Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli


I am always fascinated by the origin of words.  Berber, for example, generally describes the people who live in Northeast Africa.  The word, however, was Greek — meaning someone who does not speak Greek, a non-Greek person.  The Romans used to refer to German tribesmen as “Berbers.”  Even in medieval times, Greeks, Italians, and Byzantines used similar words to describe various tribes that inhabited what was once called “Greater Libya,” or what is now the entire region of North Africa.

The Berbers of North Africa, however, called themselves by other names.  Our confusion, if that’s what it is, comes from the fact that so many different people controlled that region of the world — at one time or another — all speaking different languages: different languages always equate to different names for the people who lived in North Africa.  The Berbers are the Mauri cited in the Chronicle of 754 during the Umayyad conquest of Hispania (Spain).  Since the 11th Century, the word Moor has been the word most commonly used in place of Mauri.

Modern scholars believe that the historian Herodotus referred to the Mauri as Mazyes.  Latin sources referred to the tribe as Mazaces (later, Massylii).  There were different terms in Coptic.  Everyone in North Africa seemed to know about these people — they raided almost everyone, including the Egyptians.  These names, by the way, are how the Berbers referred to themselves.  I’ll just stay with the Greek/Roman words: Berber, Moors, and Barbary Pirates.


The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 (also known as the West Africa Conference) coincided with Germany’s sudden emergence as an imperial power.  The conference was organized by Otto Von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany.  The outcome of this conference was Europe’s often chaotic scramble for Africa — denied by some modern historians (particularly the European scholars), arguing instead that the partition of Africa had more to do with subsequent bilateral agreements, which is somewhat akin to arguing about who fired the first shot at the O.K. Corral.  It doesn’t matter who started it; what matters is that this conference contributed to the beginning of a period of heightened European colonial activity, which eliminated or supplanted the right of Africans to govern themselves.  Of the fourteen nations attending the Berlin Conference, only six had no interest in colonizing Africa: The United States, Austria-Hungary, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, and Russia.

Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli (1871 – 1925) was a Sharif (noble, highborn person) (descendant of Muhammed the Prophet) and a leader of the Jebala tribal confederacy in Morocco at the turn of the 20th century.  Foreigners saw Raisuli as a brigand.  Some Moroccans saw him as an enemy, as someone to fear.  But among the Jebala tribes, he was a magnificent hero.  Western historians view Raisuli as someone who falls between an English Robin Hood, a feudal baron, and a tyrannical bandit.  He was, according to some, the last Barbary Pirate.  As with every successful Moroccan politician, Raisuli was part criminal and part saint.

Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli

Raisuli was born in the village of Zinat (a coastal village 16 miles outside Tangier), where villagers referred to him as the Eagle of Zinat.  He was the son of a military leader (Qaid) and quite naturally followed in his father’s footsteps.  At certain times and at certain places, military men became raiders, criminals, brigands — but this was all part of the Berber culture.  No self-respecting Berber chieftain could be a goodie-two-shoe.

While it is true that Raisuli eventually drifted into brigandry, the term is entirely subjective.[1]  Raisuli helped himself to other people’s cattle because everyone and everything located in Raisuli’s territory belonged to Raisuli.  But if it is true that he stole sheep and cattle, he provided these animals to feed the members of his (large) tribe.  Moreover, he didn’t hesitate to terminate (with extreme prejudice) anyone who dared get in his way.  Raisuli was arrested and jailed on more than one occasion — not because of his barbarous acts but because he always seemed to get in the way of influential Arabs.

Some historians claim that the most significant formative event in Raisuli’s life was his arrest and imprisonment by Abd-al-Rahman Abd-al-Saduk, Pasha of Tangier.  Saduk was Raisuli’s cousin and foster brother.  Having accepted Saduk’s invitation to dine, Raisuli was apprehended almost as soon as he stepped inside Saduk’s home.  Culturally, the Pasha’s behavior was an affront to traditional Arab courtesy.  Saduk made this travesty worse by throwing Raisuli into a dungeon at Mogador, chaining him to a wall for four years.  Sultan Abd-al-Laziz released Raisuli as part of a general amnesty, but the Sultan eventually became Raisuli’s greatest enemy.

The primary consequence of throwing Raisuli into prison was that it made him even more dangerous after his release.  Once released, Raisuli became more ambitious, more anti-foreign, and nearly fanatically pro-nationalist.  Then, to make the sultan’s life as difficult as possible, particularly in his relations with foreign powers, Raisuli began kidnapping prominent officials of foreign governments and holding them for ransom.  His first victim was a British journalist named Walter Burton Harris.

Harris lived in Tangier for most of his life (1866 – 1933).  He was wealthy, a socialite, spoke Arabic fluently, and his physical appearance permitted him to pose as a native Moroccan.  His appearance and language skills allowed him to visit places off-limits to most foreign correspondents.  This access helped Harris create or inspire numerous political and diplomatic intrigues — which Mr. Harris dutifully reported to his employer, The Times.  It allowed him to create a problem and get paid for reporting on it (typical of journalists, I’d say).

