so many requests for aid damaged their popularity in turn, with the order declining in relevance throughout the 1880s and 1890s as it was distracted by internal power struggles. In particular the Senussi utterly refused to contest the newly established British control of Egypt, saying publicly in 1911 that they were content that British administration did not hinder their faith in any way and so they had no interest in backing an Egyptian revolt, which lost them support among Egyptian nationalists.

The picture was different in Chad where the Senussi were much more invested in the existing power structures. During the 1880s, the Wadai Empire were threatened both by France from the west and from the east by Rabih az-Zubayr, the Sudanese slaver who would conquer his own empire in the Sahel. In response, the Senussi supplied the Wadai with around 10,000 guns they had bought in Europe, Egypt and Asia, which helped them survive Rabih's assault upon them in 1887 while the, much larger, Bornu state of North Nigeria was conquered entirely by Rabih in 1893. The Senussi also played a major part in negotiating a peace between Wadai and Darfur in 1906 after fighting had broken out four years earlier, thus securing Wadai's eastern front.

And this was a precursor for things to come because their policy of neutrality would ultimately prove impossible to maintain when their heartlands of Wadai and Cyrenaica were threatened. From 1900 onwards, when the French conquest of Rabih's forces meant they were able to attack into Chad, the Senussi would find themselves inevitably dragged into conflict with first the French and then later the British and Italians.

Sultan Dudmurrah of Wadai submits to Colonel Largeau

In 1901, it was primarily armed Senussi rather than Wadai troops who drove off a French attack on the Wadai town of Bir 'Alali and so when the French took that town the following year, they burned down the Senussi lodge. In 1906, France launched a full out assault on the Wadai Empire with the newly conscripted remnants of Rabih's army used as their shock troops. The French viewed the Senussi as a major part of this war effort and would destroy Senussi lodges when conquering towns or camps. The war lasted three years but French numbers and weapons eventually told and the Wadai Capital was conquered in 1909, with a puppet sultan placed on the throne. The Wadai Leader, Dud Murra, however continued the fight from exile in Libya, with the full support of both the Senussi and the Sultan of Darfur, now a British protectorate, who supplied him with both guns and, increasingly, men to the extent that Dud Murra's forces could be best viewed as a Senussi army rather than a Wadai one.

In 1910 Dud Murra ambushed and destroyed a French column, killing around 120 French soldiers in Geneina and then mauled two further columns of around 500 men, forcing them to retreat in disarray. In response, the French pulled their forces back from Wadai to their fortress at modern day N'Djamena until they could get reinforcements. In 1911 those reinforcements arrived and France captured Dud Murra after a major campaign, but a large tax revolt in South Chad prevented them from pushing further against the Senussi until 1913, where they launched a major offensive into what is now Northern Chad.

The Senussi meanwhile had their numbers swelled with refugees from Wadai, as hundreds of thousands of citizens of that country left it after the French conquest, (they had received a similar reinforcement in 1881 after the French conquest of Tunis). This outside enemy also led to a shift in the order's structure, both towards military resistance and towards state building in general, with the tribes of the desert increasingly following the Head of the Order as subjects rather than as allies. The desert tribes threatened by European conquest were already looking to form a greater alliance between themselves and the Senussi, as pre existing trusted middlemen, were the only choice for leading that.

However the Senussi were unable to concentrate solely on the French. In September 1911, Italy invaded the Ottoman Empire and announced they would annex the three provinces of modern day Libya, landing 20,000 troops on the Libyan coast. The Ottoman army retreated into the desert where they allied themselves with the Senussi. In January 1912, the Senussi declared a jihad against the Italians and that they would drive them out of Libya, defeating the Italian army in a minor battle at Tobruk.

The Italians hadn't expected this thanks to the Senussi's previous pacifism during the British occupation of Egypt. They had actually been arming the Senussi, like they had armed the Ethiopians, in the hope the Senussi and Ottomans would go to war and had counted on the Senussi allying with them against the Turks. Instead any grievances the Senussi had with the Turks were put aside to focus on the common Italian enemy. This unexpectedly fierce resistance shook the Italians and also changed the Turkish view on the war and there was serious consideration during the peace talks that Italy could be convinced to back down and only take the coast, with the majority of inland Libya either being spun off as independent or kept with the Ottomans. If an independent Libya under the Senussi was granted in the peace negotiations that doesn't mean that France, already pushing up from Chad, wouldn't just swallow it, but WWI was due to break out two years later and France would soon be distracted elsewhere.

