#LionOfTheDesert: أسد الصحراء Remembering Omar Al-Mukhtar RA (20 August 1862 – 16 September 1931)

Remembering Omar Al-Mukhtar (20 August 1862 – 16 September 1931) | Omar Ahmed | MEMO | 16 Sept 2021

An Islamic scholar turned freedom fighter, Omar Al-Mukhtar is best known for leading an armed revolution and guerrilla campaign against Italian colonisers for the last two decades of his life until his capture and subsequent execution 90 years ago. He remains a Libyan national hero and an inspirational symbol of resistance against overwhelming odds.

Mukhtar was born into the Minifa tribe between 1856 and 1862 — the exact year isn’t known for sure — in the village of Zawiyat Janzur near the eastern port city of Tobruk. The Minifa were Arabised Amazighis from the ancient region of Marmarica situated between Libya and Egypt. At the time, this part of Libya became known as Italian Cyrenaica, which along with Italian Tripolitania in the west, was taken from the Ottoman Empire during the 1911 Italo-Turkish War.

Upon being orphaned at a young age, and in accordance with his father’s will, he was adopted by Sharif Al-Ghariani, a renowned scholar and family friend. Mukhtar would go on to receive an education at the local madrassah (Islamic school) where he memorised the Qur’an. He continued his religious education at the University of Jaghbub, which was affiliated with the Sufi Senussi Order, and served the movement’s spiritual headquarters in the remote oasis in the desert of eastern Libyan.

Having studied there for eight years, Mukhtar graduated as an imam and scholar and joined the Senussi brotherhood under the leadership of the Shaikh Muhammad Al-Madhi Al-Senussi (1844-1902). He was the son of the movement’s founder, Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Ali Al-Senussi, and the father of King Idris of Libya (1890-1983). Mukhtar returned to Tobruk to serve the community, but in 1897 was called upon by Al-Mahdi to become the shaikh of the eastern town of Zawiyat Al-Qusour before travelling to Sudan where he was appointed as a deputy to the Senussi leader. It was during this caravan trail that he earned his famous nickname, “Lion of the Desert”.

In 1899, aged 37, he was sent to Chad where he and other Senussi forces joined the local resistance against French colonialists. Then he was recalled and reappointed as head of Zawiyat Al-Qusour by the Senussi order’s new Supreme Leader, Ahmed Al-Sharif, following Al-Mahdi’s death in 1902.

READ: Remembering the death of Muammar Gaddafi

However, when the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, the movement diverted its resistance efforts from Chad to face the new, more immediate threat. By now in his fifties, Mukhtar drew upon his experience of fighting colonial forces and desert warfare to become the unofficial leader of the mujahideen in their struggle to liberate their country. When the Fascists came to power in Italy under the dictator Benito Mussolini in 1922, the Italians carried out what they referred to as a “Reconquista” of ancient Roman colonies in North Africa.

Under the rallying slogan “We will win or die!” Omar launched a daring guerrilla campaign against the Italian forces who were often vulnerable to ambushes and raids in the unfamiliar desert terrain. Crucially, he also enjoyed extensive local support in the form of fighters, food and supplies.

The Italian forces were unable to defeat Mukhtar’s forces tactically, and so instead targeted his support base and supply lines. They used heavy-handed tactics, including barbed wire strung along the Egyptian border, poisoning wells and setting up concentration camps where tens of thousands perished. Mass executions were carried out to try to crush the morale of the resistance fighters.

It all actually emboldened the mujahideen and support for Mukhtar and the cause. However, after years of humiliating setbacks for the occupation forces, the Italians eventually wounded and captured him in an ambush on 11 September 1931.

He was put on trial three days later and sentenced to death by hanging. Aged 73, Mukhtar is said to have reacted to the sentence by reciting the Qur’anic verse, “From God we came and to God we must return”.

On 16 September 1931, the elderly Omar Al-Mukhtar was hanged in front of his supporters in the Suluq concentration camp, south of Benghazi. Symbolically, at least, his execution put an end to the Senussi resistance and “unified” Italian Libya.

Omar Al-Mukhtar’s legacy has had a lasting impact on Libyans ever since that fateful day. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Al-Gaddafi as well as the NATO-backed rebels who overthrew and killed him in 2011 claimed or adopted the “Lion of the Desert” as their own. His image is still used on the 10 dinar Libyan banknote.

