Raiding trade-caravans and hostage-taking for extracting ransom in Islam was started by Prophet Muhammad. Having become powerful and secure after his relocation to Medina from Mecca in 622, Muhammad initiated Jihad or holy war in the form of raids of trade-caravans for earning livelihood for his community. In the first successful raid of a Meccan caravan at Nakhla in December 623, his brigands killed one of the attendants, took two of them captive, and acquired the caravan as “sacred” booty. The captives were ransomed to generate further revenue. Muhammad, later on, expanded this mode of Jihad to raiding non-Muslim communities around Arabia—for capturing their homes, properties and livestock, capturing their women and children as slaves often for ransoming and selling, and imposing extortional taxes—which sometimes involved mass-slaughter of the attacked victims.
This ideal model of Jihad—initiated by Muhammad, whose actions are of eternal relevance and must be emulated by individual Muslims at all time—continued throughout the ages of Islamic domination. The Prophet’s attack of trade-caravans disrupting trades and taking hostage for ransoming or selling as slaves also remained in force until Western powers put an end to it in the 19th century.
Over three centuries starting in the 1530s, Barbary Islamic pirates—on the ground of their Jihadi right and patronized by Islamic regimes of Tripoli, Algiers and Morocco—kept attacking Western trade-ships in the Mediterranean water off North Africa. Thousands of ships were captured and plundered and their crews taken captive, who were sold as highly-priced slaves. Between one and one-and-a-half million white Westerners were enslaved between 1530s and 1820s. These captives, who generally suffered harrowing treatment and brutalities, were sometimes released by Europeans government by paying exorbitant ransoms, detailed in my book: Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.
While Europeans, particularly the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians and the British became the worst victims, American ships started falling victim to corsair depredations beginning in 1646. American victims were negotiated by the British until 1776; after the independence, America had to handle the problem on her own. In 1784, Barbary corsairs in Morocco and Algiers captured three American ships and enslaved the crew. After protracted negotiations, a $60,000 ransom was paid to release the Moroccan hostages, while those, captured in Algeria, were not released but were sold into slavery.
Exasperated by this dehumanizing activities and crippling disruption of trade, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams held a meeting with Tripoli’s Ambassador to London Abd al-Rahman in 1785. Ambassador al-Rahman demanded tribute for the protection of U.S. ships from attack and asked for his own commission, justifying the illegal acts as thus:
“...it was written in the Quran that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their (Islamic) 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 Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Shocked and enraged, Jefferson sought to put an end to this barbaric practice for making the sea-ways secure for trade through military actions. In 1784, he had already proposed to Congressman James Monroe (U.S. President 1817–25):
“Would it not be better to offer then an equal treaty? If they refuse, why not go to war with them… We ought to begin a naval power if we mean to carry on our own commerce.”
While on diplomatic duty in Paris, he unsuccessfully tried to build a coalition of American-European naval powers for military actions against Barbary piracy. But most politicians at home, even John Adams, opposed his idea. Adams, worried of losing a military confrontation with a doggedly warrior people, wrote in response to Jefferson’s “bold and wholly honorable” proposal that “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.”
Through the subsequent period, including Adam’s presidency (17947–1801), America settled for the payment of ignominious tribute to North African Islamic regimes, which gradually increased to as high as 10 percent of the national budget.
When Thomas Jefferson became the President in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, citing late payment of tribute declared war on the United States, seizing two American brigs, and demanded additional tributes. This followed demands for larger tributes from other BarbaryStates as well.
Oil painting by Dennis Malone Carter, 43" x 59", depicting Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (lower right center) in mortal combat with the Tripolitan Captain.
Jefferson—always against the humiliating tribute payment and, undoubtedly, not forgotten his encounter with the Tripolian ambassador—sent forth a naval fleet to North Africa for military actions without informing the Congress. In retaliation, Tripoli declared war on the United States in May 1801 and Morocco the next year. America soon suffered a setback when Tripoli captured the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, but Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur soon mounted a heroic raid on the Tripolian harbor, destroying the captured ship and inflicting heavy damage on the city’s defences. This news created great excitement in the U.S. and Europe: a new power has arrived on the world-stage to stand up to the savage terror in North Africa. Nonetheless, the crisis remained unsolved.
Exploiting the new Anglo-American hostility that started 1812, Algiers’ new pasha, Hajji Ali, demanding higher tribute, let the corsairs resumed attack on American ships. Once the Anglo-American war ended, President James Madison, with approval of the Congress, declared war on Algiers on 3 March 1815 and dispatched the battle-hardened naval force, again commanded by Stephen Decatur to North Africa, to put a complete end to the piracy problem.
The U.S. navy destroyed the fleets of reigning Dey Omar Pasha, filled his grand harbor with heavily armed American ships and took hundreds prisoner. The Dey capitulated and reluctantly accepted the treaty dictated by Decatur, pledging never to capture trade-ships and demand tribute. Decatur sailed to Tunis and Tripoli to force the rulers to signing of similar treaties.
President Madison’s words on this occasion, which inaugurated a new U.S. foreign policy paradigm, were: “It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute; the United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.”
Encouraged by the U.S. actions, European powers, led by Britain, initiated similar military actions soon afterward, while the French initiated a full-scale invasion of Morocco, not only to put a complete end to the disruption of trades by Jihadi Islamic corsairs, but also to free the degraded Christian subjects of North Africa.
The dramatic and successful rescue of Captain Phillips without paying ransom proves that the U.S. foreign policy, declared by President Madison two centuries ago, still holds.
However, there are increasing depredations of trade-ships by Somalian pirates in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean; that the French recently lost a hostage, owner of a seized yatch, in a rescue bid by commandos lately; and that the pirates have vowed to retaliate by especially targeting the U.S. and French ships. Indeed, they have hit back by cpaturing six more ships and made a failed attempt to capture another U.S. ship over the next two days. Moreover, the increasing payment of ransom by various governments in recent has obviously been emboldening these illegal activities. Hostage taking for extracting ransom by Jihadi groups is also increasing around the world.
Under these circumstances, a detailed review of the past European and American struggle against the same problem in North Africa lasting three centuries may be instructive for governments and international organizations in devising effective countermeasures to put an end to this unacceptable illegal and uncivilized activity.
MA Khan is the editor of Islam-watch.org and the author of Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.