Pacification of Libya

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Pacification of Libya
Part of Interwar Period
Omar Mokhtar arrested by Italian Officials.jpg
Senussi rebel leader Omar Mukhtar (the man in robes with a chain on his left arm) after his arrest by Italian armed forces in 1931. Mukhtar was executed in a public hanging shortly afterward.

Italian victory

  • Defeat of the Cyrenaican and Tripolitanian rebels
  • Stabilization of Italian rule in Libya
  • Ethnic cleansing of the Cyrenaican indigenous population.[1]
  • Mass deaths of Cyrenaican indigenous civilians.[2]
  • Execution of Senussi Cyrenaican rebel leader Omar Mukhtar.
 Italy Senussi Order
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Rodolfo Graziani
Kingdom of Italy Pietro Badoglio
Omar Mukhtar Executed
Casualties and losses
Over 80,000 Cyrenaicans killed[3]

The Pacification of Libya or Second Italo-Senussi War,[4] was a prolonged conflict in Italian Libya between Italian military forces made mainly by colonial troops (the vast majority of the force employed by the Italians to crush local resistance in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was composed of Libyans, Eritreans and Ethiopians) and indigenous rebels associated with the Senussi Order that lasted from 1923 until 1932,[5][6] when the principal Senussi leader, Omar Mukhtar, was captured and executed.[7]

Events leading to World War II
Treaty of Versailles1919
Treaty of Trianon1920
Treaty of Rapallo1920
March on Rome1922
Corfu incident1923
Occupation of the Ruhr 1923–1925
Mein Kampf1925
Pacification of Libya 1923–1932
Dawes Plan 1924
Locarno Treaties 1925
Chinese Civil War 1927–1936
Young Plan 1929
Great Depression 1929–1941
Japanese invasion of Manchuria1931
Nazis rise to power in Germany1933
Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual AssistanceMay 1935
Soviet–Czechoslovakia Treaty of Mutual AssistanceMay 1935
Second Italo-Ethiopian War1935–36
Remilitarization of the Rhineland1936
Spanish Civil War1936–39
Anti-Comintern Pact1936
Second Sino-Japanese War1937
AnschlussMar. 1938
Undeclared German-Czechoslovak WarSep. 1938
Munich crisis Sep. 1938
German occupation of CzechoslovakiaMar. 1939
German ultimatum to LithuaniaMar. 1939
Slovak–Hungarian WarMar. 1939
British guarantee to PolandMar. 1939
Invasion of AlbaniaApr. 1939
German ultimatum to RomaniaApr. 1939
Soviet–British–French Moscow negotiationsApr.–Aug. 1939
Pact of SteelMay 1939
Danzig CrisisMay 1939
Molotov–Ribbentrop PactAug. 1939
Invasion of PolandSep. 1939

The pacification resulted in mass deaths of the indigenous people in Cyrenaica. One quarter of Cyrenaica's population of 225,000 people died during the conflict.[3] Italy committed major war crimes during the conflict, including the use of chemical weapons, episodes of refusing to take prisoners of war instead executing surrendering combatants, and mass executions of civilians.[2] Italian authorities committed a possible ethnic cleansing by forcibly expelling 100,000 Bedouin Cyrenaicans, half the population of Cyrenaica, from their settlements that were slated to be given to Italian settlers.[1][8]

In 2008, an agreement of compensation for damages caused by Italian colonial rule was signed between Italy and Libya. Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan ruler at the time, attended the signing ceremony of the document wearing a historical photograph on his uniform that shows Cyrenaican rebel leader Omar Mukhtar in chains after being captured by Italian authorities during the Pacification. At the signing ceremony of the document, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared: "In this historic document, Italy apologizes for its killing, destruction and repression of the Libyan people during the period of colonial rule." He went on to say that this was a "complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era."[9]


Italy had seized military control over Libya from the Ottoman Empire during the Italo-Turkish War in 1912, but the new colony swiftly revolted and transferred large areas of land to Libyan local rule.[10] Conflict between Italy and the Senussis – a Muslim political-religious tariqa based in Libya – erupted into major violence during World War I when the Senussis in Libya collaborated with the Ottomans against Italian troops. The Libyan Senussis also escalated the conflict with attacks on British forces in Egypt.[11] Warfare between the British and the Senussis continued until 1917.[12]

In 1917 an exhausted Italy signed the Treaty of Acroma that acknowledged the effective independence of Libya from Italian control.[13] In 1918, Tripolitanian rebels founded the Tripolitanian Republic, though the rest of the country remained under nominal Italian rule.[13] Local agitation against Italy continued, such that by 1920 the Italian government was forced to recognise Senussi leader Sayid Idris as Emir of Cyrenaica and grant him autonomy.[13] In 1922 Tripolitanian leaders offered Idris the position of Emir of Tripolitania.[13] However before Idris was able to accept the position, the new Italian government of Benito Mussolini initiated a campaign of reconquest.[13][14]

Since 1911 claims of massacres of Italian soldiers and Italian civilians by the Turkish and by local Moslem troops were made, such as a massacre in Sciara Sciat:[15]