In 1981, actor Anthony Quinn played the part of Mukhtar in the 1980 biopic Lion of the Desert directed by Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad. Such was its impact on the Italian psyche that the film was banned for decades in Italy and was only broadcast on TV for the first time there as recently as 2009.

Omar Al-Mukhtar [Wikipedia]


Assad El-Sahra 
أسد الصحراء
“Lion of the Desert”

Shaykh ash-Shuhadā’
شَيخ الشُّهَدَاء, 
Sheikh of the Martyrs

A statement by the man used in the movie captured the tongues and ears of millions of Muslims:
 نحن قوم لا نستسلم ، ننتصر أو نموت’
‘We are people that will not surrender, we win or we die.”


Omar al-Mukhtar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Omar al-Mukhtar
عُمَر الْمُخْتَار
Assad El-Sahra (أسد الصحراء) or “Lion of the Desert”
Ruler of Zawiyat Ayn Kalk
In office
Succeeded byPost abolished
Ruler of Zawiyat Luqsur
In office
Succeeded byPost abolished
Leader of Senussi Tribal Military
In office
24 April 1923 – 16 September 1931[2]
Preceded byIdris Al-Senussi
Succeeded byYusuf Borahil
Personal details
Born20 August 1858
Zawiyat Algsour, Nahiyah Tobruk, Kaza Derna, Sanjak Benghazi, Eyalet-i Trâblus GârbOttoman Empire
Died16 September 1931 (aged 73)
BenghaziItalian Cyrenaica
Resting placeSuluqLibya
ParentsAl-Mukhtar ibn Muhammad (father)
Aisha bint Muharib (mother)
OccupationRuler of Senussi Zawiyas
Known forLeading Arab and native Berber resistance to Italian colonization of Libya
ReligionSunni Islam[3]
Military service
Nickname(s)Shaykh ash-Shuhadā’
شَيخ الشُّهَدَاء, Sheikh of the Martyrs
Allegiance Senussi Order
Branch/service Senussid Military Adwar
Years of service1896–1902 as ruler of Ayn Kalk in Western Sudan (Chad)
1902–1923 as ruler of Zawiyat Laqsur in Cyrenaica
1923–1931 as Commander of all Senussid Military Adwar
Battles/warsItalo-Turkish War
Senussi campaign
Senussid-Italian War

Omar al-Mukhṭār Muḥammad bin Farḥāṭ al-Manifī (Arabic: عُمَر الْمُخْتَار مُحَمَّد بِن فَرْحَات الْمَنِفِي ‎; 20 August 1862 – 16 September 1931), called The Lion of the Desert, known among the colonial Italians as Matari of the Mnifa,[4] was the leader of native resistance in Cyrenaica (currently Eastern Libya) under the Senussids, against the Italian colonization of Libya. A teacher-turned-general, Omar was also a prominent figure of the Senussi movement, and he is considered the national hero of Libya and a symbol of resistance in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Beginning in 1911, he organised and, for nearly twenty years, led the Libyan resistance movement against the Italian colonial empire during the Pacification of Libya. After many attempts, the Italian Armed Forces managed to capture Al-Mukhtar near Solonta and hanged him in 1931.


Early life

Senussi dynasty
السنوسية (in Arabic)
 Kingdom of Libya
FounderMuhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi
Current headMohammed El Senussi;
Idris bin Abdullah al-Senussi (rival claimant)
Final rulerIdris of Libya
TitlesEmir of CyrenaicaEmir of TripolitaniaKing of Libya
Deposition1969: Overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi‘s 1 September Coup d’état

‘Omar Al-Mukhtar was born in 1858 to a family in the town of Zanzur near Tobruk, in the region of Ottoman Cyrenaica, belonging to the Senussi (who were seen as Libyan AshrafsArab clan just like Emir or King Idris es Senussi,[5][6] eventually becoming chief or leader of the clan. As a child, Omar lost his father early on and spent his youth in poverty. He was adopted by a sheikh, and was friends with the nephew of Hussein Ghariani, Sharif al Geriani. His uncle was a political-religious leader in Cyrenaica, and received his early education at the local mosque, before continuing his studying for eight years at the Senussi university in Jaghbub,[7] the holy city of the Senussi Tariqa. He became a popular expert on the Quran and an imam, joining the confraternity of the Senussi. He also came to be well informed of the social structure of his society, as he was chosen to settle intertribal disputes.