The Italians however ultimately refused to budge on their demands for taking all of Libya and so negotiations went nowhere. The Italian army was stuck in military deadlock against a widespread Senussi resistance allied with the remaining Ottoman armies. Turkish officers trained and led Senussi units, supplying them with hand grenades and rifles and teaching them to dig trenches and use barbed wire. The enthusiastic but inexperienced Senussi volunteers needed this Ottoman experience to become an army capable of standing up to the Italians.

Italy's initial plan of a huge march on the Senussi Oases was quickly abandoned in favour of a policy of consolidation and reinforcement. By 1912, Italy had 100,000 troops in the country and was spending 47% of its state budget on supporting them. But despite this huge investment, they mostly avoided large pitched battles and concentrated instead on fortifying their existing positions, massacring civilians and blockading new supplies coming in from Turkey. Chastened by Adwa and their defeat by Ethiopia, the Italian Army did not wish to risk suffering a similar defeat in the deserts of Libya. They held their positions against counter attacks but controlled only very small amounts of the country.

Italian victory was instead granted not from their actions in Libya but their naval victories elsewhere and the attack on the Ottomans by the Balkan League in October 1912. Faced with a war against Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, the Ottoman empire surrendered to Italy and withdrew their support for the Senussi, so they could focus entirely on this new threat. Without the Ottoman armies in the war, the Italian position improved and Tripolitania was soon entirely under Italian control. However, in Cyrenaica, and to a lesser extent within Fezzan, the withdrawal made very little difference because it was the Senussi who'd provided most of the troops and they ended up just integrating a lot of the Turkish soldiers into their armies.

In 1913, the Italians launched a major assault on Senussi positions. Despite a major victory at Sidi al-Qarba, where 5,000 Italians were routed and their heavy weapons seized, this went badly for the Senussi, with most of their major armed camps seized by March 1914. But the Senussi were nomads, who could operate without bases, and increasingly the war took the shape of a guerrilla war with small Senussi bands ambushing Italian troops and attacking caravans while the Italians responded with new drives towards the oasis towns. Famine, disease and heavy losses in combat to both the French and Italians saw the Senussi lose increasing ground and by 1914, their situation looked dire. As a result, one of their main soldiers, Aziz Bey, fled the country to Egypt with most of the Senussi artillery in early 1914.

In July 1914, however WWI started and with Italy concentrating on events in Europe, the Senussi began to recover. In 1915 they drove into Tripolitania where the Italian position collapsed, because their local askari soldiers under Ramadan Asswehly switched sides during a battle in April 1915 resulting in the Italian taking 4,000 casualties. The Senussi advancement was so rapid after that that they approached the outskirts of Tripoli the following year, only for Ramadan to fall out with his new allies and for the attack to collapse due to infighting. To avoid further civil strife, the Senussi left Ramadan in charge of resistance in Tripolitania and withdrew their own troops back to Cyrenaica, where they continued harassing the Italian forts and caravans. In January 1915, the eight battalions of Eritreans in Cyrenaica were withdrawn to Eritrea out of fears that Ethiopia, would launch an attack there. Without these troops holding the camps in the oasis towns, the Italian position there was untenable and by August 1915, they had withdrawn entirely from the desert to their initial footholds on the coast. Despite having spent 80 million pounds on the war effort, the Italians had achieved basically nothing since they had first taken those cities in 1911.

In May 1915, Italy declared war on the central Powers and suddenly were an Ally of the UK and France against Germany, Austria-Hungary and crucially the Ottoman Empire. This was a mixed blessing for the Senussi, on the one hand it led to an almost complete withdrawal of Italian troops to the European front and meant Italy was unable to respond to the set backs of the previous year. But it also essentially bought Britain, the rulers of Egypt, into the war against them. In 1915 Britain began to blockade the Libyan coast.

Senussi going to fight the British in Egypt

By this point after over a decade of bloody warfare, the Senussi were no longer the pacifists they had once been. If France, Italy and the UK were to be allies, than the Senussi leader, Ahmad, decided he would fight all of them at once, spurred on by the Turkish and German agents that he was relying on for supplies of weapons and food. In French West Africa, already rocked by numerous conscription rebellions, the Senussi armed and aided a Tuareg rebellion, which held Northern Niger for three months before being defeated. In Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the Senussi armed and supplied the rebellion of the Sultan of Darfur against his British overlords, though that likewise was put down relatively quickly. And in Egypt itself, the once warm relationship between the British and the Senussi was to break down entirely with the Senussi repeatedly attacking British positions in 1915, though these attacks were still primarily done by Libyan Senussi rather than Egyptian Senussi.

