Middle East Studies

Mark Drury

Lecturer in Anthropology, Princeton University


Anticolonial Irredentism: Decolonization, The Liberation Army of Morocco and the Saharan Making of the Maghreb in the 1950s

This paper presents an account of Jaysh al-Tahrir (Liberation Army) in the Sahara, a little-known anticolonial insurgency from the late 1950s. Occurring after Moroccan independence, the Liberation Army’s aims were at once irredentist, in seeking to expand Morocco’s borders, and anticolonial, in attacking French and Spanish military outposts dotting colonial borders across the western Sahara. Though fleeting – the Liberation Army disbanded after a joint French-Spanish counterinsurgency in 1958 – the armed movement brought together Saharans and Moroccans of radically different political persuasions. While histories of this movement have largely been coopted, erased, or marginalized by nationalist narratives and processes of Sahrawi, Moroccan, Mauritanian and Algerian state formation, the afterlives of the Liberation Army continue to haunt the region’s political present. This paper argues that the history of the Liberation Army reveals multiple dynamics of Maghrebi decolonization that defy methodological nationalism. The first involves the complex relations of autonomy and dependence between Maghrebi and Saharan peoples that challenge the border-making processes of nation-state formation. The second involves the integral role of the Sahara in the making of the Maghreb as a collection of postcolonial nation-states.


Mark Drury received his Ph.D. from the anthropology program at The Graduate Center, the City University of New York (CUNY). He is currently a lecturer in anthropology at Princeton University. His research focuses on sovereignty, human rights and international law; surveillance, security and political conflict; and the historiography of decolonization.