Remembering the ‘Mad Mullah’ 94 Years on: the battle to secure British Somaliland

The United States has confirmed that it has deployed around 20 military advisers to the beleaguered Somali government in Mogadishu in a bid prevent the resurgence of al-Shabab, the brutal and indiscriminate Islamic terrorist group. It is the first significant commitment of American personnel to the East African nation since the ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster of 1993.

Al-Shabab controls most of its territory in the rural regions of southern Somalia yet the Mogadishu government also has persisting problems in the north of the country. There, the self-declared independent state of Somaliland – seen only as an autonomous region of Somalia by global governments – continues to resist assimilation.

Somaliland is located on the Gulf of Aden
Somaliland is located on the Gulf of Aden

94 years ago this month, British imperial forces finally brought to an end a self-declared state within its Somaliland protectorate, the inhabitants of which displayed a ferocity that al-Shabab fighters would have been proud of. This was known as the Dervish State.

Established in 1896 as a response to the encroachment of British and Italian empire-builders in East Africa, the Dervish State was the brainchild of a religious preacher, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, known by the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’.

Seizing on British laxity, Hassan took over large swathes of territory in northern Somaliland, establishing his capital at Taleh.

Dervish fort at Taleh - Hassan conducted his own Jihad against the British interlopers
Dervish fort at Taleh – Hassan conducted his own Jihad against the British interlopers

When the British forces finally got around to responding to Hassan’s challenge, they suffered a series of humiliating setbacks, culminating in the capitulation of the Camel Constabulary at the Battle of Dul Madoba in 1913. As had occurred in several of their African territories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the better-equipped British troops had been defeated by a larger and braver indigenous force which was familiar with the terrain of battle.

Having allowed Somaliland to decrease as a priority during WWI – during which time the ‘Mad Mullah’ lived up to his name by violently scattering Christian villages and Catholic missions in his area of influence – the British returned for a final showdown in 1920.

Exploiting the rapidly-developing military tactic of aerial bombardment, the British imperial forces used 12 Airco DH.9A light bombers to batter the Dervish forts at Taleh. Hassan fled with the surviving members of his family into exile, where he would die in 1921. In one carefully-orchestrated attack, stability had been returned to British Somaliland. Colonial Under-Secretary Leo Amery described the £77,000 assault as ‘the cheapest war in history’.

RAF bombers target the Dervish forts at Taleh
RAF bombers target the Dervish forts at Taleh

The bombing of Taleh also had the added bonus of securing the future of the Royal Air Force (RAF) which, having replaced the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) towards the end of WWI, had been seen as surplus to requirements in the peacetime era by many prominent British politicians.

It is unfortunate that today, with the increasing sophistication of terrorist activity and the frequent inability to pinpoint exactly who the enemy is, Somalia’s problems cannot be solved so simply.


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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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