The British responded with their own counter-attacks on the Senussi, with 25,000 men committed to the Western Desert campaign and by 1917, the Senussi had been driven out of Egypt. The French had largely destroyed them in Chad three years earlier which meant the Senussi were, by this point, purely restricted to Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Shortly after the defeat in Egypt, Ahmad fled the county, and the rest of the Senussi leadership gave up on complete victory and instead aimed to negotiate a peace under their new leader, Idris. Negotiations started in 1917, which resulted in a ceasefire where prisoners were exchanged, German and Ottoman agents were handed to the allies, but no land was exchanged, a de facto recognition of Libyan independence. In Tripolitania, Ramadan declared the Tripolitanian Republic in 1918, but received no international recognition, and it collapsed into civil war after Ramadan's death in 1920 until the Italians reconquered it in 1923.

Cyrenaica, thanks to the Senussi, was much less chaotic. Years of war and centralisation meant the Senussi were no longer the religious order it had once been, but rather a purely political alliance of nomadic tribesmen. In particular, alms had become taxes and tithes. Their new leader, Idris I, was essentially a secular leader and he would agree to become Emir of Cyrenaica in 1922. Cyrenaica would be part of the Italian empire but run by Idris, who would receive a salary and money for administration, which was essentially Danegeld to prevent another uprising. Idris would agree to keep his army below 1,000 men, disband his armed camps and would allow Italian tax collectors and traders to operate freely in his land but would in return get complete protection for Arab land rights and Idris himself and the Senussi would be exempted of taxation.

This was essentially the deal the Senussi had had with the Ottomans. The coastal towns were controlled by the colonial empire but the desert would remain in the hands of the Senussi. The only exception was the restrictions on armed forces, which Idris would just ignore anyway. The difference was that the Ottomans had been reasonably content with this joint rule, while the Italians saw it as a humiliation. In late October 1922, Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy and he wasn't willing to put up with this joint administration anymore.

In 1922, the leaders of Tripolitania, losing their war with the Italians and fighting among themselves, sent an offer to Idris to make him King of all Libya. Idris, after much debate, said yes, under the awareness that the new Fascist government in Italy wished to conquer Libya entirely. He gave orders for the assembly of Tripolitania to represent his will in the west of the country, and the Senussi, under his relatives, invaded Tripolitania and fought battles there with Libyans who did not recognise the assembly. Idris himself fled to Egypt, newly independent from Britain (in theory at least), where he led the order's diplomatic efforts from safety.

In March 1923, the Italians launched a surprise attack on the Senussi and captured around half of the Senussi forces without any serious fighting, as the two armies shared bases since they were both theoretically part of the same state. The remainder took once again to the desert and fought an extensive guerrilla war for nine years until 1932. Omar al-Mukhtar, a veteran of the wars against France, Italy and the UK, became the Senussi's primary general. He would increasingly frustrate the Italians by out manoeuvring them and refusing pitched battle.

The Italians, in return, resorted to increasing brutality. Their frustration was to an extent based on being unable to distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants, so they made the decision to treat every Arab as an enemy combatant. Raids on camps, both through mobile units and by bombings from the air, would shoot anything that moved and in particular aim to capture or destroy food supplies. Tribesmen were disarmed, civilians were routinely mass executed at the hint of having collaborated with the Senussi and the Libyan recruits in the Italian army were increasingly replaced with Italians.

In 1926, the Italians attacked and destroyed the university of Jaghbub, in the hope this would be blow to morale for the Senussi, but it did little to reduce resistance. Indeed nothing really did, the Italians kept winning battles, kept seizing or destroying camps, kept building forts and kept killing collaborators but submission was hard to come by. The Senussi kept fighting, kept attacking Italians and kept refusing to pay taxes. In 1928, the Italians had managed to drive Omar al-Mukhtar to seeking terms, but negotiations broke down over Omar's insistence of needing Idris to also be included in the peace treaty.

