The Murabitin, or Almoravids as they were known in Spain, originated as a fundamentalist Islamic sect among the Afro-Berbers of Western Sahara shortly before 1050. As inhabitants of the deep desert they owned few horses and fought almost entirely as infantry, though combat on camelback was also recorded. Later Almoravids reportedly had 30,000 thoroughbred camels, saddled and ready for war. At first, however, they adopted phalanx formations in which a front rank knelt behind long spears and tall shields of tanned oryx skin while rear ranks threw javelins. Later Almoravid cavalry also used long, almost body covering shields. Such tactics were essential static, supposedly never retreating nor even pursuing a defeated foe. A minority wore mail hauberks, and all relied on curved daggers for close combat. The name Murabitin probably reflected this immobility and formation, rather than the rabat or fortress with which it is often associated. Traditional Berber and Saharan tactics had long relied on a barricade or laager of camels from which tribesmen launched repeated charges. Like nomad tactics everywhere, this avoided undue casualties among a scarce manpower. The dedicated Almoravids, however, accepted heavy losses, thus for years proved virtually invincible, particularly after they had won allies among richer northern Saharan cavalry tribes. The role of such horsemen was now to break and pursue a weakened foe, which in turn added flexibility to Almoravids tactics. From the earliest day flags played a leading part in battlefield control, again perhaps reflecting greater discipline compared to other North African armies. Although the first Almoravid leader regarded war-drums as pagan devices, later Almoravid forces made great use of them, particularly in Iberia where they terrified the Christians and panicked their horses. The most characteristic feature of the Almoravid warrior was, however, his litham or face veil. The Almoravids were said to regard the mouth as unclean and to refer to unveiled peoples as’ the fly-mouthed’.
Yusuf ibn Tashfin , second Almoravid leader and man destined to conquer Andalus, reorganised these armies. Original Almoravid forces had been a tribal confederation, but yusuf changed the command structure and created a personal force of black slaves and foreigners. His bodyguard consisted of 500 non-Berber horsemen, including Arabs, Turks and Europeans, supported by a further 2,000 black African cavalry. Christian mercenaries as well as converted Spanish prisoners continued to fight for the Almoravids and their successors both in Andalus and North Africa throughout the late 11th and 12th centuries.
Cavalry also became more important than camel-mounted troops, particularly when operating in Andalus. There the high number of black Africans in Almoravid armies, many recruited from Senegal on the southern frontier of the empire, had a terrifying effect on Christian morale- as did the use of massed drums, unusual forms of bow, enormously long leather shields, bamboo spears and other unfamiliar weapons. A continuing use of large number camels also unsettled the Spaniards’ horses, in fact, such animals had been known in southern Andalus since at least the 10th century. Above all the Spaniards were completely out-manoeuvred by highly mobile Almoravids, leading them to believe their foes were more numerous than they really were. Even in Iberia, however, the Almoravids ultimately relied on an infantry phalanx, which now served as a safe haven from which cavalry could emerge and to which they would return. This was not, of course, new tactics; the Almoravids had refined it. They also gave their horsemen greater freedom of action. Yet the elite status of mounted troops should not be over emphasised, as there are reports of men riding mules in battle when horses were unavailable.
In Andalus the Almoravids not only checked the Christian advance, but also rolled it back a short way. They also took over or rendered tributary all the taifa states, and strengthened an already growing sense of jihad. This concept of Holy Wars was, however, almost entirely concerned to defend Islam rather than to extend it. On the other hand an atmosphere of jihad eroded traditional Andalusian toleration. Such erosion accompanied growing Crusader ideas on the Christian side of the frontier. Persecution of the Andalusian Mozarabs increased and a habit of head-hunting was introduced, to be rapidly copied by the Christians. The Muslim frontier was strengthened, being defended by local militias and religious volunteers backed up by Almoravid units. Strategic cities like Cacares were garrisoned by what can only be described as Muslim ‘monk-soldiers’. Such men, in a long-established Islamic tradition, dedicated part of their lives to these duties before returning to their families.