It’s something of a fashion today to decry conspiracy theories and laugh at the idea of hidden powers working together. Those people are both unimaginative and wrong. Here’s a true story you’ve never heard.
In 1837, a man named Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi founded an esoteric Sufi order in Mecca. He was a descendent of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad.
Backed by local rulers, the power of his son, Muhammad al-Mahdi, would grow to the extent that he had near-sovereign control over trade routes in the deserts of the eastern Sahara and central Sudan. The order claimed members as far away as Turkey and India.
During the first World War, the Senussi order fought a guerrilla war against Italian and British forces in Libya and Egypt. They would be persecuted by Italian forces when Mussolini attempted to reassert control over Libya.
In 1920, Lothrop Stoddard (in a book so famous it earned referencing in The Great Gatsby) wrote of the Senussi:
“The Grand Mastership still remains in the family, a grandson of the founder being the order’s present head. The Senussi stronghold is an oasis in the very heart of the Sahara. Only one European eye has ever seen this mysterious spot. Surrounded by absolute desert, with wells many leagues apart and the routes of approach known only to experienced Senussi guides, every one of whom would suffer a thousand deaths rather than betray him, El Senussi, the Master, sits serenely apart, sending his orders throughout North Africa.
The Sahara itself is absolutely under Senussi control, while “Zawias” abound in distant regions like Morocco, Lake Chad, and Somaliland. These local Zawias are more than mere “lodges.” Their spiritual and secular heads, the “Mokaddem” or priest and the “Wekil” or civil governor, have discretionary authority not merely over the Zawia members, but also over the community at large at least, so great is the awe inspired by the Senussi throughout North Africa that a word from Wekil or Mokaddem is always listened to and obeyed. Thus, beside the various European authorities, British, French, or Italian as the case may be, there exists an occult government with which the colonial authorities are careful not to come into conflict.
On their part, the Senussi are equally careful to avoid a downright breach with the European Powers. Their long-headed, cautious policy is truly astonishing. For more than half a century the order has been a great force, yet it has never risked the supreme adventure. In all the numerous fanatic risings against Europeans which have occurred in various parts of Africa, local Senussi have undoubtedly taken part, but the order has never officially entered the lists.
The Master of the order referenced by Stoddard is familiar to us. He would go on to unify the Senussi fighters with nationalists in the regions he controlled. In 1951, he would have his victory. We know him as King Idris I of Libya, grandson of Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi.
Colonel Gaddafi would overthrow this King and rule Libya for decades. He died in a ditch in 2011, himself killed at the hands of rebels against his regime. Many of the rebel militias would carry the King’s flag.
The Senussi continue to command respect in the hearts and minds of many Libyans today, with one of the biggest militias during the rebellion being named for Omar Muhktar, a national hero and member of the order.