Most Americans probably think the Islamic terrorists declared war on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.

Actually, it started a long time before – right from the birth of the nation.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were commissioned by the first Congress to assemble in Paris to see about marketing U.S. products in Europe.

Jefferson quickly surmised that the biggest challenge facing U.S. merchant ships were those referred to euphemistically as “Barbary pirates.”

They weren’t “pirates” at all, in the traditional sense, Jefferson noticed. They didn’t drink and chase women and they really weren’t out to strike it rich. Instead, their motivation was strictly religious. They bought and sold slaves, to be sure. They looted ships. But they used their booty to buy guns, ships, cannon and ammunition.

Like those we call “terrorists” today, they saw themselves engaged in jihad and called themselves “mujahiddin.”

Why did these 18th-century terrorists represent such a grave threat to U.S. merchant ships? With independence from Great Britain, the former colonists lost the protection of the greatest navy in the world. The U.S. had no navy – not a single warship.

Jefferson inquired of his European hosts how they dealt with the problem. He was stunned to find out that France and England both paid tribute to the fiends – who would, in turn, use the money to expand their own armada, buy more weaponry, hijack more commercial ships, enslave more innocent civilians and demand greater ransom.

This didn’t make sense to Jefferson. He recognized the purchase of peace from the Muslims only worked temporarily. They would always find an excuse to break an agreement, blame the Europeans and demand higher tribute.

After three months researching the history of militant Islam, he came up with a very different policy to deal with the terrorists. But he didn’t get to implement until years later.

As the first secretary of state, Jefferson urged the building of a navy to rescue American hostages held in North Africa and to deter future attacks on U.S. ships. In 1792, he commissioned John Paul Jones to go to Algiers under the guise of diplomatic negotiations, but with the real intent of sizing up a future target of a naval attack.

Jefferson was ready to retire a year later when what could only be described as “America’s first Sept. 11” happened.

America was struck with its first mega-terror attack by jihadists. In the fall of 1793, the Algerians seized 11 U.S. merchant ships and enslaved more than 100 Americans.

When word of the attack reached New York, the stock market crashed. Voyages were canceled in every major port. Seamen were thrown out of work. Ship suppliers went out of business. What Sept. 11 did to the U.S. economy in 2001, the mass shipjacking of 1793 did to the fledgling U.S. economy in that year.

Accordingly, it took the U.S. Congress only four months to decide to build a fleet of warships.

But even then, Congress didn’t choose war, as Jefferson prescribed. Instead, while building what would become the U.S. Navy, Congress sent diplomats to reason with the Algerians. The U.S. ended up paying close to $1 million and giving the pasha of Algiers a new warship, “The Crescent,” to win release of 85 surviving American hostages.

It wasn’t until 1801, under the presidency of Jefferson, that the U.S. engaged in what became a four-year war against Tripoli. And it wasn’t until 1830, when France occupied Algiers, and later Tunisia and Morocco, that the terrorism on the high seas finally ended.

France didn’t leave North Africa until 1962 – and it quickly became a major base of terrorism once again.

What’s the moral of the story? Appeasement never works. Jefferson saw it. Sept. 11 was hardly the beginning. The war in which we fight today is the longest conflict in human history. It’s time to learn from history, not repeat its mistakes.


Research on the topic of Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary pirates was provided by Sha’i ben-Tekoa.

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