Until the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate in 1912, the tribes of the Rif existed outside government control. They were subdued temporarily by harkas, the burning raids with which sultans asserted their authority, and for a longer period under Moulay Ismail; but for the most part, bore out their own name of Imazighen, or “Free Ones”.
Closed to outside influence, the tribes developed an isolated and self-contained way of life. The Riffian soil, stony and infertile, produced constant problems with food supplies, and it was only through a complex system of alliances (liffs) that outright wars were avoided. Unique in Morocco, the Riffian villages are scattered communities, their houses hedged and set apart, and where each family maintained a pillbox tower to spy on and fight off enemies. They were different, too, in their religion: the salat, the prayers said five times daily – one of the central tenets of Islam – was not observed. Djinns, supernatural fire spirits, were widely accredited, and great reliance was placed on the intercession of local marabouts.
It was an unlikely ground for significant and organized rebellion, yet for over five years (1921–27) the tribes forced the Spanish to withdraw from the mountains. Several times they defeated whole Spanish armies; first and most memorably at Annoual in 1921. It was only through the intervention of France, and the joint commitment of nearly half a million troops, that the Europeans won eventual victory.
In the intervening years, Abd el Krim el Khattabi, the leader of the revolt, was able to declare a Republic of the Rif and to establish much of the apparatus of a modern state. Well educated, and confident of the Rif’s mineral reserves, he and his brother, Mohammed, manipulated the liff system to forge an extraordinary unity among the tribes. Impressively, the brothers managed to impose a series of social reforms – including the destruction of family pillboxes and the banning of kif – which allowed the operation of a fairly broad administrative system. It was the first nationalist movement in colonial North Africa, and although the Spanish were ready to quit the zone in 1925, it was politically impossible for the French to allow that. Defeat for the Riffians – and the capture of Abd el Krim at Targuist – brought a virtual halt to social progress and reform. The Spanish took over the administration en bloc but there was no road-building programme nor any of the other “civilizing benefits” introduced in the French zone. Many of the Riffian warriors were recruited into Spain’s own armies, allowing General Franco to build up a power base in Morocco. It was with Riffian troops that he invaded Andalusia in 1936, and it was probably their contribution that ensured the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War.
When, in April 1957, the Spanish finally surrendered their protectorate, the Berbers of the former Spanish zone found themselves largely excluded from government. Administrators were imposed on them from Fez and Casablanca, and in October 1958, the Rif’s most important tribe, the Beni Urriaguel, rose in open rebellion. The mutiny was soon put down, but necessitated the landing at Al Hoceima of then Crown Prince Hassan and some two-thirds of the Moroccan army.
The Rif is still perhaps the most unstable part of Morocco, remaining conscious of its under-representation in government and its historical underdevelopment. However, King Mohammed VI seems sympathetic to this situation and over the past decade the region has witnessed substantial school-building programmes, improved road, air and ferry accessibility, large agricultural projects in the plains south of Nador and Al Hoceima, and continues to see an increase in tourism development along its coast.