America’s First Great War Against Islamic Terrorists


From about the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire maintained control of the Mediterranean Sea primarily through the capitals of three of its provinces –Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

These three cities, including Salé and Morocco, were a part of the Barbary Coast States. From their foothold on the Mediterranean Sea on the African side, the Barbary Coast Pirates not only raided Christian communities on the European side, but they also attacked ships traveling on the open sea.

During their attacks, they would claim all valuable cargo and would ransom or enslave the captured enemy. (This eventually led to the Barbary Coast War in 1801, after President Thomas Jefferson, refused to pay ransom for the safety of U.S. crew and cargo, hijacked by the pirates. In 1815 treaties were signed with the United States that finally ended all tribute payments to the pirates.) ~ Joe David, author of The Infidels

America’s First Great Foreign War

The first time the U.S. flag flew over foreign soil taken in battle was in a war against international terrorists, not driven so much by ideology as a lust for gold. We fought these terrorists long and hard but it has been lost to history.

A Barbary pirate.
A Barbary pirate.

The terrorists were known as the Barbary Pirates.

In 1800 or 1801, the year Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as president, 20% of our federal income went towards paying bribes and extortion to the Barbary States which were the Muslim states of Tripoli and others. Jefferson thought this was appalling and argued against it in Congress.

The ill-conceived practice started 15 years earlier in 1785 when Algerian pirates captured a number of our merchant ships, which were no longer being protected by the British for obvious reasons. The pirates demanded $60,000 to release the ships and crew.

The name Barberry was derived from Khair ad Din, known in the West as Barbarossa or, in translation, Redbeard.

Following in the ancient Mediterranean tradition of piracy,  Barbarossa seized Algiers in 1510. He was the first ruler of a modern pirate state.

The Sultan in Constantinople went into business with him and gave Maghrib, North Africa, to Barbarossa which he and his descendants ruled for the next 200 years.

Movies exalt these terrorists but they were murderers, rapists and slave traders, making a living from ransoming hostages and demanding tribute from merchants. Their vices were no different than today’s mobsters and terrorists and they were for hire by any prince who wanted to harass or destroy an enemy.

British Captain witnessing the miseries of Christian slaves in Algiers 1815.
British Captain witnessing the miseries of Christian slaves in Algiers 1815.

It Spread from Africa to The Old World

In 1662, the English crown began to pay an annual tribute of gold, jewels, arms, and supplies to be spared. France and Spain followed suit. This was The Holy Roman Empire. Many of those ransomed never made it back and were sold into slavery and prostitution, both men and women were prostituted.

The French Christian religious order of Mathurins collected money to pay for hostages so they would not have to become Muslims under duress.

By the late 1700s, the Barbary States included Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, all ruled by petty potentates demanding tribute. This was the Ottoman Empire.

During the U.S. War of Independence, the French secured safe passage for American ships, prior to that it had been the British.

By 1783, the pirates saw the wealth of the U.S. mercantile fleet and demanded an annual tribute. The U.S. Congress under John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (who strongly objected) arranged for these payments.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Tripoli’s ambassador to Great Britain and asked why they felt they could enslave American citizens and why the Muslims held such hostilities towards America.

Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the ambassador, responded with a quote, “Islam was founded on the laws of their prophet that was written in the Koran that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authorities 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 every Muslim man — Muslim — who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise.”

Thomas Jefferson first came in contact with them when he was Minister to France at the same time the U.S. agreed to pay tribute. He was torn in his opposition to the pirates who were Islamists because of his fervent belief in freedom of religion. How far should he go?

When Jefferson was sworn in president, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded an immediate payment of $225,000 plus $25,000 a year every year forthcoming.Jefferson was the first president to inform the Pasha there would be no more tributes.

In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote that he unsuccessfully endeavored to form an association of the powers who were victimized by these terrorists. “I accordingly prepared, and proposed articles of a special confederation,” Jefferson said. He argued that “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 favorably disposed to such an association,” Jefferson remembered, but “there were apprehensions that England and France would follow their own paths, and so it fell through.”

The pirates had expanded beyond Africa to the west coast of Ireland, threatening all U.S. commerce with the Old World.

Jefferson Had Enough

In 1785 the Dey of Algiers captured an American ship and seized its crew. By 1794 he took eleven more ships and would hold 119 crewmen for ransom.

Jefferson had enough and wrote to Congressman James Madison in 1786 that, “despite his personal misgivings concerning a standing military: [t]he 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.”

As Secretary of State under George Washington, Jefferson urged the President to halt the payment of further tributes, arguing it would only encourage greater demands.

Unfortunately, the young republic could not afford, and the national sentiment argued against, fighting a war while memories of the War of Independence were still fresh. While Washington himself was vehemently against entanglements in affairs beyond American waters, he none-the-less lobbied Congress to build six new frigates under the aegis of fighting piracy.

Jefferson was compelled to instruct his emissary, John Paul Jones, to negotiate the price of freedom of the seas from the pirates–only to have his entreaties rejected.

On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia passed a resolution stating that “two battalions of Marines be raised” for service as landing forces with the fleet. The formation of the Continental Marines was sponsored by John Adams. It is the birthday of the modern U.S. Marines.

In 1795, the practice of tributes and ransoms continued despite the improved Navy. However, when the American hostages were released, their horrific stories finally impacted the national consciousness.

