When most of today’s Americans think of terrorism and its infiltration into American society, their thoughts generally return to that sun-drenched morning of September 11, 2001. On that day, the nation was stunned to see passenger planes used to collapse the World Trade Center in New York and take out a wall of the Pentagon. Thankfully, the courage of brave Americans on the fourth flight prevented further damage somewhere else. Though the actions of these Islamic terrorists who perpetrated the awful deeds sent a shockwave through the country, it was not the first time the United States had been harassed by the type of hatred we witnessed that fateful day.
During the early years of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had their hands full dealing with Islamic terrorists as well. In their case, however, it was not planes they battled; it was an unconventional enemy known as the Barbary pirates, a group of Muslim plunderers which operated from the coast of North Africa.
Though North African piracy came from very ancient roots, it gained political significance during the 16th century in Barbarossa. They were most powerful during the 17th century, but remained active until the 19th century. Captains, who formed a class in Algiers and Tunis, commanded cruisers which were outfitted by wealthy backers. These backers would then receive 10% of the spoils captured by the pirates. In the beginning, the pirates used galleys, but in the 17th century, Simon Danser, a renegade from Holland, taught the pirates the advantage of using sailing ships.These blackmailing terrorists hid behind interpretations of their Islamic faith, much as they do today, and sought to do the western world one better than the Christian Crusades had done centuries earlier.
On March 28, 1786, the newly established nation made its first attempt to fight an overseas battle in an effort to guard its private citizens by constructing an international coalition against these terrorists. Jefferson and Adams met with Arab diplomats from Tunis who were responsible for conducting terror raids and piracy against American ships.
“We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the grounds of their pretensions to make war upon a nation who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of their prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every muscle man who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise.”
Pirate ships and crews located in the North African states of Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers (known as the Barbary Coast) had become the blight of the Mediterranean. After capturing a merchant ship, the pirates held the crew for ransom. The money obtained provided the rulers of these nations with naval power and wealth. During this time, the Religious Order of Mathurins, part of the Roman Catholic Church, operated from France with the special mission to collect and disburse funds for the ransom of prisoners of the Barbary pirates.
Prior to the American Revolution, American merchant ships and crews were protected from the North African pirates by tribute or subsidies paid by Britain. During the Revolution, an alliance with France signed in 1778 stepped in to protect the American ships. This alliance required the French nation to protect "American vessels and effects against all violence, insults, attacks, or depredations, on the part of the said Princes and States of Barbary or their subjects."
Following the Revolution, the United States now had to protect its own commerce against these same dangers. Beginning in 1784, Congress continued the tradition set forth by European shipping powers. $80,000 was appropriated as tribute to the Barbary States. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, then ministers in Europe, were directed to begin negotiations. Their efforts were for the most part a waste of time because in July 1785, Algerians captured two American ships and the dey (governor) of Algiers held the crews of twenty-one people for a ransom of nearly $60,000. In 1795, the United States was forced to pay nearly a million dollars in cash, naval stores, and a frigate to ransom 115 sailors from the dey of Algiers. Annual gifts were settled by treaty on Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli.
As minister to France, Jefferson was totally opposed to the payment of tributes. In his autobiography, Jefferson stated his efforts in 1785 and 1786 unsuccessfully “endeavored to form an association of the powers subject to habitual depredation from them. I accordingly prepared, and proposed to their ministers at Paris, for consultation with their governments, articles of a special confederation.” His argument was “The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace.” Portugal, Naples, the two Sicilies, Venice, Malta, Denmark and Sweden were all in favor of this association; however it was felt England and France would set their own rules, so the plan fell through.
In letters to John Adams and James Monroe, Jefferson argued the fact the act of paying ransoms would lead to further demands by the pirates. Paying tribute will merely invite more demands, and even if a coalition proves workable, the only solution is a strong navy that can reach the pirates. The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some one of them. . . . Every national citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, and should fear to see it on any other element than the water. A naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both."
On December 26, 1786, Jefferson told Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, “From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of their money, it will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.
In 1801, Jefferson became president and instantly refused to consent to Tripoli's demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. This resulted in the pasha of Tripoli declaring war on the United States. While he served as secretary of state and vice president, Jefferson had opposed the idea of developing an American navy which was capable of anything more than defending the country’s coastal area. Now, however, President Jefferson dispatched a squadron of naval vessels to the Mediterranean.
In his first message to Congress, Jefferson declared: "To this state of general peace with which we have been blessed, one only exception exists. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary States, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact, and had permitted itself to denounce war, on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean. . . ." The American show of force quickly intimidated Tunis and Algiers, who immediately broke their alliance with Tripoli.
Problems still faced Jefferson following this show of force, one of which was the loss of the frigate Philadelphia and the capture of her captain and crew in Tripoli in 1803. Though he received criticism from political opponents and even members of his own cabinet, Jefferson would not be deterred. Commodore Edward Preble aggressively forced Morocco out of the fight and five bombardments of Tripoli restored some order to the Mediterranean.
In 1805, the US fought back with force. A fleet raised by an American naval agent to the Barbary powers, Captain William Eaton, and under the command of Commodore John Rodgers, threatened to capture Tripoli and install the brother of Tripoli's pasha on the throne. Both the Navy and the Marines won big victories, including one at Tripoli. This led to a treaty which brought an end to the hostilities. The treaty was negotiated by Tobias Lear, former secretary to President Washington and now consul general in Algiers. Treaty payments were still required, however, until the second war with Algiers, which took place in 1815. At that time, naval victories by Commodores Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge led to treaties which ended all tribute payments by the United States.
"Too many concessions have been made to Algiers. There is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror."
U.S. Consul William Eaton, 1799