I saw (in Sciara Sciat) in one mosque seventeen Italian crucifixed with their bodies reduced to the status of bloody rags and bones, but whose faces still retain traces of hellish agony. It has passed through the neck of these wretched a long barrel and arms resting on this rod. They were then nailed to the wall and died for a slow fire between untold suffering. It is impossible for us to paint the picture of these hideous rotted meat hanging pitifully on the bloody wall. In a corner another body is crucified, but as an officer he was to have refined his sufferings. The eyes are stitched. All the bodies were mutilated and castrated; so indescribable was the scene and the bodies appeared swollen as shapeless carrion. But that's not all! In the cemetery of Chui which served as a refuge from the Turks and whence pulled from afar we could see another show. Under the same door in front of the Italian trenches five soldiers had been buried up to their shoulders, their heads emerged from the black sand stained of their blood: heads horrible to see, and there you could read all the tortures of hunger and thirst (Gaston Leroud and the correspondent of Matin-Journal[16])

The consequences of these massacres were the retaliation and revenge of fascism. Indeed the rise to power of Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy and his National Fascist Party resulted in a change in foreign policy of Italy (due to the importance that Fascists gave to Libya as part of the Italian Empire) that resulted in the Pacification of Libya.[14]

From 1923 to 1924, Italian military forces regained all territory north of the Ghadames-Mizda-Beni Ulid region, with four fifths of the estimated population of Tripolitania and Fezzan within the Italian area; and Italian forces had regained the northern lowlands of Cyrenaica in during these two years.[14] However attempts by Italian forces to occupy the forest hills of Jebel Akhtar were met with popular guerrilla resistance. This resistance was led by Senussi sheikh Omar Mukhtar.[14]

The Pacification[edit]

The Pacification began with Italian forces rapidly occupying the Sirte desert separating Tripolitania from Cyrenaica, using aircraft, motor transport, and good logistical organization that allowed the Italians to occupy 150,000 square kilometres of territory in five months.[17] By doing this, the Italians cut off the physical connection formerly held by the rebels between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.[17] By late 1928, the Italians took control of Ghibla and its tribes were disarmed.[17]

Attempted negotiations between Italy and Omar Mukhtar broke down and Italy then planned for the complete conquest of Libya.[18] In 1930, Italian forces conquered Fezzan and raised the Italian flag in Tummo, the southernmost region of Fezzan.[17]

12,000 Cyrenaicans were executed in 1931 and all the nomadic peoples of northern Cyrenaica were forcefully removed from the region and relocated to huge concentration camps in the Cyrenaican lowlands.[18] Italian military authorities carried out the forced migration and deportation of the entire population of Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica, resulting in 100,000 Bedouins, half the population of Cyrenaica, being expelled from their settlements.[8] These 100,000 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were forced by Italian authorities to march across the desert to a series of barbed-wire concentration camp compounds erected near Benghazi, while stragglers who could not keep up with the march were summarily shot by Italian authorities.[19] Propaganda by the Fascist regime declared the camps to be oases of modern civilization that were hygienic and efficiently run - however in reality the camps had poor sanitary conditions as the camps had an average of about 20,000 Beduoins together with their camels and other animals, crowded into an area of one square kilometre.[19] The camps held only rudimentary medical services, with the camps of Soluch and Sisi Ahmed el Magrun with 33,000 internees each having only one doctor between them.[19] Typhus and other diseases spread rapidly in the camps as the people were physically weakened by meagre food rations provided to them and forced labour.[19] By the time the camps closed in September 1933, 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees had died in the camps.[19]

The Fiat 3000 light tank used by Italian forces during the campaign.[20]

To close rebel supply routes from Egypt, the Italians constructed a 300-kilometre barbed wire fence on the border with Egypt that was patrolled by armoured cars and aircraft.[18] The Italians persecuted the Senussi Order; zawias and mosques were closed, Senussi practices were forbidden, Senussi estates were confiscated, and preparations were made for Italian conquest of the Kufra Oasis, the last stronghold of the Senussi in Libya.[18] In 1931, Italian forces seized Kufra where Senussi refugees were bombed and strafed by Italian aircraft as they fled into the desert.[18] Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, followed by a court martial and his public execution by hanging at Suluq.[18]

Mukhtar's death effectively ended the resistance, and in January 1932, Badoglio proclaimed the end of the Pacification of Libya.[21]

Takeover of Kufra[edit]

The Frankfurter Zeitung reporter and author Muhammad Asad interviewed a man from Kufra after its seizure by the Italians in his book The Road to Mecca.

"How did Kufra fall?"

With a weary gesture, Sidi Umar motioned to one of his men to come closer: "Let this man tell thee the story...He is one of the few who have escaped from Kufra. He came to me only yesterday." The man from Kufra sat down on his haunches before me and pulled his ragged burnus around him. He spoke slowly, without any tremor of emotion in his voice; but his gaunt face seemed to mirror all the horrors he had witnessed.