They were fed near-starvation rations, beaten regularly, and put to work breaking rocks on chain gangs, or scraping barnacles off ship hulls. Some of them had been imprisoned for 12 years, waiting for their countrymen to save them. Thirty-one died in captivity.

Captain William Bainbridge sailed the frigate George Washington into Algiers’ harbor in 1800 to pay tribute and was taken hostage himself. After suffering some humiliation, he brandished a weapon at the dey and was released.

Upon returning home, he wrote to the secretary of the Navy, “I hope I shall never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon.”

The Barbary States Became Emboldened

Seeing the weakness of the Americans, the Barbary States increased the demands on the United States. When President Washington died, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded $10,000, claiming it was the custom when a great man died.

When Jefferson became president, the tribute reached 2 million dollars. The slogan became “millions for defense, not a penny for tribute.” He put an end to the extortion racket.

A sea fight with pirates.
A sea fight with pirates.

He dispatched Commodore Dale to set sail for the Mediterranean leading a task force with the frigates Philadelphia, Essex, and President, and the sloop Enterprise.

When the Pasha hadn’t received his ransom in 1801, he humiliated the US representative to his court, among other gestures that meant he was at war.

Several battles occurred between this time and Congress declaring war.

In 1803, Commodore Edward Preble was able to compel the sultan of Morocco to abandon hostilities by sailing to Tangiers and pointing his cannons at the sultan’s palace. However, Preble’s command was undone by a serious setback when the unlucky Captain William Bainbridge, who ran aground while trying to single-handedly blockade. His crew were taken prisoner, officers were held for ransom and the enlisted men were pressed into slavery.

Attempts at ransom were dismissed by Preble.

The First Great Hero of the Barbary Wars

Lt. Stephen Decatur became the first hero of the Barbary Wars. Using a captured Turkish ketch renamed Intrepid, and disguising his seventy-four volunteers as Arabs, they sailed silently into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 15, 1804.

They came alongside the Philadelphia and scaled its hull with grappling hooks. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, they pounced on the sleeping crew screaming and brandishing only hand weapons. Twenty pirates were dead within minutes. The rest of the crew were compelled to abandon ship by jumping overboard as Decatur’s men set about laying charges.

Decatur and his men evaded the Pasha and his cannons, making it safely to Malta without any loss of life.

At age twenty-five, Stephen Decatur was promoted to Captain. He still is the youngest person to ever command a vessel in the history of the U.S. Navy.

When British Admiral Lord Nelson heard of the raid, he called it the most bold and daring act of the age.

Despite the size of Preble’s armada, which now included the Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), he was hopelessly outmanned and outgunned by the pirates. Nevertheless he continued to take pirate vessels, and bombarded Tripoli harbor five times over the course of the next seven months.

The Pasha still refused to negotiate a hostage exchange. On September 3, 1804, the Intrepid, coated with pitch and turpentine and outfitted like a floating bomb, was towed into Tripoli harbor. The idea was to blow her up in the harbor and blockade the pirate fleet. Sadly, the guns guarding the entrance to the harbor opened fire and destroyed her before she could accomplish her mission.

A Great Man Overlooked

Preble’s, a courageous Commodore was replaced by Jefferson with John Rogers. His bravery and service were not known at the time except by his crew who loved him and proudly served under him. He died a year later of TB.

Pope Pius VII said that under Preble, Americans had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.

Sadly, the U.S. now sits on the sidelines watching Christians and Jews slaughtered.

To maintain his credibility and with a partisan Congress, Jefferson sent 23 ships under the command of Rogers to the Mediterranean in 1805.

The Marines who were reactivated in 1798 consisted of only 8 Marines led by Lt. Presley O’Bannon and a Navy midshipman names Pascal Paoli Peck.

Special envoy General William Eaton hatched a cover plan utilizing  the Marines. They traveled to Alexandria and raised an army to support a pretender to the Pasha’s throne who would be backed by the tiny U.S. force. They raised a motley Arab force.

The Marines followed General Eaton, facing starvation and attacks. “Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow,” O’Bannon insisted. “If he wants us to march to hell, we’ll gladly go there.”

Battles ensued which ended two days after the Marines joined the U.S. force at Derna. The American flag was raised and a friendly potentate was installed.

It was the valor of these Marines that inspired the hymn, “Mission Accomplished”.

Unfortunately, Jefferson had been in negotiations and the Pasha was allowed to keep his throne and his piracy.

In 1807 three ships were taken by the Algerians and ransomed for $18,000. Piracy and tribute had returned and would last on and off for another seven years.

It Was Finally Over or Almost

Following the War of 1812, Stephen Decatur entered the Mediterranean with ten tall ships and the steely determination that made him a hero. Like Preble before him, he let his cannon do the talking.

Fighting fire with fire, he took 486 prisoners and forced the Algerians to pay a ransom of $10,000, to release all captives immediately, and to cease and desist all demands for further tribute from America forever.

The threat was finally over until 1904.

It took the U.S. three decades to rid itself of the terrorists of the Mediterranean.

A hundred years later, Ion Perdicaris, a naturalized US citizen, was kidnapped by a Moroccan Berber chieftain Sherif Ahmed er Raisuli and ransomed for $70,000. American President Teddy Roosevelt, a Naval Historian, would have none of it, declaring “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” to the Republican National Convention of 1904.

Morocco paid the ransom out of fear of war with the U.S. That was the end until the empire was defeated and divided up.

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…” came from these wars.

Source: America’s First War On Terror by Paul Fallon

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments