Foreign Policy Blogs

Learning From Barbarian Underdogs

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah” (ALAMY)

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah” (ALAMY)

“I have no forts, no houses, no country. I have no cultivated fields, no silver or gold for you to take — all you can get from me is war, nothing else. I have met your men in battle and have killed them. We are greatly pleased about this. Our men who have fallen in battle have won paradise. God fights for us. We fight by   God’s order. If you wish war I am happy; if you wish peace I am also content. But  if you wish peace, go away from my country to your own. If you wish war, stay where you are.”  — the Mad Mullah

In 1910, the “Mad Mullah” of Somalia, a Sunni sheik named Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, gained notoriety for mercilessly killing British service members and their sympathizers among the Somali population. Born in 1856, Hassan studied under local religious scholars and undertook the hajj and studied under Mohammed Salih in Mecca in the 1890s. He returned to Somalia a religious ultra-nationalist, determined to free his homeland from the tightening grip of Italian and British occupying forces. (1)  The Mad Mullah fermented a religio-military revolution, allying with a variety of Somali clans and acquiring weapons from sympathetic regional regimes to battle and eventually prevail over the superpowers of his day.

Can studying the decision-making abilities of indigenous leaders like Hassan –  and the socio-cultural contexts in which they operate –  help the West to get its counter-insurgency act together?

As the U.S. and its NATO partners write the last sentences of the closing chapter of a humbling experience in the “Land of the Afghans,” introspection and objectivity should be the lights used to illuminate both the successes and failings of the campaign. Any honest appraisal of Western forces performance would certainly rank as a standout failing (especially during the first critical years of occupation) the alliance’s inability to appreciate, respect and respond to the complex human terrain upon which its forces fought. To minimize avoidable slips and falls in future asymmetric battle spaces, it would be prudent for Western commanders (and their political overseers) to at least review the “Cliff Notes” on the human terrain upon which they will wage war. The automatic assumption of inevitable victory due to technological primacy is flawed logic that must now be replaced with an understanding that “Barbarian Underdogs” are able to deliver ego crushing geopolitical upsets.

 Looking Over Our Shoulders to See Ahead  

Studying the leadership traits and strategies of indigenous protagonists in history’s little known liberation struggles is not common practice across Western militaries’ academic centers (e.g. war colleges and “think tanks”).  Alien, mostly non-white commanders are rarely credited with possessing the same level of intellect and military acumen as their uniformed European counterparts. The British saw Hassan’s resistance as irrational, a result of madness brought on by religious fanaticism and brain damage, as opposed to Hassan’s fury at the fact that Somalis were ruled by non-Muslims.(2)  Successful indigenous leaders like Somalia’s Hassan are the not-supposed-to-be-there characters in history’s military Hall of Fame.  Derogatory appellations and name formulations that include labels like barbarian, butcher, fanatic, tyrant, zealot and madman are simplistic but effective propaganda effects employed to deepen domestic fear of adversaries.

Vilification is a valuable tactic that is critical to the propagandist prior to and during hostilities for a few reasons. It defines the enemy as it does the home team (i.e., evil vs. good), rouses deepseated ethnocentric sentiments, and can serve as a stand-alone casus belli. But outside of the military information operations space, such language becomes counterproductive, and hurts any genuine effort to discern the art and genius of commanders who don’t look like us, think like us, fight like us, or pray like us. To uncover the battle logic of successful indigenous leaders like Hassan, or even any of today’s religio-military leaders, students of the art of war – military and civilian alike – must overcome euro-centric biases to bring into focus how “barbarians” continue to successfully exploit their respective human terrain to the West’s detriment.

Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia


Echoes from the Past 

Somalia’s David – the so-called Mad Mullah who led the fight against the Goliath of his day – aptly channeled the resentment and zeal of East African tribes to wage a successful guerrilla war of attrition. The British launched five military expeditions (to include air power) in the Horn of Africa to capture or kill Hassan, and never succeeded. British officers had superior schooling and firepower, including the first self-loading machine gun, but the cunning mullah exploited his home field advantage brilliantly. His intimate knowledge of regional tribes’ history, culture, and aspirations enabled him to build alliances and to ultimately prevail. Hassan and his ragtag forces hid in caves, survived long deserts crossings by drinking water from the bellies of dead camels and employed varied assortment of survival techniques that would make even American SEAL team units envious. He was a general, imam, politician and gifted propagandist all rolled into one who used poetry and oratory to both inspire his fighters and intimidate his European nemesis.

Douglas Jardine, who served in the Somaliland Protectorate during that era and who later wrote a history of the conflict, shared that the British hard power machine found itself outmaneuvered by an enemy “who offered no target for attack, no city, no fort, no land…in short, there was no tangible military objective.”(3)  Though Hassan was by no means a benevolent leader (he killed thousands of Somalis who chose not to ally with his team), the enigmatic leader is still today revered by many Somalis as a Muslim resistance fighter who defended his people from an alien encroaching force.

