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Pacification of Libya

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Pacification of Libya

Pacification of Libya

Cyrenaican 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.
Date 1928 – 1932
Location Libya
Result Italian military victory and stabilization of Italian rule in Libya. Defeat of the Senussi rebels[1] Mass deaths of Cyrenaican indigenous civilians.[2] Execution of Senussi rebel leader Omar Mukhtar.
Italy Senussi Order
Commanders and leaders
Rodolfo Graziani
Pietro Badoglio
Omar Mukhtar 
Casualties and losses
Over 80,000 Cyrenaicans died[3]

The Pacification of Libya is the name given to a period of conflict within the colony of Italian Libya between Italian military forces and indigenous rebels associated with the Senussi Order that began in 1928 with an escalation of Italian military actions against Senussi forces and ended in 1932 following the destruction of the revolt and the capture and execution of the principal Senussi rebel leader Omar Mukhtar.

The Pacification marks a tense and controversial period in the history of Italo-Libyan relations. The Italian military forces' methods of suppressing the Senussi rebellion have been criticized, including its use of concentration camps. The Senussis were accused by Italian sources at the time of committing war crimes since the late 1910s, including torture and mutilation of captured Italian soldiers resulting in death, and refusal to take POWs.


After Italy had conquered Libya from the Ottoman Empire in 1911-1912, the new colony shortly broke out into revolt, with Italian authorities losing control over large regions of the colony.[4]

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:[5]

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[6])

In 1917, Italy had lost most of the initial conquests and was reduced only to the area of Tripoli and Homs.[7] It was forced to sign a temporary treaty that acknowledged effective virtual independence of Libya from direct Italian control.[8] In 1918, Tripolitanian rebels founded the Tripolitanian Republic.[8]

Italy had been in near-constant conflict with the Senussis since Italy seized control of Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Conflict between Italy and the Senussis erupted into major violence during World War I when the Senussis in Libya collaborated with the Ottoman Empire against Italy and rading into Egypt to attack British forces, to assist Turkish forces attacking the British from the Levant.[9] Warfare between the British versus the Senussis continued until 1917 when the Senussis made peace with the British.[10]

In 1920, the Italian government attempted to reach a settlement with the Senussi in Cyrenaica and recognized Senussi leader Sayid Idris as Emir of Cyrenaica and granted Cyrenaica autonomy under Italian rule.[8] In 1922 Tripolitanian leaders offered Idris the position of Emir of Tripolitania.[8] However prior to Idris being able to accept the position, the Italian government decided to initiate a campaign of reconquest of Libya.[8]

The rise to power of Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy and his National Fascist Party resulted in a change in foreign policy that resulted in the Pacification of Libya.[11]

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.[11] However attempts by Italian forces to occupy the forest hills of Jebel Akhtar were met with popular guerilla resistance. This resistance was led by Senussi sheikh Omar Mukhtar.[11]

The Pacification

The Pacification began in 1928 with Italian forces rapidly occupied the [12] By doing this, the Italians cut off the physical connection formerly held by the rebels between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.[12] By late 1928, the Italians took control of Ghibla and its tribes were disarmed.[12]

Attempted negotiations between Italy and Omar Mukhtar broke down during the summer of 1929 and Italy then planned for the complete conquest of Libya from the rebels.[13] In 1930, Italian forces -under the command of Rodolfo Graziani, conquered Fezzan and rose the Italian flag in Tummo, the southernmost region of Fezzan.[12]

According to Graziani, the Senussi rebels used to attack with a guerrilla war the Italians but never took prisoners; and in many cases the bodies of the Italian soldiers were found mutilated and tortured before death: he ordered retaliation against the rebels.[14] As a response to the Senussi rebellion Italian authorities retaliated by seeking to close all Senussi institutions and cease all activities undertaken by the Senussi Order: zawias were closed; mosques associated with the Senussi were closed and 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.[13] From 1930 to 1931, 12,000 Cyrenaicans accused of taking part in the rebellion were executed; and in nothern Cyrenaica, the location of much of the fighting between Italian and rebel forces, all the nomadic civilians were forcibly removed from areas near the fighting by Italian forces and relocated to large concentration camps in the Cyrenaican lowlands.[13] In June 1930, Italian military authorities carried out the forced evacuation and migration of the entire civilian population of Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica, resulting in 100,000 Bedouins, half the population of Cyrenaica, being removed from their settlements.[15] Italian authorities ordered the relocation of 100,000 civilians who were mostly women, children, and the elderly, that required them to march across desert territories to a series of barbed-wire concentration camp compounds erected near Benghazi, anyone unable to keep pace with the march were summarily shot by Italian authorities.[16] 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.[16] 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.[16] 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.[16] By the time the camps closed in September 1933, 40,000 of the 100,000 total internees had died in the camps.[16]

The Fiat 3000 light tank used by Italian forces during the campaign.[17]

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.[13] In January 1931, Italian forces seized Kufra where Senussi refugees were bombed and strafed by Italian aircraft as they fled into the desert.[13]

Mukhtar was captured by a Libyan Savari of the Italian colonial troops [18] in 1931: his capture was soon followed by a court martial and his public execution by hanging at Suluq.[13]

Mukhtar's death effectively ended the resistance, and in January 1932, Badoglio proclaimed the end of the Pacification of Libya.[19]

After Pacification

After Al-Mukhtar's capture September 15, 1931 and his execution in Benghazi, the resistance petered out. Limited resistance to the Italian occupation crystallized around the person of Sheik Idris, the former Emir of Cyrenaica, who took refuge in British Egypt.

By 1934, Libya was fully pacified and the new Italian governor Italo Balbo started a policy of integration between the Libyans and the Italians, that proved fully successful. In summer of this year he created the new political entity called Italian Libya.[20]

In March 1937 Mussolini made a state visit to Libya, where he opened a new military highway running the entire length of the colony (the Via Balbia). For propaganda reasons he had himself declared Protector of Islam and was presented with a symbolic sword. Mussolini's publicized encouragement of the Arab nationalist movement suited his wider policies of confronting Britain and France. He also sought to fully colonise Libya, introducing 30,000 Italian colonists which brought their numbers to more than 100,000. These colonists were shipped primarily to Sahel al-Jefara in Tripolitania and the Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica, and given land from which the indigenous inhabitants had been partially removed during the colonial war in the late 1920s.

In 1939, laws were passed that allowed Muslims to be permitted to join the National Fascist Party and in particular the Muslim Association of the Lictor (Associazione Musulmana del Littorio), and the 1939 reforms allowed the creation of Libyan military units within the Italian army.[21] These laws helped legally integrate the native Libyans within the Kingdom of Italy as citizens called "Italian moslems Arabs", who so were with full rights in the legal Italian system. This "Cittadinanza Italiana Speciale" (Italian Special citizenship) -as were called the laws- was done even as a Mussolini's thanks for the military support received by 9000 native Libyans in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936.[22] Historians, like Donati Sabina, pinpointed that these Italian laws were in full contrast with the colonial policies done by the French and British authorities in their African empires, where the colonial populations were separated and segregated from the white colonists.

As a consequence during the Second World War, there was strong support for Italy between many Libyans, who even enrolled in the Italian Army (other Libyan colonial troops were fighting for the Kingdom of Italy since the 1920s: the cavalry regiments of the Savari and the mounted police called Spahi).

Indeed two divisions of Libyan colonial troops (with 30000 native Muslim soldiers) were created (and in summer 1940 the first and second Divisions of Fanteria Libica -Libyan infantry - participated in the Italian offensive against British army in Egypt [23]): 1 Libyan Division Sibelle and 2 Libyan Division Pescatori. In 1938 was even created the Ascari del Cielo Paratroops (the first battalion of paratroopers in the Italian Army) that was made exclusively of native Libyan volunteers.

War crimes

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

The Italian armed forces were accused of committing numerous war crimes against civilians 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.[24] Italian authorities at the time have been accused of committing ethnic cleansing through forcibly expelling 100,000 Bedouin Cyrenaicans, half the population of Cyrenaica, from their settlements to be given to Italian settlers.[1][15] The Italian authorities denied these accusations.

The Senussi rebels were accused of refusing to take prisoners from the Italian armed forces and torture including mutilation of Italian soldiers before death.[25]

Indeed since the late 1930s fascist historian Giovanni Gentile claimed that this amount was excessive, and only a few thousands died, mainly of disease (even related to the "Spanish flu epidemy" and consequences) and starvation.

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." and went on to say that this was a "complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era".[26]

The above declarations about apologies received harsh critics from the "Associazione Rifugiati Italiani dalla Libia" and from some Italian historians [27]