"They came upon us in three columns, from three sides, with many armoured cars and heavy cannon. Their aeroplanes came down low and bombed houses and mosques and palm groves. We had only a few hundred men able to carry arms; the rest were women and children and old men. We defended house after house, but they were too strong for us, and in the end only the village of Al-Hawari was left to us. Our rifles were useless against their armoured cars; and they overwhelmed us. Only a few of us escaped. I hid myself in the palm orchards waiting for a chance to make my way through the Italian lines; and all through the night I could hear the screams of the women as they were being raped by the Italian soldiers and Eritrean askaris. On the following day an old woman came to my hiding place and brought me water and bread. She told me that the Italian general had assembled all the surviving people before the tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi; and before their eyes he tore a copy of the Koran into pieces, threw it to the ground and set his boot upon it, shouting, "Let your beduin prophet help you now, if he can!" And then he ordered the palm trees of the oasis to be cut down and the wells destroyed and all the books of Sayyid Ahmad's library burned. And on the next day he commanded that some of our elders and ulama [scholars] be taken up in an aeroplane - and they were hurled out of the plane high above the ground to be smashed to death...And all through the second night I heard from my hiding place the cries of our women and the laughter of the soldiers, and their rifle shots...At last I crept out into the desert in the dark of night and found a stray camel and rode away..."

— Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca

But historian Tripodi pinpointed that no Italian plane -when Kufra was conquered- was able to transport passengers, because these airplanes were the first made in Italian aviation and only a pilot with a copilot could use it: this simple fact showed -in his opinion- that the Muhammad Asad interview was a fake propaganda issue, because no "ulama" could be hurled out of the planes.

War crimes[edit]

Both the Senussi and the Italian armed forces were accused of committing numerous war crimes.

The Senussi were accused by Italian sources of refusing to take prisoners from the Italian armed forces and torture including mutilation of Italian soldiers before death.[22]

Specific war crimes to have been committed by the Italian armed forces against civilians -according to Libyan authorities like Gheddafi- include deliberate bombing of civilians, killing unarmed children, women, and the elderly, rape and disembowelment of women, throwing prisoners out of aircraft to their death and running over others with tanks, regular daily executions of civilians in some areas, and bombing tribal villages with mustard gas bombs beginning in 1930.[23]

At the time, Italian Fascist official Giovanni Gentile declared that only a few thousands died, mainly of disease (even related to the "Spanish flu epidemy" and consequences) and starvation[24] Gentile pinpointed that the Spanish flu lasted until the early 1920s and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million persons in the world, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.[25]

Film Portrayals[edit]

The 1981 film Lion of the Desert by Moustapha Akkad is about this conflict.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cardoza, Anthony L. (2006). Benito Mussolini: the first fascist. Pearson Longman. p. 109.
  2. ^ a b Duggan, Christopher (2007). The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p. 497.
  3. ^ a b Mann, Michael (2006). The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge University Press. p. 309. ISBN 9780521538541.
  4. ^ Cooper, Tom; Grandolini, Albert (19 January 2015). Libyan Air Wars: Part 1: 1973-1985. Helion and Company. p. 5. ISBN 9781910777510.
  5. ^ Nina Consuelo Epton, Oasis Kingdom: The Libyan Story (New York: Roy Publishers, 1953), p. 126.
  6. ^ Stewart, C. C. (1986). "Islam". The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 7: c. 1905 – c. 1940 (PDF). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 196. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 August 2017.
  7. ^ Detailed description of some fights (in Italian)
  8. ^ a b Bloxham, Donald; Moses, A. Dirk (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 358.
  9. ^ Oxford Business Group (2008). The Report: Libya 2008. p. 17.
  10. ^ Wright, John (1983). Libya: A Modern History. Kent, England: Croom Helm. p. 30.
  11. ^ Ian F. W. Beckett. The Great War: 1914-1918. Routledge, 2013. P188.
  12. ^ Adrian Gilbert. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Routledge, 2000. P221.
  13. ^ a b c d e Melvin E. Page. Colonialism. Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. P749.
  14. ^ a b c d Wright 1983, p. 33
  15. ^ Italo-turkish war: Sciara Sciat and the massacre of Italians
  16. ^ Gaston Leroud , Matin Journal edition August 23, 1917
  17. ^ a b c d Wright 1983, p. 34
  18. ^ a b c d e f Wright 1983, p. 35
  19. ^ a b c d e Duggan 2007, p. 496
  20. ^ David Miller, Chris Foss. Great Book of Tanks: The World's Most Important Tanks from World War I to the Present Day. Zenith Imprint, 2003. p. 83.
  21. ^ Wright 1983, pp. 35–36
  22. ^ Rodolfo Graziani. "Ho servito la Patria" p. 18-39
  23. ^ Geoff Simons, Tam Dalyell (British Member of Parliament, forward introduction). Libya: the struggle for survival. St. Martin's Press, 1996. 1996 Pp. 129.
  24. ^ Giovanni Gentile.Idee fondamentali (in "La Dottrina del Fascismo"). Ed. Enrico Hoepli. Milano, 1942.
  25. ^ Johnson, Niall P.; Mueller, J. (2002). "Updating the accounts: global mortality of the 1918–1920 "Spanish" influenza pandemic". Bull Hist Med 76 (1): 105–115