The mullah’s defiant spirit echoed 80 years into the future to taunt multi-national troops in the wake of the now famous Black Hawk Down massacre in 1993. In the days following the event that shocked the international community, anti-American Somali fighters circulated leaflets quoting verses from a mocking poem the Mullah wrote about a British commander he killed entitled simply “The Death of Richard Corfield.” (4) The mullah instructs the now deceased Corfield on what he should tell God’s helpers on his way to hell. “Say: In fury they fell upon us — report how savagely their swords tore you.” (5) Hassan’s warnings to senior British commanders like, “I wish to fight with you. I like war, but you do not” laced Osama Bin Laden’s own 1996 declaration of war against Americans, “These [Muslim] youths love death as you love life.”

Hassan’s success in ejecting colonial forces from the Somaliland interior and back towards the Indian Ocean coastline after a 21-year revolt remains the high water mark of Somali nationalism. Every Somali school child knows about the “Mad Mullah” and the ignoble role that the Europeans played in subjugating them in the same way that young Americans learn to view American Revolution-era British forces as inhumane oppressors. He is remembered as a patriot, soldier, religious leader and poet in the Horn of Africa, and serves as a persistent inspiration for anti-Christendom sentiment in the region.

Different Battle Songs — Same album

The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Southern Philippines, Tribal Pakistan, Palestine, and Iraq are all to varying extents different songs of the same album.  For example, the Al-Qaeda inspired group Al-Shabaab (the “Youngsters”) based in a region of Somalia once colonized by Italy, targets West friendly forces operating in Somaliland and beyond. One of their most well-known terrorist acts was the storm and siege of an upscale Kenyan mall in September 2013. The attack killed 62 people and subsequently earned the leaders of the group the attention of American drone missiles. Some of Al-Shabaab’s leaders credit Hassan for inspiring their declared war against the Western-backed newly-formed Somali government.  Ahmed Abdi Godane, the nerdy 36-year-old leader of the group, promised more violence if Kenya refused to withdraw its forces from neighboring Somalia. In an audio message he stated, “You cannot withstand a war of attrition inside your own country — so withdraw all your forces, or be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country.” (6) The defiant spirit of Hassan lives on and speaks through the young religio-military leaders of today.

Time to Be Two-Faced

The Greek god Janus – the deity for which the month of January is named – could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other.  He represented the middle ground between barbarism and civilization — rural and urban space.  If the West is to prevail in future Afghan type conflicts then foreign policy decision makers and military planners must look to the past to inform the policy and strategy decisions of tomorrow.

The West struggled to pacify Afghanistan. Mission accomplished?

The United States and NATO struggled to pacify Afghanistan. (source: Global Research)

The Afghanistan counter-insurgency operation – and the Iraq campaign before it – exposed the limits of Western hard power, especially on physical and human terrains that do not play to the strengths of conventional forces. If the West chooses to fight religio-military leaders like Hassan in the future, then indirect and not frontal approaches are most sensible – harnessing local allies to do the fighting. But killing is only the tail side of the proverbial coin in the asymmetric warfare toss up.

The “heads” side is the application of civil-military and soft power activities designed to dry up adversaries’ local support by co-opting and protecting the locals. This “befriend, aid and protect” approach was the strategy employed with success by General Petraeus during the 2006 Iraqi surge, creating the conditions for a face-saving withdrawal of American troops a few years later. Petraeus stated in a Foreign Policy magazine article in 2013, “The biggest of the big ideas that guided the strategy during the surge was explicit recognition that the most important terrain in the campaign in Iraq was the human terrain.” To avoid the mistakes the British made fighting Hassan, contemporary military commanders should check their egos at the door when battling indigenous adversaries and instead employ the full spectrum of proven civil-military approaches in concert with measured hard power.

Hopefully, a greater appreciation for “human terrain” will be one of the outcomes and lessons learned from the last 13 years of warfare.  Like the Greek god Janus, the West can become wiser by looking to the past to inform decision making as it works to help to transform fragile states’ “barbarism” into “civilization” – that is human terrain that no longer serve as safe havens for destructive religio-military movements. If the lessons learned from fighting Hassan types (past and present) are not acknowledged, digested and leveraged to enable more enlightened policymaking, doctrines and strategies, then future generations will likely lose new wars that don’t need to be fought against foes that aren’t-supposed-to-be that smart.


(1) Digest of History of the Somaliland Camel Corps, King’s African Rifles, London, National
Archives, WO 106/272, p. 197
(2) John P. Slight, “British and Somali Views of Muhammad
Abdullah Hassan’s Jihad, 1899–1920.”BILDHAAN: An International Journal of Somali Studies, vol. 10, 2010 
(3) “Ahmed Abdi Godane, The new ‘Mad Mullah’ bent on jihad”
(4) Colin Freeman, “Ahmed Abdi Godane: the new ‘Mad Mullah’ bent on jihad.” The Telegraph, 28 Sept., 2013.
(5) Jeffrey Bartholet, Newsweek, September 30, 2009.
(6) Colin Freeman, “Ahmed Abdi Godane: the new ‘Mad Mullah’ bent on jihad.” The Telegraph, 28 Sept., 2013










Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).