Americans contemplating a Mediterranean cruise in the near future should perhaps think again. Islamic State militants are now close to securing control of part of the Libyan coast. If they succeed, cruise ships and merchant vessels could be their next targets.
The threat is real. Seth Cropsey, a former naval officer and current director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, put it this way in a recent opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal; “ISIS’s prospects for significant naval power are remote. But small boats, fishing vessels, smugglers, and merchant craft that carry concealed weapons could hijack, sink, or rake commercial shipping, including cruise liners in the central Mediterranean.”
Maritime lawyer Jim Walker, who specializes in passenger safety issues, is even more blunt. When asked if Americans who cruise the Mediterranean were putting themselves in harm’s way, he replied, “In a word, yes.”
Experts warn that barbarities like the 1985 hijacking of liner Achille Lauro or the more recent raids by Somali pirates could be recreated throughout the Mediterranean, which is one of the world’s busiest waterways. Some commentators have even harked back over 200 years to the days when the Barbary Pirates of North Africa took ships and hostages at will.
As a former naval officer myself, I say by all means, let us remember the Barbary Pirates. That chapter of our history offers the best guide as to how we should respond to this latest potential threat.
In the late 18th century, the United States was an infant republic, yet we were already a trading nation. American merchant vessels plied the Mediterranean, where they were liable to be attacked by the Barbary Pirates and held hostage.
Ships of the other European powers were similarly at risk, but since these countries were preoccupied with the Napoleonic wars, the accepted practice of the time was to ransom the captives and pay protection to the rulers of the Barbary States (Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers) for the privilege of sailing unmolested.
This country, having no navy, followed the accepted practice. The result was predictable. The pirates got greedy, demanding more and more in the way of tribute. Also, they didn’t keep their word. They continued their raiding, which meant more money spent to liberate American sailors from foul North African dungeons. In 1795, for example, the United States paid $1 million to Algiers alone in ransoms and tributes. That was 20 percent of the country’s total annual budget.
So matters stood until a new president, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1801. Jefferson had been a longstanding and vocal opponent of tribute payments, and finally national opinion was swinging his way. The U.S. Department of the Navy had been created in 1798, largely in response to the Barbary threat. Just before Jefferson was sworn in, Congress had voted for six frigates to “protect our commerce” and to “chastise the insolence” of the pirates. So Jefferson was in a position to answer force with force.
Jefferson dispatched a naval squadron to the Mediterranean. Pirate ships were sunk and Barbary ports blockaded. Tripoli was subjected to naval bombardment, and menaced on land by a force of mercenaries spearheaded by U.S. Marines. (This occasion was the first time the American flag flew over foreign soil and inspired the reference to “the shores of Tripoli” in the “Marines’ Hymn.”)
The War of 1812 interrupted American policing of the Mediterranean, but it was resumed when the war was over. Finally, in 1815, a series of treaties ended forever the payment of tribute by the United States.
So much for 200 years ago. What if the Barbary Pirates return in the guise of ISIS?
During the Cold War, American naval strength in the Mediterranean included two aircraft carriers, an amphibious ready group and escorting vessels. Today, it is reduced to a command ship based in Italy and a handful of missile-carrying destroyers based in Spain. If we are to counter the new potential threat posed by ISIS, we must strengthen our naval presence in this region.
Back when we were a poor and insignificant nation, we successfully met the challenge of Islamic terrorism on the seas by developing naval muscle. Today, we are a global superpower. We have the wherewithal to deal with a reincarnation of the Barbary pirates. The question is, do we have the will?
• Thomas C. Stewart is a former Navy commander who flew combat during the first Iraq war.