The Mad Mullah


 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

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

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.

 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.

Source: quotes and text taken directly from article by , in Foreign Policy Blogs

A page from modern history.  This is part of an article on Foreign Policy Blogs.  I am captivated by the quote.   His words below, and life,  provide insight into the hearts of  the zealots, the insurgents, the fierce “underdogs”, the people that never leave a war unfinished.  Those who  fight with an infinite, deep, passion as if for their own souls – without concern for their own mortality.  To right historic wrongs, in their eyes and god’s.  Historic not in time, but within the local context.

The above article continues with this question:
“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?”

Why has this not been studied – it seems obvious, no?

“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.”

Militarily successful indigenous leaders like Hassan are seen as flukes, outside the norm.  The British thought Hassan irrational, a combination of religious fanaticism and brain damage.    Hassan simply – and violently – refused the premise of  Somalis ruled by non-Muslims.  His words do not sound much different than what we hear today, when you listen.  His tactics and methods to gain popular support for his call,  “his knowledge of human terrain”, are not bizarre.

“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.”

The continued efforts to quell conflicts and democratize the Middle East and northern Africa may not be battles in a war that can be won.  Not by direct military engagement alone.   However, our interests in the regions will keep us engaged.  The tactics we use will be more effective if we too learn and use “the human terrain”.   Address the resentment and hostilities that encourage locals to provide a safe haven for leaders (and followers) like Hassan.  To start, be prepared – be culturally enlightened and historically educated.

Barratt’s article is intentionally limited to a military discussion about fighting insurgencies.  I will add that there are factors outside of cultural and national sovereignty that leave people vulnerable to manipulation, eager to fight.  At the core I believe the primary issue is one of socio-economic despair that creates the “underdogs” within populations, provides willing recruits and the overwhelming mass fodder.


I have taken some excerpts, read entire the article at  It is not long and worth reading.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.