Before the end of the American Revolution more than 200 years ago, most Americans knew little about the Muslim World–except for what they had learned from their Muslim African slaves or from seafarers’ tales. Americans would soon, however, gain valuable insights into this world of holy mujahideen warriors, hostage-taking, ransom demands, and state-sponsored terrorism through a conflict with the Barbary Pirates. But would Americans apply these insights to dealing with modern-day terrorists?
The pirates themselves and their booty
Until 1783, Americans had been insulated from the depredations of the Muslim corsairs thanks to the power of the British and French navies.
Barbary comes from the word Berber, one of the Muslim North African peoples well represented in the pirate ranks. Nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, these pirates were based mostly in the North African city-state ports of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, and Salé, which lay in modern-day Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, respectively.
They had been terrorizing the European side of the Mediterranean since well before the 16th Century. In fast rowed galleys and later European-style sailing ships, these raiders had even extended their terror into the Atlantic as far as Iceland and South America.
The terror raids, or razzias, netted up to 1.25 million Christian captives from merchant ships, ship-to-ship combats, and even sneak attacks on coastal towns. The captives were sent to the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East, or were imprisoned to extort ransom. What’s more, these razzias were backed by their respective city-states. Their governments and local businesses profited financially from this state-sponsored terrorism.
American shipping was first attacked in 1784 by Morocco, ironically the first Barbary power to recognize the new United States. Subsequent threats, extortion demands, and attacks by the entire Barbary Coast stimulated the creation of the US Navy in 1794. In some accounts of the period, this aggression helped motivate the 13 States to unite and write a Constitution.
At first, America tried to buy peace by paying tribute (extortion/bribes) to the Barbary States as many European nations had been doing. Such payments almost broke the bank of the new nation. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy to London in 1785, they received this unequivocal response, in Jefferson’s words, that appears to be from Al Qaida’s playbook:
“It was written in the Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”
What could dissuade such a motivated enemy? As a result, the administrations of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison launched punitive expeditions in what were known as the two Barbary Wars.
First Barbary War, 1801-1805
This war is mentioned in our history books–barely. As soon as President Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, the Pasha (governor) of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 in tribute. Jefferson refused, and the Pasha declared war by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the US Consulate.
Not exactly a car bomb. Yet in response, Jefferson sent a group of warships to disrupt Tripoli’s sea trade. Some of these American frigates and their commanders would later achieve fame in the War of 1812. When these measures proved ineffective, the ships moved in to blockade the Barbary ports and launch raids against them.
The Pasha sued for peace–and other Barbary city-states fell in line when America’s first Marine expeditionary force captured the key fortress city of Derna. Former US consul to Tunis William Eaton had led a party of eight Marines and 500 Greek, Arab, and Berber mercenaries across the desert from Egypt. This action was immortalized in the second line of the Marines’ Hymn “To the shores of Tripoli.”
Although the conflict enhanced America’s military reputation and prepared the Navy and Marines for future wars, the US government had agreed to continue paying tribute to obtain the release of Christian slaves and hostages. By 1807, the Barbary Coast, especially Algiers, had returned to seizing ships and taking their crews hostage. Distracted by the War of 1812 with Britain, America finally responded decisively three years later.
Second Barbary War, 1815
America once again stationed frigates off of Algiers and successfully captured two Algerian warships. Because of this show of force, Algiers capitulated, followed by Tunis and Tripoli. America’s anti-piracy war was over for the moment–but Europeans would still suffer longer until America and the European nations combined their fleets and France occupied Algiers in 1830.
First, the pirate threat was only eliminated once the European powers and America acted in concert. Today, international teamwork is vital in eliminating Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations.
Second, the responses to acts of terror need to be proportionate. The US Navy and Marines targeted only the Barbary States’ offending port facilities and navies, not civilians or other Ottoman Empire provinces. Today, “collateral damage” by US and Coalition forces has alienated many Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Afghans. In addition, many believe that the war in Afghanistan has dragged on well beyond punishing Al Qaida and its Taliban hosts for the 9/11 attacks.
Third, the strategies for dealing with terrorist organizations who believe they have “God on their side” should be different. Against the Barbary States, diplomacy or paying protection money—never brought peace. At best, it delayed the inevitable or only encouraged piratical greed. Therefore, decisive and force too painful to bear had to be applied. Today, governments and companies are paying bribes to Somali pirates to save the merchant ships’ crews. This may be prolonging the pirates’ campaign by encouraging their greed.
Also, the US is still seeking a way to make the costs of terrorism unbearable for Al Qaida.
If you seek additional perspectives on the Muslim World, in particular the events taking place in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the MIddle East , check out Bill’s other stories at echoflam.com.