What Was America's First Terrorist Threat?

By: Josh Clark

Members of the American radical group the Weathermen protest in Chicago in 1969. See more pictures of protests.
Members of the American radical group the Weathermen protest in Chicago in 1969. See more pictures of protests.
David Fenton/Getty Images

Thanks to radical groups like Germany's Red Army Faction, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and American-bred terrorists like the Weathermen and the Ku Klux Klan, "terrorism" became a household word in the Western world around 1950. Regardless of their political, religious or financial motives, what characterizes terrorist groups is their willingness to involve civilians in unconventional warfare. By threatening public safety, terrorists place ordinary people in the middle of a conflict -- often between the organization and the establishment it's fighting.

The history of terrorism in the United States climaxed on Sept. 11, 2001, when Muslim jihadists flew hijacked airliners into buildings in New York and Washington and into a Pennsylvania field. But America's acquaintance with terrorism began centuries before, immediately after the colonies gained independence from England and became a nation.


These terrorists operated along the North African coast -- the Barbary Coast. This region was named after two Turkish brothers who wreaked havoc on European Christians and helped establish Turkish domination of North Africa [source: Global Security]. The Spaniards nicknamed the pirate brothers "Barbarossa" Moors who'd been driven from Spain by Christians in 1492.

Almost immediately, the Mediterranean Sea, which lies between North Africa and Southern Europe, saw a vast increase in piracy, which grew in scope and magnitude through the centuries. And as the United States entered the world stage, it found that it had to deal with the terrorist threat of Barbary piracy. Like Europe, America was burdened with the demand for vast sums of money by rulers of the Barbary States of Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli and Tunis. And, like the European nations that had been dealing with the Barbary pirates for centuries, America also tried combating the issue with diplomacy and military action.

­On the next page, read about the terrorist threat that travelers, inhabitants and merchants living in and passing through the Mediterranean faced.


The Barbary Pirates

A 1637 depiction of 22 tortures inflicted on Christian slaves captured by Barbary pirates
A 1637 depiction of 22 tortures inflicted on Christian slaves captured by Barbary pirates
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Mediterranean Sea has served as a platform for piracy for millennia. Both Muslims and Christians have engaged in piracy, kidnapping and enslavement with the sea s­erving as a thoroughfare. But the nations along the Barbary Coast developed in earnest due to piracy. Although control over the area changed hands several times from 1492 onward, piracy was a constant source of revenue for the region.

Because of their geographic placement along the naval trade routes between Europe and the East Indies (the modern Middle East), the Barbary pirates were in an excellent position to extract wealth from Europe. These pirates were good at their trade: At one point in the 17th century, an estimated 20,000 people captured by the Barbaries were thought to be held in Algiers alone [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. The threat of piracy was so pronounced that a system of tribute was established. European nations that traded in and beyond the Mediterranean paid the Barbary States to keep pirates from molesting their vessels and capturing their crews. This gave the Barbaries several sources of revenue: plundering ships, capturing people and accepting tribute from Europe.


The more overt extortion method of ransom was lucrative for the Barbary pirates as well. Wealthy captured travelers could pay to secure their freedom; those who couldn't pay were usually sold into slavery. This practice was widespread enough that the French Catholic Order of Mathurins began collecting alms for a fund to pay ransoms for sailors captured by the pirates from the Barbary Coast.

The Barbaries' continued success with piracy was in part due to abetment from Europe. Most large nations trading in the Indies had diplomats in the Barbary countries. These diplomats encouraged the Barbaries to plunder other countries' ships rather than those of the diplomat's home nation. During the Age of Exploration, nations largely resembled corporations, with the country's monarch acting as CEO. In many cases, like the British East India Company, actual corporations served as the financial instruments for building nations' treasuries. So the European countries were like competing companies in today's marketplace of international trade. The Barbary pirates were both a nuisance and a useful tool -- they deterred competition from smaller nations in the Mediterranean that couldn't afford to pay off the pirates or lacked diplomatic ties with the Barbaries.

The Barbaries demanded tribute from nations trading beyond the Mediterranean based on their size. Smaller states paid lesser bribes, while large, powerful nations paid more. The United States fell into the former category -- at first. But after it gained its independence, America quickly fell into the European pattern of extortion under the Barbary States. The U.S. even included $80,000 in its 1784 fiscal budget for tribute to the Barbary governments [source: Gawalt]. By 1795, when the Barbary States realized that the young nation had a significant fleet of merchant ships and a continent's worth of raw materials, the United States had to dole out around $1 million [source: Gawalt]. Because the U.S. was capable of making a disproportionately large amount of money from East Indies trade, the Barbaries' demands for tribute increased.

This posed a potentially crippling threat to American trade, but the United States, like its European counterparts, was willing to pay. The extortion ended when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. It was Jefferson who took America's first hard-line stance against the Barbary pirate states. Read about Jefferson and the pirates on the next page.

Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was opposed to negotiating with pirates. He had to wait until he became president before he was able to take action against the Barbary pirates.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So great was the problem posed by the state-sponsored piracy that the Barbary nations are mentioned explicitly in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, a 1778 pact between France and the United States [source: Yale]. The treaty calls on France to use its diplomatic powers to protect captured sailors and persuade the leaders of the Barbary nations to refrain from capturing American ships.

This treaty was hammered out largely by Benjamin Franklin. He served as one of the United States' first diplomats and was succeeded as America's ambassador to France by Thomas Jefferson in 1785 [source: National Archives]. The U.S. was deeply allied with France because its relations with another superpower -- England -- were shaky at best. It was from Paris that Jefferson began a campaign against the Barbary States.


Jefferson tried to assemble a confederation of nations to take action against the Barbaries. His plan failed, however, because it lacked consent from France and England [source: Gawalt]. He would have to wait until he became president to enjoy enough autonomy to take on the Barbary States. In the meantime, the U.S. and Europe continued to pay tribute and lose citizens and goods to the pirates. In one case, an American vessel bringing tribute to Algiers was forced to sail on to Constantinople to deliver Algiers' tribute to the king there -- with the humiliating command to fly the flag of Algiers en route [source: Fremont-Barnes].

Just before Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, the pasha (Turkish ruler) of Tripoli released the crew members of two recently captured American ships on the condition that the U.S. increase its tribute. If America refused, the Barbary States would declare war on the United States. Jefferson ordered a naval expedition to the Mediterranean, resulting in the First Barbary War (1801-1805). In the war, Tunis and Algiers broke their alliance with Tripoli. For four years, the U.S. fought with Tripoli and Morocco. The battles were mostly naval, including Lt. Stephen Decatur's daring raid on the Tripoli harbor to demolish a captured American ship, removing it from enemy hands.

But it was on land -- through military action and diplomacy -- that the U.S. won the war with the Barbary States. Using tactics similar to those of the Green Berets today, a contingent of American Marines landed in Tripoli (which gave rise to the first line in the Marines' anthem) and identified groups in opposition to the pasha. These opposition groups were amassed into an insurgency that threatened the pasha's throne. As a result, Tripoli agreed to a treaty ending the war in 1805 [source: Gawalt].

The Second Barbary War (1815), under President James Madison's term, was more ham-fisted than the first. In this war, U.S. vessels bombarded Tunis and Algiers, captured prisoners and demanded treaties that freed the U.S. from both Barbary threat and extorted tribute [source: The New American]. The Second Barbary War lasted less than a year, and following its show of naval strength, the U.S. discontinued paying tribute to the Barbary States. This caused a ripple effect among the European nations. Within the next decades, the coast of North Africa and the Barbary rulers fell to European imperialism [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

For more information on pirates and other related topics, visit the next page.

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