Mukhtar developed a strong relationship with the Senussid Movement during his years in Jaghbub and in 1895, Al-Mahdi Senoussi traveled with him south to Kufra, and on another occasion further south to Karo in Chad, where he was appointed as sheikh of Zawiyat Ayn Kalk. When the French Empire encroached on Chad in 1899, he was sent among other Senussites to help defend Chad from the French, as the Senussi considered their expansion dangerous due to their missionary activities in Central and West Africa. In 1902, Omar was recalled north after the death of Al-Mahdi, the new Senussi leader Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi appointed him as Sheikh of the troubled Zawiyat Laqsur in Northern Cyrenaica.

Italian invasion

Main articles: Italo-Turkish War and Italian LibyaThe Italian invasion.

In October 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) under the command of Admiral Luigi Faravelli reached the shores of Libya, then a territory subject to Ottoman control. The admiral demanded that the Ottoman administration and garrison surrender their territory to the Italians or incur the immediate destruction of the city of Tripoli and Benghazi. The Ottomans and their Libyan allies withdrew to the countryside instead of surrendering, and the Italians bombarded the cities for three days, and then proclaimed the Tripolitanians to be ‘committed and strongly bound to Italy’.[8] This marked the beginning of a series of battles between the Italian colonial forces and the Libyan armed opposition in Cyrenaica.[9]

Guerrilla warfare

Main articles: Libyan resistance movement and Second Italo-Senussi WarOmar Mukhtar photographed with Libyan Senussi fighters.

A teacher of the Qur’an by profession, Mukhtar was also skilled in the strategies and tactics of desert warfare. He knew local geography well and used that knowledge to advantage in battles against the Italians, who were unaccustomed to desert warfare. Mukhtar repeatedly led his small, highly alert groups in successful attacks against the Italians, after which they would fade back into the desert terrain. Mukhtar’s men skilfully attacked outposts, ambushed troops, and cut lines of supply and communication. The Regio Esercito (Italian Royal Army) was left astonished and embarrassed by his guerrilla tactics.[10]

In the mountainous region of Jebel Akhdar (“Green Mountain”) in 1924, Italian governor Ernesto Bombelli created a counter-guerrilla force that inflicted a severe setback to guerilla forces in April 1925. Mukhtar then quickly modified his own tactics and was able to count on continued help from Egypt. In March 1927, despite the occupation of Giarabub from February 1926 and increasingly stringent rule under Governor Attilio Teruzzi, Mukhtar surprised Italian troops at Raheiba. Between 1927 and 1928, Mukhtar reorganised the Senusite forces, who were being hunted constantly by the Italians. Even General Teruzzi recognized Omar’s qualities of “exceptional perseverance and strong willpower.”[This quote needs a citation] Marshal Pietro Badoglio, Governor of Libya from January 1929, after extensive negotiations, concluded a compromise with Mukhtar (described by the Italians as his complete submission) similar to previous Italo-Senusite accords. At the end of October 1929, Mukhtar denounced the compromise and re-established a unity of action among Libyan forces, preparing himself for the ultimate confrontation with General Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian military commander from March 1930. A massive offensive in June against Mukhtar’s forces having failed, Graziani, in full accord with Badoglio, Emilio De Bono (Minister of the Colonies), and Benito Mussolini, initiated a plan to break the Libyan Mujāhideen:100,000 population of Jebel Akhdar would be relocated to concentration camps on the coast, and the Libyan-Egyptian border from the coast at Giarabub would be fence-closed, preventing any foreign help to the fighters and depriving them of support from the native population. These measures, which Graziani initiated early in 1931, took their toll on the Senusite resistance. The rebels were deprived of help and reinforcements, spied upon, hit by Italian aircraft, and pursued on the ground by the Italian forces aided by local informers and collaborators. Mukhtar continued to struggle despite increased hardships and risks, but on 11 September 1931, he was ambushed near Slonta.[citation needed]

Mukhtar’s final adversary, Italian General Rodolfo Graziani, has given a description of the Senusite leader that is not lacking in respect: “Of medium height, stout, with white hair, beard, and mustache. 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.”[11]

Capture and execution

Omar Mukhtar entering the court room.

