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10 Untold Stories Of America’s First War On Terror

by Larry Jimenez
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Fighting international terrorism isn’t new for the US. Hardly out of the womb of the Revolution, the young republic, a fresh and innocent newcomer on the world stage, found itself threatened by Muslim pirates hungry for ransoms. Many commentators have drawn a parallel with modern Middle Eastern terrorist groups, who have amassed over $125 million in the kidnapping business since 2009. The dilemma today, as it was back then, was whether to pay or not.

While it is US policy not to make concessions to terrorists like ISIS, Europeans are more likely to do so. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the Barbary Wars of the early 19th century is expressed in a statement by the Undersecretary for Terrorism at the Treasury Department, David Cohen: “Refusing to pay ransoms or to make other concessions to terrorists is, clearly, the surest way to break the cycle (of terror), because if kidnappers consistently fail to get what they want, they will have a strong incentive to stop taking hostages in the first place.” Thomas Jefferson would heartily agree.

10The War’s Medieval Roots


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In 1309, the crusading order of fighting monks known as the Knights Hospitaller retreated to the island of Rhodes, where they established themselves as a bulwark against Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean. When Rhodes fell to the Ottomans, the Knights moved to Malta, where they remained until Napoleon drove them out in 1798. During that time, they continued to operate, albeit increasingly ineffectively, against their archrivals: the Barbary Pirates.

Emerging in the late 15th century, the Barbary pirates used the North African ports of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers to terrorize shipping in the Mediterranean. Most ships were no match for their fast, maneuverable galleys, and they successfully extorted protection money in the form of regular tribute from many European nations. Two of their most notable hostages were St. Vincent de Paul and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Since the rulers of the Barbary Coast protected the pirates and profited from their depredations, they were what we would today call “state-sanctioned terrorists.”

Prior to the Revolution, American ships were covered by tribute paid by the British. But on becoming a nation in its own right, the US found itself without any such protection. As pirate attacks on American shipping increased, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were sent to deal with the Tripolitan envoy, demanding to know why his people would “make war upon nations who had done them no injury.”

In a classic case of disguising naked greed with a cloak of religious duty (especially considering that many of the pirates were European opportunists), Ambassador Abd al-Rahman reportedly informed the Americans that “it was written in the Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

9The Threat To America’s Economy


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The Dey of Algiers was among the first to take advantage of the new nation’s weakness. American ships were considered “fat ducks” that could turn a big profit with minimum risk. Captured Americans were enslaved or thrown into dungeons until ransoms were paid. By 1794, the Dey had seized 11 US ships and consigned 119 Americans to prison.

America’s first Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, chose to pay tribute rather than go to war. In 1795, Tunis and Tripoli drooled with envy as Algiers extorted the equivalent of $642,500 in cash, munitions, and a 36-gun frigate, in addition to a yearly tribute of naval supplies worth $21,600. Of the original 119 prisoners, 37 died in the Dey’s prisons. Their ransoms had to be paid anyway to get the rest out.

Thus encouraged, Tunis and Tripoli soon demanded their own tribute. Upon succeeding Adams, Jefferson discovered that tributes paid to the Barbary pirates were in excess of $2,000,000, a huge sum for the fledgling nation.

8The Controversial Article 11


On June 10, 1797, the US signed into law a treaty of peace and friendship with Tripoli, in which Tripoli promised not to demand further tribute from the US. For a relatively obscure document, the Treaty of Tripoli has generated numerous heated Internet debates between secularists and the religious right. The point of contention is Article 11:

As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

As worded, it must be the earliest official statement to the effect that “America is not at war with Islam.” But what riles some on the right is its implication that the US is not a Christian nation, while secularists who insist on total separation of church and state point to Article 11 as proof that the Founding Fathers agreed with them.

Those who want a greater role for religion in government counter that Article 11 in the English version does not exist in the original Arabic text. Instead, the Arabic inexplicably has a letter from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. It remains a mystery whether Article 11 was in the original Arabic, or how it was lost if it was. The English text, a translation made by US consul Joel Barlow, is commonly explained away as a mistranslation or poor paraphrase of the Arabic.

The fact remains, however, that it was the English text, complete with its nod to secularism, which was accepted without objection by the US Senate.

7The Revival Of The US Navy


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Although he never took action against them, George Washington at least realized that a showdown with the pirates was inevitable. In 1793, he warned Congress: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace . . . it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”

But after winning independence, the new United States found itself exhausted and nearly bankrupt. To economize, the Continental army had been disbanded and the Navy saw its last vessel auctioned off in 1785. Heeding Washington’s call, the Senate ratified a bill re-creating the US Navy on March 19, 1794, saying that “the depredations committed by Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States render it necessary that a naval force should be provided for its protection.” Eventually, six ships were built at a cost of $700,000, although early pork-barrel politics meant that each ship had to be built in a different state.