Raisuli did kidnap Harris, but he didn’t demand money.  Instead, Raisuli demanded that the Moroccan government release several of his tribesmen from prison.  The government’s prompt response to these demands saw Harris released within three weeks.  The strategy proved so successful that Raisuli accelerated his kidnapping efforts — focusing mainly on Moroccan military and political officials.  In between his kidnapping activities, Raisuli demanded tribute payments from villages within his provincial area; the penalty for refusing to pay this tribute was death.  Raisuli used some of this tribute to purchase and employ sailing vessels for seagoing piracy.  Raisuli’s piracy was only marginally successful — no doubt owing to the modernization of European navies.

But there was a lighter side to Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli.  He was chivalrous, respectful toward his captives, protective of them, friendly, generous to those who demonstrated respect and loyalty, and a well-educated man.  However, his treatment of some prisoners could only be classified as downright cruel and barbaric.  Officials working for the Sultan of Morocco, or the Pasha of Tangier were often tortured, blinded, or their tongues cut out.  On at least one occasion, Raisuli disconnected the head of a  government envoy and returned it to the Pasha in a basket of fruit.

Raisuli’s international reputation began when he kidnapped the Greek-American expatriate Ion H. Perdicaris and his step-son, Cromwell Varley, Jr., and demanded payment of $70,000.00 for their release.  The event triggered a near-armed conflict between the government of Morocco and the United States in 1904, narrowly averted when Morocco paid the ransom and Perdicaris was released.  For a summary of this event, see The Perdicaris Affair.

After Perdicaris’ release, the Sultan appointed Raisuli Pasha of Tangier as governor of Jibala province and released all of Raisuli’s followers from prison.  By 1906, however, Raisuli’s cruelty and corruption prompted the Sultan to oust him from office and declare him an outlaw.  In response, Raisuli kidnapped Sir Harry Maclean, a British army officer serving as a military aide and advisor to the Sultan’s army.  Maclean was ransomed for £20,000.

Raisuli antagonized the Moroccan government for several years, even after Abd-al-Laziz abdicated.  He briefly regained favor with the Moroccan government by siding with Abdel al-Hafad in overthrowing al-Laziz, and for a time, the Sultan restored Raisuli as Pasha of Tangier.  However, at the insistence of the Spanish government, which exercised control over Morocco, the Sultan was removed from office again in 1912.

In 1913, Raisuli began an insurrection against the Spanish and continued a protracted guerrilla war against them for six years.  Eventually, Spanish Colonel Manuel Silvestre defeated Raisuli in the Battle of Fondak Pass, but Raisuli and most of his men avoided capture.

At the beginning of the First World War, Raisuli established contact with Imperial Germany, offering to serve the German cause by leading a rebellion against French Imperialists. Setting aside whether Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli was a bandit, he was faithful to the culture and traditions of his people; he did not want foreigners in his country, and he did not want his people falling under the heavy boot of European powers. When the French learned of this “treason,” they initiated a punitive expedition into Spanish Morocco.  The French did manage to disperse Raisuli’s forces, but they could not capture him.

In 1921, Silvestre re-engaged the Berbers at a small village named Annual.  It evolved into a fight lasting 18 days.  At its conclusion on 9 August, Spanish military forces (again) serving under Colonel Silvestre suffered the worst defeat in Spanish military history.

In September 1922, Raisuli submitted to the will of Spanish authorities and joined the Spanish army in the Rif War (1921 – 1926).  The Rif War was an armed conflict fought between occupying Spanish (and later, French) colonists and Berber tribes in the mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco.  The Berbers were led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, also known as Abd al-Krim, who waged a guerilla war.  At first, al-Krim’s force inflicted several defeats on the Spanish, their mission to seize and re-employ as many Spanish (and French-made) weapons as possible.  Eventually, French troops captured al-Krim and sent him into exile.[2]

In 1921, in an attempt to consolidate control over the region, Spanish troops suffered the catastrophic Disaster of Annual in addition to a rebellion led by al-Krim.  As a result, the Spanish retreated to a few fortified positions while al-Krim ultimately created an independent state — the Republic of the Rif. 

The conflict coincided with the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, who commanded the campaign from 1924 to 1927.  France intervened in 1925 and established a collaboration with Spain that culminated in the amphibious landing at Alhucemas.  Spain had no hesitance in using chemical weapons against the Berbers.  To many historians, the Rif War was one of the last colonial wars in North Africa — and a pre-cursor to the Algerian War of Independence (1954 – 1962). Raisuli was intensely jealous of al-Krim and was not sorry to see him exiled.  Afterward, al-Krim’s followers viciously attacked Raisuli’s palace, killing most of his guards.  The captured Raisuli was promptly placed in a jail near Tamasin — where he died at the end of April 1925.  Mulai Ahmed al-Raisuli remains a folk hero to the Moroccan people — with a somewhat mixed reputation, of course.


[1] At the beginning of the story of Lawrence of Arabia the son of a tribal chieftain shoots and kills Major Lawrence’s Arab escort and guide because he had the affrontery to drink from a well without first gaining the tribal chieftain’s permission.  That is how the Arab mind works, illustrated over a thousand times in any Arab tribal culture you choose. 

[2] Background to Rif War: in July 1909, Spanish workers constructing a rail-bridge providing access to iron mines near Melilla came under attack by Rifian tribesmen.  The incident led to a Spanish military response which cost them more than a thousand casualties.  Spain increased their footprint to 40,000 troops in northern Morocco.