Ask just about anyone today when Islamist extremism originated, you might hear that it started with 9/11, or if you ask someone a little older it might be with the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. Some may even point to skyjackings that were common in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of us think this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, as it concerns the United States of America, this could not be further from the historical truth.
Islamist pirates were active in the southern Mediterranean Sea for in the 18th century. These were the “Barbary Pirates” and they were based in the Independent Sultanate of Morocco, the 3 regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. These North African city states comprised the northwest corner of Africa. Collectively they were called the ‘Barbary States”. They regularly attacked and captured merchant ships with their cargo and crew. A ransom was demanded and if it was not paid by the specified date, the crew would be sold into slavery, and the ship and cargo would be either sold or used by the pirate states.
France and England both separately worked out deals with the pirates where their ships were allowed free passage. They both paid tribute that amounted to billions of dollars in todays currency in order to acquire free ship movement in the Mediterranean. Until the American Revolution, American ships were included in the English agreement. After the Revolution, the English let it be known that they were no longer paying tribute to protect American ships, and many were captured and their crews were sold into slavery.
In 1786 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both went to London to negotiate with the Tripoli Envoy Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. When asked why they make war on nations that have done them no injury, he had this reply: “It is written in the Quran, 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 mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.” “Also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth’ which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for a quarter at once.
At this point in time, the United States did not have money to build a Navy or to pay tribute. The country was just forming and there were massive debts to pay off as the result of the revolution, and there was no real authority to raise taxes at the national level. It wasn’t until the adoption of the Constitution that the federal government could raise taxes nationally, and that was the beginning of the building program for the fledgling United States Navy. As the navy was being built, the United States paid tribute to insure that no more of its merchant ships were molested in the Mediterranean. It was an expensive proposition, and totaled over 10% of total federal revenue, an amount that was deemed unsustainable in the long-term.
In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, citing late payments, demanded additional tribute from the USA. In addition, he declared war on the USA. This was the tipping point, and America responded by sending a fleet of new, powerful ships of the line to the Mediterranean to blockade their ports, subsequently sinking many of their pirate ships.
The turning point in this war was when the combined fleet assaulted the port city of Derma, which was the stronghold of the Pasha of Tripoli. The fleet bombarded the city while the United States Marines prepared to assault the city from behind. This daring plan was implemented because all the cannon in Derma pointed towards the sea, the thinking was that no force would ever attack from behind because of the inhospitable desert environment. They didn’t count on the innovative and tough Marine Lt. Presley O’Banion.
Lieutenant O’Banion, along with 10 enlisted Marines, led a mixed force of 500 Greek, Arab, and Berber mercenaries across the desert from Alexandria Egypt to assault the Tripolitan city of Derma from behind. This was a 1000-mile forced march through very unhospitable terrain. They got to Derma, and coordinating with the US Navy bombardment, they captured the city in just a matter of hours. This actually is the reason why the Marine Hymn starts with “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli”. This action sent a message to the world in general and to the Islamist pirates, and that was the American Navy was a force to be recognized. This marked the end of the 1st Barbary War, and American ships were unmolested until the start of the war of 1812, where the British fought a campaign against the USA, and enlisted the pirates to resume capturing American ships, refusing any tribute or ransom. It wasn’t until 1815 when the USA was in a position to once again fight back against the tyranny of the pirates.
On March 3, 1815, the United States Congress authorized the use of force against the pirates. The US Navy, greatly increased in size and capability since the 1st Barbary war, was dispatched to end the pirate threat once and for all. They sent 2 entire fleets of “state of the art” warships to the Mediterranean, led by Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore Steven Bainbridge.
Shortly after passing through the straight of Gibraltar, Decatur’s fleet encountered the Algerian flagship Meshuda, and in a battle off of Cape Gata, captured it. Shortly after, the fleet off fCape Palos captured the Algerian brig Estedio. After another week passed by, both fleets arrived at Algiers. They threatened total destruction of the city and port, and at that point they had the firepower to do so. All cannon was aimed at the city, and there was much fear in the population. The Dey himself was intimidated to the point where he capitulated. A peace treaty was signed on the American ship Guerriere in the Bay of Algiers. This treaty gave the Islamist’s back their ships and crews, they gave back captured Americans and their ships, and also gave back numerous captured Europeans. They paid the USA $10,000 for seized shipping (a lot of money back then). They also guaranteed that no ship from the USA would ever be pirated again. No tribute was paid after that by America, and American ships had full shipping rights in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The American Navy proved to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. They suppressed the Islamic pirates and got a treaty where American ships were no longer targeted again for ransoms and tributes. The Islamists then understood that any deviation from this agreement would mean total destruction for their fleets and their city states. That was made perfectly clear, and they never again harassed ships flying the American flag. The 2 Barbary wars brought America into the world of major military powers.
The Europeans were still being preyed upon. Their ships were still attacked and captured, held for ransom, and if not paid the crew were sold into slavery, and the ships and the cargoes were sold for hard cash. The piracy did not end for Europeans until the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.
The truth to be told is that Islamic extremism as it pertains to America has been around as long as the country has existed. It is not a new phenomenon, but something as old as Islam itself. Even today, Islamic pirates operate off the coast of Somalia, and they regularly attack commercial shipping. They use the Quran as their right to piracy, just as the Barbary pirates did centuries ago. They do now know that if they are caught pirating by the US Navy, there will be a price to pay, and that price is expensive. These pirates will forever remember the USS Bainbridge, and the Navy Seal team that put an end to the capture of the Maersk Alabama. They now know that if they even survive, the rest of their lives will be spent in a federal prison under heavy watch. In a way they are lucky. In the 1900’s, pirates were summarily hanged for their crimes.