Omar Mukhtar

The Italians then decided to intern the local population, as the British had done in the Boer War and the Spanish had done in Cuba. Well over half the population of Cyrenaica were confined to 15 concentration camps ringed with barbed wire where tens of thousands died due to overcrowding, hunger and disease. Their animals herds, also taken to the camps, died in even greater numbers. The Italian Fascists emptied the land entirely in a dark foreshadowing of later events. In 1932, this brutality finally paid off. Omar was captured and hung, the resistance collapsed and the Senussi lodges were destroyed by the Italians, with their agricultural land handed over to Italian colonists.

The human cost of this victory was monumental. In terms of just deaths, between 1911 and 1932, the population of Cyrenaica was halved. But more than that the social tribal and kinship structure had been destroyed and the survivors had their land taken from them. To destroy the Senussi, the Italians had destroyed Cyrenaica and their plan was for that mass emigration from Italy to build a new Country in its place. Mussolini envisioned it as a fourth shore of Italy, populated entirely by Italian settlers, with the pre-existing population dead or forced into menial work and Italianised, thanks to an educational programme where Italian took precedence over Arabic. Those settlers could only arrive to a colony at peace, which meant only after the Senussi had been wiped out and the native Libyans had been broken enough not to rise into rebellion again at the confiscation of their land but once that happened they arrived in large numbers. By 1939, they were 100,000 strong, around 12% of the colony and Mussolini hoped for 500,000 of them to be in Libya by the 1960s by which point they'd be around 40% of the colony.

This might even have happened, had Italy fared differently during the 1940s. The small population of Libya combined with the close distance to Italy and the ruthlessness of the Fascist government, meant it was possible for the natives to be overwhelmed. But World War II got in the way.

In 1940, when Italy declared war on France and the UK, Ibris and the other Libyan exiles in Egypt approached the British about an alliance against the Italians. They would end up supplying five infantry battalions made up of volunteers which acted as auxiliaries, guarding military installations and prisoners, during the British conquest of Libya. As a result of this alliance, Idris would then be crowned King of Libya in 1951 and would rule as such until he was overthrown by his army officers, and in particular Muammar Gaddafi, in 1969 due to his increasingly corrupt and unpopular reign. Idris returned once more to exile in Egypt, where he died in 1989. His family still hold significant riches and influence in the business world and Idris' grand nephew, Mohammed El Senussi, is the current head of the Senussi family. During the 2014-2020 Libyan Civil War, which broke out due to the power vacuum that had formed after the overthrow of Gaddafi, Mohammed managed to attract some followers hoping for a royal restoration, including former foreign minister Mohamed Abdelaziz, who felt the presence of the Senussi would protect liberals from rule by strict Islamists. The family has ended up in a very different place than I imagine Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi had expected when he first settled in Libya, to preach Islamic fundamentalism, because the border to Algeria was closed due to fighting.

So what else could have been their fate, beyond the dystopic vision of Libya as Italy's Fourth Shore? The idea of the joint Italian-Senussi administration of the post World War I era lasting inevitably is unlikely, it essentially put huge areas of the country off limits for Italian settlers, defeating the point of Italian rule in Libya. But it is not impossible for other problems elsewhere to just stop Italy from ever having the time to reform it and it becoming the new status quo by default.

If Italy ended up on the losing side of WWI but the Ottomans aren't on the winning side or if the First Balkan War was delayed so that Italy didn't get all of their war goals in the peace with the Ottomans, it is also entirely possible for a Kingdom of Libya to emerge in the 1910s before the damage of Mussolini's pacification, which would save a lot of lives. The Senussi would almost certainly be the natural rulers, but they do have the problem of not existing much in Tripolitania, so you might instead see a Republic form there with the Senussi Kingdom limited only to Cyrenaica or alternatively a civil war if the Senussi refuse to settle for only half the country.

If the Ottomans do end up retaining Libya, whichever way that happens, given their own centralising urges, there also might well be a later clash between them and the Senussi over governance of Libya, especially once oil is found.

And of course if there's no French and Italian invasions, the Senussi would never emerge as a state at all but remain a pacifistic religious order working only alongside friendly states such as Darfur and Wadai. In that case, you'd probably see an extension of the existing decline of the order in the 1880s and it be much less prominent in Libyan history.

And on the flipside to that, had Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi either not left Saudi Arabia or been able to make it to Algeria, it is likely that without the Senussi, both Cyrenaica and Chad get conquered a lot easier by Europeans, with the much weaker resistance in Tripolitania to the Italians being the model. Indeed, without the Senussi, the Wadai are likely to have fallen to Darfur or Rabih before the French even get there.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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