War Crimes: Spanish Use of Chemical Weapons in Northern Morocco still Causing Suffering


The history of war is as old as the history of man. Man as an animal has always had tendencies towards self-destruction. Several wars have threatened the existence of man and many are still being fought. The immediate outcomes of war are catastrophic but the effects linger for generations. One of the wars in history which leaves a sour taste in the mouth of historians is the war between Spain and the Rif of Northern Morocco – the Rif War.

Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons

The Rif war was fought in the 20th century between 1921 to 1926. This armed conflict was between the Berber tribes of Northern Morocco who resided in the Rif mountainous regions and the colonial power Spain ( and France who later joined the war). This war is of particular interest because of the numerous war crimes that were committed while the war lasted top on the list of which is the deployment and use of chemical weapons by the Spanish forces. Over 73000 casualties were recorded in this war on both sides.

Cause of the war

This war started as an attempt at rebuffing European colonization – it was largely successful. In 1912, the Treaty of Fes imposed a French protectorate over Morocco, assigning the northern and southern regions to the Spanish powers. The Spanish army and its economy could not take advantage of this opportunity owing to the effects of World War 1 until its end. After the end of World War 1, in 1919, Spanish soldiers started pushing towards the west from Melilla advancing into the Northern Rif mountains. There, a coalition, which was later headed by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi in 1920, arose to oppose it. When Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi became the face of the coalition, he unified the people of the Rif.

The course of the war

The war lasted a total of five(5) years. Over the course of this war, the Rifian forces were largely successful as they pushed the Spanish forces back while advancing towards the east until they reached Melilla (their biggest fort) such that, by the ending of the month of August 1921, Spain had lost all the territories it acquired over the years. Notable among the losses suffered by the Spanish army is what has come to be known as the disaster of Annual. This battle saw the loss or disappearance of about 13,363 Spanish soldiers and officers. This defeat led to the declaration by Abd al-Karim, of the Republic of Rif, an independent state. At Melilla, the coalition refused to attack the town in other to avoid civilian casualties of other nationalities – a costly mistake. Spanish forces regrouped in large numbers and from there, took back some of the territories while the Rifs maintained control of the inland. A stalemate was reached.

The French army intervened by May 1924 on the side of Spain. An expeditionary force numbering about 60,000 well-trained and -equipped troops, under the command of Marshal Pétain was called forth to join forces with the Spanish army. With the combined force of the Franco-Spanish alliance numbering over 90,000, the Rif forces were grossly outnumbered. These were the final days of the war.

The outcome of the war

With the Rifs grossly outnumbered and outgunned, suffice it to say that victory was bound to take the side of those with the bigger guns. So, after a year of weakening resistance, Abd el-Karim surrendered to French authorities. By 1926, Spanish Morocco was conquered and retaken.

Crimes committed during the course of the war by Spanish forces

Several war crimes were committed during the Rif war by the Spanish forces. These include summary execution of civilians, rape, castration/mutilation of Moroccan prisoners of war, the bombing of children and women, and use of chemical weapons.

While these crimes are to be grossly condemned, the use of chemical weapons has left Northern Morocco with bitter tales of war. It is believed that the decision to use chemical weapons was fueled by their pitiable defeat at the disaster of Annuals. The Spanish army used Chloropicrin, mustard gas, diphosgene, and phosgene despite signing in 1925, the Geneva Protocol that prohibits the use of biological and chemical weapons during international conflicts. They used these agents in markets, rivers, and civilian populations in general. These marked the very first usage of chemical warfare in the years after World War 1.

Implications of the chemical warfare

Almost a hundred(100) years after the war, the effects of the chemical warfare used against Northern Morroco are still being felt. Most devastating among these effects is the widespread incidence of cancers in the natives of Northern Morocco. Strong indicators exist that link the incidence of cancers to the gases used by the Spanish in the war says the head, Association of Toxic Gas Victims (ATGV).

Rachid Rakha, president of the World Amazigh Assembly, a Moroccan nongovernmental organization says, “You can’t find a single family here that doesn’t have a cancer victim,” while referring to the Rif region of northern Morocco. This goes a long way to buttress the debilitating aftermaths of chemical warfare.

Sadly, to this very day, Spain is yet to take full responsibility for its role in the act.


Wars are an intrinsic part of human history. Several have been fought and several may still be fought if we do not learn anything from the past. Whatever is the case, even in war, there are rules of engagement. Spain and its allies violated these rules which resulted in several decades of negative health consequences. Sadly, nothing has been done to bring the culprits to justice and no one is literally outspoken about it. People suffer today in Northern Morocco because some groups felt all is fair in war.


Spanish use of chemical weapons in the Rif War

Rif War – Wikipedia

Rif War | Facts, History, & Outcome | Britannica



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