  1. ^ a b Cardoza, Anthony L. (2006). Benito Mussolini: the first fascist. Pearson Longman. p. 109. 
  2. ^ Duggan, Christopher (2007). The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p. 497. 
  3. ^ Mann, Michael (2006). The dark side of democracy: explaining ethnic cleansing (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 309. 
  4. ^ Wright, John (1983). Libya: A Modern History. Kent, England: Croom Helm. p. 30. 
  5. ^ Italo-turkish war: Sciara sciat and the massacre of Italians
  6. ^ Gaston Leroud , Matin Journal edition August 23, 1917
  7. ^ Rosselli: Guerra in Libia tra il 1911 ed il 1918
  8. ^ a b c d e Melvin E. Page. Colonialism. Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. P749.
  9. ^ Ian F. W. Beckett. The Great War: 1914-1918. Routledge, 2013. P188.
  10. ^ Adrian Gilbert. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Routledge, 2000. P221.
  11. ^ a b c Wright 1983, p. 33
  12. ^ a b c d Wright 1983, p. 34
  13. ^ a b c d e f Wright 1983, p. 35
  14. ^ Rodolfo Graziani. "Libia redenta. Storia di trent'anni di passione italiana in Africa", p. 18-39
  15. ^ a b Bloxham, Donald; Moses, A. Dirk (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 358. 
  16. ^ a b c d e Duggan 2007, p. 496
  17. ^ 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. Pp. 83.
  18. ^ Quirico, Domenico. "Lo squadrone bianco", p.313 : "Omar Al Mukhtar was captured by a group of Libyan Savari....He fell from his horse and a Libyan savari was going to shot him....but he screamed 'I am Omar el Mukhtar' and so was recognized and captured" (A catturare Omar al-Mukhtar fu uno squadrone di altri libici che servivano nei nostri reparti a cavallo... Fu pura fortuna, perché il destriero di quel vecchio guerriero nella fuga inciampò facendo cadere a terra il suo padrone. L'uomo aveva un fucile a tracolla a sei cartucce, ma essendo ferito a un braccio non riusciva a puntare la sua arma. Il libico che vestiva la nostra divisa puntò il fucile e stava per sparare, non c'era pietà in quella guerra fratricida. Si fermò quando l'uomo lanciò un grido: "Sono Omar el Muchtàr).
  19. ^ Wright 1983, pp. 35–36
  20. ^ Helen Chapin Metz wrote in her book Libya: A Country Study: Once pacification had been accomplished, fascist Italy endeavoured to convert Libya into an Italian province to be referred to popularly as Italy's Fourth Shore. In 1934 Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were divided into four provinces—Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, and Darnah—which were formally linked as a single colony known as Libya, thus officially resurrecting the name that Diocletian had applied nearly 1,500 years earlier. Fezzan, designated as South Tripolitania, remained a military territory. A governor general, called the first consul after 1937, was in overall direction of the colony, assisted by the General Consultative Council, on which Arabs were represented. Traditional tribal councils, formerly sanctioned by the Italian administration, were abolished, and all local officials were thereafter appointed by the governor general. Administrative posts at all levels were held by Italians.An accord with Britain and Egypt obtained the transfer of a corner of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, known as the Sarra Triangle, to Italian control in 1934. The next year, a French-Italian agreement was negotiated that relocated the 1,000-kilometer border between Libya and Chad southward about 100 kilometers across the Aouzou Strip, but this territorial concession to Italy was never ratified by the French legislature. In 1939 Libya was incorporated into metropolitan Italy.During the 1930s, impressive strides were made in improving the country's economic and transportation infrastructure. Italy invested capital and technology in public works projects, extension and modernization of cities, highway and railroad construction, expanded port facilities, and irrigation, but these measures were introduced to benefit the Italian-controlled modern sector of the economy. Italian development policy after World War I had called for capital-intensive "economic colonization" intended to promote the maximum exploitation of the resources available. One of the initial Italian objectives in Libya, however, had been the relief of overpopulation and unemployment in Italy through emigration to the undeveloped colony. With security established, systematic "demographic colonization" was encouraged by Mussolini's government. A project initiated by Libya's governor, Italo Balbo, brought the first 20,000 settlers--the ventimilli--to Libya in a single convoy in October 1938. More settlers followed in 1939, and by 1940 there were approximately 110,000 Italians in Libya, constituting about 12 percent of the total population. Plans envisioned an Italian colony of 500,000 settlers by the 1960s. Libya's best land was allocated to the settlers to be brought under productive cultivation, primarily in olive groves. Settlement was directed by a state corporation, the Libyan Colonization Society, which undertook land reclamation and the building of model villages and offered a grubstake and credit facilities to the settlers it had sponsored.The Italians made modern medical care available for the first time in Libya, improved sanitary conditions in the towns, and undertook to replenish the herds and flocks that had been depleted during the war. But, although Mussolini liked to refer to the Libyans as "Muslim Italians," little more was accomplished that directly improved the living standards of the Arab population.
  21. ^ Sarti, p196.
  22. ^ Donati, S."A Political History of National Citizenship and Identity in Italy, 1861–1950", p. 193 ]
  23. ^ 30,000 Libyans fought for Italy in WWII
  24. ^ Geoff Simons, Tam Dalyell (British Member of Parliament, forward introduction). Libya: the struggle for survival. St. Martin's Press, 1996. 1996 Pp. 129.
  25. ^ Rodolfo Graziani. "Libia redenta. Storia di trent'anni di passione italiana in Africa", p. 18-39
  26. ^ Oxford Business Group (2008). The Report: Libya 2008. p. 17. 
  27. ^ Critics to Berlusconi apologies (in Italian) [1]


  • Donati, Sabina.A Political History of National Citizenship and Identity in Italy, 1861–1950. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013 ISBN 0804787336 ([2])
  • Graziani, Rodolfo. Libia redenta. Storia di trent'anni di passione italiana in Africa. Torella Editori. Napoli, 1949
  • Metz Chapin, Hellen. Libya: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1987.
  • Quirico, Domenico. Lo squadrone bianco. Edizioni Mondadori Le Scie. Milano, 2002
  • Sarti, Roland. The Ax Within: Italian Fascism in Action. Modern Viewpoints. New York, 1974.
  • Smeaton Munro, Ion. Through Fascism to World Power: A History of the Revolution in Italy. Ayer Publishing. Manchester (New Hampshire), 1971. ISBN 0-8369-5912-4
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