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The Barbary Pirates: Islamic Terrorism and America’s First Military Victory

Editor’s note: The following account is partially excerpted from the author’s new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West (with a foreword by Victor Davis Hanson).  

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Many Americans erroneously trace the roots of Islamic terrorism against their nation to September 11, 2001. In reality, the United States’ very first conflict with Muslim terrorists was also its very first war as a nation -- and it won that war 213 years ago, on June 10, 1805.

Centuries before that, the Barbary States of Muslim North Africa -- specifically Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis -- had been thriving on the slave trade of Europeans abducted from virtually every corner of coastal Europe, including Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland. These raids were so successful, “between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly a million and quite possibly as many as a million and a quarter white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast,” to quote American historian Robert Davis.

The treatment of these European slaves was exacerbated by the fact that they were “infidels” and their owners Muslims. As Robert Playfair (b. 1828), who served for years as a consul in Barbary, explained: “In almost every case they [European slaves] were hated on account of their religion.”  Three centuries earlier, John Foxe (b. 1516) had written this in his Book of Martyrs: “In no part of the globe are Christians so hated, or treated with such severity, as at Algiers.”

If the generic treatment of European slaves was marked by contempt and cruelty, the punishments they received for real or imagined offenses beggared description (though should be familiar to anyone following the Muslim persecution of Christians in the modern era): “If they speak against Mahomet [blasphemy], they must become Mahometans, or be impaled alive. If they profess Christianity again, after having changed to the Mahometan persuasion, they are roasted alive [as apostates], or thrown from the city walls, and caught upon large sharp hooks, on which they hang till they expire.”

By the mid-Eighteenth Century, after Barbary’s ability to abduct coastal Europeans had waned, its energy was spent on raiding infidel merchant vessels. Instead of responding by collectively confronting and neutralizing Barbary, European powers, always busy quarrelling among themselves, opted to buy peace through tribute (or, according to Muslim rationale, jizya).

Fresh meat appeared on the horizon once the newly born United States broke free of Great Britain (and was therefore no longer protected by the latter’s jizya payments). In 1785, Muslim pirates captured two American ships, the Maria and Dauphin, and enslaved their crews. Considering the aforementioned treatment of white slaves, when Captain O’Brien of the Dauphin later wrote to Thomas Jefferson that “our sufferings are beyond our expression or your conception,” he was not exaggerating.