Mukhtar’s struggle of nearly twenty years came to an end on 11 September 1931, when he was wounded in battle near Slonta, and then captured by the Italian Army. On 16 September 1931, on the orders of the Italian court and with Italian hopes that Libyan resistance would die with him, Mukhtar was hanged before his followers in the Suluq prisoner of war camp at the age of 73 years old.


Bust of Omar Mukhtar in CaracasVenezuela.

  • Omar Al-Mukhtar University was founded in 1961.
  • Since 1971, Mukhtar’s face has appeared on the Libyan ten-dinar note.
  • His final years were depicted in the movie Lion of the Desert (1981), starring Anthony QuinnOliver Reed, and Irene Papas. It was based on the struggles of Mukhtar against Rodolfo Graziani‘s forces.
  • A statement by the man used in the movie captured the tongues and ears of millions of Muslims, نحن قوم لا نستسلم ، ننتصر أو نموت. ..”We are people that will not surrender, we win or we die.”
  • In 2009, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi wore a photograph of Mukhtar in Italian captivity on his chest while on a state visit to Rome, and brought along Mukhtar’s elderly son during the visit.
  • With the Libyan Civil War beginning 17 February 2011, Omar Mukhtar again became a symbol for a united, free Libya and his picture was depicted on various flags and posters of the anti-Gaddafist forces. Rebel militias named one of their brigades the “Omar Mukhtar brigade” after him.[12]
  • masjid is named after Mukhtar in Tampa, Florida, USA, known as Masjid Omar Al Mokhtar.
  • Streets are named after Mukhtar in:
    • Kuwait City, Kuwait (Omar Al-Mukhtar street)
    • Gaza City (Omar Mukhtar Street)
    • Cairo, Egypt (Omar Al Mukhtar Street)
    • West Bay area of Doha, Qatar (Omar Al Mukhtar Street)
    • Bizerte, Tunisia
    • Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Omar Al Mukhtar Road)
    • Irbid, Jordan
    • Tangier, Morocco (Avenue Omar Mokhtar)


  • Photo of Omar Mukhtar sitting
  • Omar Mukhtar on 10 Dinar note (2004)
  • Omar Mukhtar while in custody.
  • Close up of Omar Mukhtar
  • Omar Mukhtar in custody
  • Omar Mukhtar arrested by Italian officials

See also


  1. ^ al-Sanusiya pg.271
  2. ^ Federica Saini Fasanotti , p. 296
  3. ^ as Salab, Ali Muhammad (2011). Omar Al Mokhtar Lion of the Desert (The Biography of Shaikh Omar Al Mukhtar). Al-Firdous. p. 1. ISBN 978-1874263647.
  4. ^ Mnifa is “a generic name for many groups of ‘Clients of the Fee’ (Marabtin al-sadqan).”A Libyan Arabized Berber tribe. These are client tribes having no sacred associations and are known as Marabtin al-sadqanbecause they pay sadaqa, a fee paid to a free tribe for protection. Peters, Emrys L. (1998) “Divine goodness: the concept of Baraka as used by the Bedouin of Cyrenaica”, page 104, In Shah, A. M.; Baviskar, Baburao Shravan and Ramaswamy, E. A. (editors) (1998) Social Structure and Change: Religion and Kinship (Volume 5 of Social Structure and Change) Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California, ISBN 0-7619-9255-3; Sage Publications, New Delhi, India, ISBN 81-7036-713-1
  5. ^ New Times. Newspaper “Trud, “. 1948. A major role is assigned to the Arab, Emir Idris es Senussi, who aspires to become ruler of the fairly large Senussi tribe in Cyrenaica.
  6. ^ Britain), Royal United Service Institution (Great (1932). JournalSenussi chief , Omar el Mukhtar
  7. ^ Rodolfo Graziani, “Cirenaica Pacificata” pg.269 (Benamer translation)
  8. ^ Bruce Vandervort, p. 261
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of World Biography on Omar al-Mukhtar, BookRags.com
  10. ^ Libya profile – TimelineBBC News Africa, 1 November 2011
  11. ^ Rodolfo Graziani, “Cirenaica Pacificata” pg.265
  12. ^ [1]

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Omar Mukhtar
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Omar Mukhtar 
The Italian invasion.
Omar Mukhtar photographed with Libyan Senussi fighters.
Omar Mukhtar entering the court room.
Bust of Omar Mukhtar in CaracasVenezuela.

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