Omar Mukhtar (Arabic عمر المختار ‘Umar Al-Mukhtār) (1862 – September 16, 1931), of the Mnifa tribe, was born in the small village of Janzour, near Tobruk in eastern Barqa (Cyrenaica). He organized and, for nearly twenty years from 1912, led native resistance to Italian control of Libya. The Italians captured and hanged him in 1931.
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 skillfully attacked outposts, ambushed troops, and cut lines of supply and communication. The Italian army was left astonished and embarrassed by his guerrilla tactics.
In the mountainous region of Ghebel Akhdar (“Green Mountain”) in 1924, Italian Governor Ernesto Bombelli created a counter-guerrilla force that inflicted a severe setback to rebel 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 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 fully reorganized the Senusite forces, who were being hunted constantly by the Italians. Even General Teruzzi recognized Omar’s qualities of “exceptional perseverance and strong will power.”
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 reëstablished a unity of action among Libyan forces, preparing himself for the ultimate confrontation with General Rodolfo Graziani, 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 Cyrenian resistance: the hundred-thousand population of Gebel would be moved to concentration camps on the coast and the Libyan-Egyptian border from the coast at Giarabub would be 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 September 11, 1931, he was ambushed near Zonta.
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.”
Mukhtar’s struggle of nearly twenty years came to an end on September 11, 1931, when he was wounded in battle, then captured by the Italian army. The Italians treated the native leader hero as a prize catch. His resilience had an impact on his jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness. His interrogators stated that Mukhtar recited verses of peace from the Qur’an.
In three days, Mukhtar was tried, convicted, and, on September 14, 1931, sentenced to be hanged publicly (historians and scholars have questioned whether his trial was fair or impartial). When asked if he wished to say any last words, Mukhtar replied with a Qur’anic phrase: “We are Allah’s -properties-, and to Allah we will return.” On September 16, 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 concentration camp of Solluqon at the age of 70 years