Meanwhile, politics divided the government’s national defense policy. Federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were all for a large and strong naval force, while Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson thought the money would be better spent elsewhere. Ironically, it was Jefferson who would send the new Navy off to war against the pirate-terrorists.

6The Dove Becomes A Hawk


Thomas Jefferson did not believe in war, declaring: “I love peace, and I am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of punishing injury than by war.” It took the outrages of the pirates to turn him into a hawk. As Jefferson took office in 1801, the situation in Barbary had degenerated.

The Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, had repudiated his 1797 treaty with the US and demanded a $50,000 annual tribute. When the tribute was not forthcoming, Yusuf had the flagpole in front of the US consulate chopped down, the symbol for a declaration of war. The event merely confirmed Jefferson’s belief that “there is no end to the demand of these powers, nor any security in their promises.”

Continuing to appease the pirates lowered respect for the US and would only invite more trouble. “An insult unpunished is the parent of many others,” Jefferson had once written John Jay. Like Washington, he realized the sad irony that, in order to live in peace, a nation must be prepared to defend itself in war. Eventually, Jefferson decided that going to war would be cheaper than continuing to pay tribute.

As a result, Jefferson dispatched the new US Navy to the Barbary coast. Like later US involvement in Vietnam, it was an “executive war” and Congress never issued a formal declaration of hostilities.

5The Decatur Raid


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Led by Commodore Edward Preble, the US squadron proceeded to blockade Tripoli. Its flagship was the famous USS Constitution, whose seeming invulnerability to withering fire would earn her the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812.

But Preble’s campaign took a turn for the worse with the capture of the USS Philadelphia. The frigate had been chasing an enemy vessel when it foundered on a shoal and was swiftly surrounded by Tripolitan gunboats. With 307 American prisoners and a 40-gun frigate renamed the Gift of Allah added to his arsenal, Yusuf Karamanli felt strong enough to demand a staggering $3,000,000 in ransoms and a peace settlement.

Instead, Preble decided that the Philadelphia must be destroyed rather than be used by the pirates. A dashing young lieutenant named Stephen Decatur Jr. volunteered to lead a daring commando mission into Tripoli’s port to burn the frigate, which Yusuf had already sold to Tunis.

First, the Americans seized a small Tripolitan ship, which they renamed the Intrepid. Using its distinctive silhouette to creep into the harbor at night without arousing suspicion, Decatur and his party of 70 men pulled alongside the Philadelphia. They then tricked the Tripolitans into thinking that the Intrepid was a Maltese merchantman which had lost its anchor in a storm, before swarming aboard the Philadelphia “like a cluster of bees.” In the melee, a pirate lunged at Decatur with a sword, but a boatswain courageously stepped in and took the blow. Within 30 minutes, the Philadelphia was in flames.

The raid killed 20 Tripolitan guards and succeeded in turning the Philadelphia into a useless pile of junk. While Yusuf reacted with expected fury, Decatur became a national hero and the US Navy gained international prestige.

4The American Lawrence Of Arabia


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But there was still the matter of the 307 American hostages held by Yusuf. Enter a former Massachusetts schoolteacher named William Eaton, now the US consul in Tunis, who would come to be known as “America’s Lawrence of Arabia.” An accomplished linguist who spoke Greek and Latin, Eaton became fascinated with Islam after reading the Quran in Arabic. Like his British counterpart a century later, Eaton often wore local robes and became so comfortable with Arab culture and manners that a Bedouin chief supposedly exclaimed: “Eaton, pasha, you are a blood Arab!” Eaton’s desert instincts were so sharp, the Bedouin believed his eyes glowed in the dark and that he could smell an oasis from miles away.

As the war and the largely ineffectual blockade of Tripoli dragged on, Eaton was becoming impatient for decisive action. Meanwhile, Yusuf began to threaten the hostages with beheading if their ransom wasn’t paid. Gaining Jefferson’s authorization for a rescue mission, Eaton first went to Cairo to fetch Yusuf’s brother and rival, Hamet Karamanli, who could be useful in fomenting rebellion against the pasha. Eaton next gathered a ragtag mercenary force of Bedouins, Greeks, assorted adventurers, and common criminals, both Christian and Muslim. They were joined by Hamet’s harem and seven US Marines led by Lieutenant Neville Presley O’Bannon.

Looking more like a drunken mob than an army, the force departed Alexandria in March 1805. Forced to cross the trackless desert without maps to guide him, Eaton had to threaten decapitation to finally impose order. For an exhausting 50 days, Eaton and his “warriors” had to endure starvation, a near massacre, a near mutiny, a nighttime flash flood, sandstorms, and desert marauders. Finally, they arrived at the town of Derna. Eaton expected the town would welcome Hamet, allowing a quick stopover and rest before the column pressed on to Tripoli. But Derna’s governor had other plans.

3‘My Head Or Yours!’

"Attack on Derna"

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Instead of the warm welcome he hoped for, Eaton found Derna blocking his path to Tripoli. Most of the town actually supported Hamet—but it was the remaining third that wielded the guns and cannons. Governor Mustapha answered Eaton’s call for surrender with a defiant “My head or yours!” With news that reinforcements were on the way from Yusuf, Eaton had to act fast. Splitting his army into two, he ordered O’Bannon’s Marines and Christian mercenaries to attack from the east, while the Muslim cavalry would attack from the south under Hamet. Meanwhile, US warships in the bay would take out the fort’s cannons.

Outnumbered 10 to 1, the Marines and mercenaries nonetheless captured the fort. For the first time in history, the Stars and Stripes was raised over conquered foreign territory. (It was also the first time US Marines earned glory in overseas combat, an event commemorated by the Marine Corps Hymn’s famous reference to the “shores of Tripoli.”) Meanwhile, Hamet’s force had secured the governor’s palace, sending Mustapha into hiding in a sheik’s harem. The battle cost two Americans, nine Christian mercenaries, and an unknown number of Hamet’s Muslims.

For his bravery, Hamet presented O’Bannon with the elaborate Mameluke sword that became the pattern for the swords now worn on formal occasions by Marine commissioned and warrant officers. Fighting off a relief force led by Hassan Karamanli, Eaton held out for a month despite being hugely outnumbered. A frustrated Hassan reportedly bribed a woman to poison Eaton, but the plot was revealed by a local mullah. On June 11, Hassan launched a final charge, but was repulsed by Hamet.

Shaken by these events, Yusuf agreed to peace negotiations.

2Betrayal In Derna


With a peace agreement signed and the hostages freed upon payment of a $60,000 ransom, Eaton was ordered to evacuate Derna and hand it back to Yusuf’s forces. He was allowed to take Hamet with him but the rest of the army was to be abandoned. Eaton’s promise to install Hamet on the throne—which could have been the first US-sponsored “regime change” in history—was rendered void.

Eaton protested that leaving behind the people who had helped him went against his sense of “duty and decency.” He even accused the US consul in Algiers, Tobias Lear, of treachery for negotiating the treaty. But ultimately he had no choice but to obey his superiors. For Hamet, this confirmed his suspicions of the Americans’ true motives. Sullenly, he departed Derna at midnight and boarded the USS Constellation. It was said that when the townspeople awoke to find that the Americans had deserted them, their anguished cries were carried by the wind to the Constellation, where Eaton agonized as he heard them. The vengeful Yusuf subsequently massacred those who failed to flee. Yusuf also took custody of Hamet’s wife and children, while Hamet himself retired to Sicily.

Eaton was welcomed as a hero when he returned to America. But he could never shake off the betrayal of his Muslim allies. He increasingly grew embittered against the government, alienating many of his associates. Still, when Aaron Burr tried to enlist Eaton in his conspiracy to set up his own state and urged him to recruit Preble, Decatur, and the Marine Corps, Eaton refused and even testified against Burr. But nothing could stop Eaton’s descent into alcoholism and he died a broken, lonely man in 1811, aged 47. He was buried in an unmarked grave in his native Massachusetts.

1Decatur Dictates Terms


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Yusuf signed a treaty promising to cease piratical attacks on the US. Following suit, the Bey of Tunis sent a horse to Jefferson as a gift, which Jefferson refused. But the US was soon embroiled in the War of 1812 and the Dey of Algiers decided America was too busy to mind the pirates. He announced his intention “to increase the number of my American slaves,” attacking the brig Edwin and capturing its crew in August 1812.

It was only in March 1815 that President James Madison felt able to send Stephen Decatur to deal with Algiers. With a squadron of nine warships, the Americans quickly made an impression on the Dey with the capture of his flagship, Mashuda, killing his admiral and taking 486 prisoners. In a treaty described by Decatur as “dictated at the mouth of the cannon,” he demanded that the Dey liberate all his slaves, pay an indemnity of $10,000 to the survivors of the Edwin, and end his extortion racket forever. Lamenting that everything had been a “misunderstanding,” the Dey accepted the terms, expressing his desire to correct matters with “the amiable James Madison, the Emperor of America” and accepted the terms. Decatur had shot down one of the Barbary states in two weeks. Tunis and Tripoli were next.

Again displaying an intimidating presence with his large fleet, Decatur confronted the Bey of Tunis. Grooming his beard with a diamond-encrusted comb, the Dey supposedly muttered, “Why do they send wild young men to treat for peace with the old powers?” He paid the Americans $46,000 to move their menacing fleet away. Lastly, Tripoli also freed its 10 Christian slaves and paid a $25,000 indemnity.

Decatur returned to an America ecstatic with his achievements. Following the lead of the “fat duck,” the European powers also took stern measures and the Barbary corsairs never again terrorized the seas. At a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, Decatur made an immortal (and controversial) toast: “Our Country. In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong.”

Larry is a freelance writer whose main interests are history and chess.

fact checked by Jamie Frater