No more. That was President Thomas Jefferson’s answer to the rulers of the Barbary States of North Africa. For centuries, the Barbary States had licensed pirates to attack merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates not only captured booty but also held crews for ransom or sold them in the market as slaves.
European nations and the young United States had been paying the Barbary rulers huge sums of money to “protect” their ships from the pirates. It was an extortion racket, pure and simple.
When Jefferson became president, he refused to pay the tribute. The Bashaw of Tripoli declared war, and other Barbary rulers soon followed. In response, Jefferson sent Navy ships to the region.
In late 1803 the USS Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli’s harbor, and the Tripoli pirates captured it. So on February 16, 1804, young Lt. Stephen Decatur launched a raid to keep the Tripolitans from using the ship. Disguising themselves as Maltese sailors, Decatur and his men – who included several U.S. Marines – sailed into Tripoli harbor, boarded the Philadelphia, attacked its crew, set the ship ablaze, and sailed away. The great British admiral Horatio Nelson reportedly called the exploit “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
The next year, a motley army of U.S. Marines, sailors, and Greek and Arab mercenaries struck again. They marched 500 miles across the Libyan Desert to take the coastal town of Derna, with help from three U.S. warships. From this victory, the Marines’ Hymn takes the line “to the shores of Tripoli,” and Marine officers still wear Mameluke swords shaped like Arab scimitars.
By the summer of 1805, the Bashaw of Tripoli had had enough. Thomas Jefferson’s willingness to stand up to the Barbary rulers and their pirates had triumphed in America’s first war on terror in the Middle East.