GANGPLANK: The Lessons of the Barbary Wars

Acts of piracy and boarding events in the Gulf of Aden are classic examples of Islamic and Bedouin mischief. In the early 1800’s, the Barbary Pirates of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya raided shipping in the Mediterranean Ocean. The Barbary countries taxed tribute to nations in Europe and the US. Pirates captured military and commercial ships, pressing the crews into slavery or worse.

The Gulf of Aden north of Somalia is Pirate Central. Somali pirates, organized into marauding gangs in fast-moving boats, are seizing commerce vessels at sea. Once boarded, the pirates hold the ships and crews. Companies and countries are forced to walk the gangplank through high ransom payments.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussed the issue with Tripoli’s envoy in London.  His answer parallels Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa.  Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja had a blunt message for Adams and Jefferson. “It was written in the Koran,” Rahman Adja said, “that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim man who is slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

US Navy and Marines fighting the Barbary Pirates

To the Muslims of the Barbary Coast, there were only two forces at play in the world. Dar al-Islam or House of Islam meant Muslim government and Sharia Law. The second, Dar al-Harb, or House of War, was everywhere else outside Islam, the area not under Muslim control where infidels ruled. As part of this House of War, the Barbary Pirates implement al-Jihad fil-Bahr, The Holy War at Sea, on European and American commerce coming through the Mediterranean Ocean.

Great military men fought the Barbary Pirates. The US Marine Corps hymn heralds Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon exploits on “the shores of Tripoli.” Commodore Stephen Decatur recaptured the USS PHILADELPHIA and burned it to the ground in a daring raid which Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called the “most daring raid of the ages.” The USS Constitution, the oldest registered US Naval warship currently in Boston harbor, fought the Barbary Pirates during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Al Qaeda operates in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia, as a refuge from US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Somalia is a perfect hide site for Islamic militants. The Somali government is weak, the population lives in poverty, and Somalia warlords have been fighting each other in civil wars for decades. Somalia is the perfect breeding ground for piracy, the combination of militancy and few prospects for resources.

Commodore Stephen Decatur recaptures the USS Philadelphia from the Barbary Pirates

During an interview, a spokesman for the Somali pirates stated they are protecting Somali fishing vessels and stopping commercial dumping in the ocean off their coasts. The ICC map of the Gulf of Aden tells another story. The sea lanes transiting the Gulf of Aden are close to Yemeni shores, not Somalia. Piracy places commercial shipping in confined space and close to Somali pirate bases. The map below of piracy events in the Gulf of Aden is just for the year 2008.

The Trump Administration will have to deal with these pirates in the Gulf of Aden.  President Trump will not have a Somali government to make a deal. The Somali government has no control over the warlords and pirates marauding the Gulf of Aden. The UN has passed resolutions dealing with piracy on the high seas, but there are no military forces under UN control to stop the Somalis.

Looking back at US historical perspective is an excellent place to start planning anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa. Activities in the Global War on Terrorism have been ongoing there for years with Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.

The only option available to the US may be military intervention. What stopped the Barbary Pirates from raiding US ships? Sending the US Navy into their home ports and destroying the pirate’s infrastructure. These attacks were not a popular option.  Our military history in Somalia is blemished. The famous Black Hawk Down incident is still fresh in US citizens minds.

Army Black Hawk helicopter shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu

The modern US Navy possess tools Lt Presley O’Bannon and Commodore Stephen Decatur could not have dreamt of in the 1800’s. Jefferson sends a squadron of six frigates to the Mediterranean to deal with the situation. Modern warfare at sea can cover thousands of miles of open ocean. A US Navy Carrier Strike Group does nicely off Mogadishu.

The Somali pirate centers of gravity, their hub of all power and movement, are the in-shore bases in Somalia, and the long-range motherships used for open ocean operations. The operational center of gravity is their ability to recruit from among a population of young men out of work with no prospects for the future. The situation is similar to young men recruited into the ranks of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Pirates’ information operation against any use of military force is our strategic center of gravity. The Islamic militants and Somali pirates are very media savvy. They think strategically but act tactically. The scenes of Somali civilians as human shields turned hearts and minds against our involvement in United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM) during 1991-1995. Possibly thousands of Somali civilians were killed during the UNOSOM operations.

There are three elements of operations battling Somali Pirates. The first is joint integrated fires. Bring all forms of lethal and non-lethal fires against the pirate infrastructure. Second, persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) will be required to find, fix, track, and target pirate leadership, mobile ship bases and surface fast attack vessels. Third, continuous humanitarian operations may be the only means to cut off pirate recruitment efforts. There must be some sense of security and increased standard of living for Somali military-aged men.

Placing the USS RONALD REAGAN Carrier Strike Group in the Gulf of Aden grants the commander of CJTF-Horn of Africa or CJTF-HOA the ability to survey thousands of square miles of open ocean. Reagan’s air group contains E-2C Hawkeye radar surveillance planes capable of watching surface vessels from long distances and performing command and control of attack aircraft. Unmanned air vehicles such as the Global Hawk can provide broad area surveillance. Somali pirate operations have distinct habits and patterns.  I would not be surprised if the CJTF-HOA commander has not been watching piracy in his area of responsibility for a long time. CJTF analysts will be able to connect the dots, but this is a very time-consuming activity.  JTF Horn of Africa probably has the location of pirate leadership and their supporting infrastructure in target folders.

MQ-9 Reaper drone operating from the Seychelles Islands used to monitor piracy in the Indian Ocean

One of REAGAN’s warships is the USS DECATUR. It would be ironic if defeating the Somali pirates happened using a ship named after the Commodore subduing the Barbary Pirates in the early 1800’s. Like Stephen Decatur, ships identified as hostile must be given no quarter for survival.  The USS RONALD REAGAN Carrier Strike Group has one tool Decatur did not, and that is joint maritime air support.  Carrier Air Wing Fourteen can be augmented with Air Force bomber support from Diego Garcia or special operations air assets from CJTF-HOA.

Special Operations Task Forces are our asymmetric ace in the hole.  Ground forces working with the AC-130 Gunship will continue to be an ideal tool for surveillance, intelligence collection, and integrated firepower.  A reasonable basis for rules of engagement for these operations can be found in Ralph Peters paper “When Devils Walked the Earth.”  Read the 25 Superpower Do’s and Don’ts here.

USS Stephen Decatur in a tight turn at sea

Controlling their bases at such places as Boosaaso and sinking the mother ships in the open ocean can be a difficult task.  There are hundreds of fishing dhows off the coast of Somalia complicating the targeting cycle.  Numerous non-combatants will be involved.  Identifying hostile pirate ships in thousands of miles of open ocean is a daunting ISR and targeting activity.

Continuous broad ocean and on-shore intelligence collection will be required.  You must go after their leadership to give them the sense there is no place they can hide.  Identifying pirate leadership targets may not be as hard as one would think.  Just ask the question who is living in the new big house on the beach. Easy targeting problem; big house… big target.

The last challenge for operations against the Somali pirates is the same Jefferson and Madison faced, resources.  During periods of worldwide economic difficulty, few governments have the will to put up a fight.  If there is no will to fight, then scarce resources will be allocated to the Gulf of Aden.

The United Nations can pass numerous resolutions but will continue to have no teeth behind them. Somalis have fought the UN and won almost on every occasion. One of those successes was against US policies in Somalia. The tragedy of Blackhawk Down will weigh heavily on the minds of all Americans and be another tool the mainstream media can use against any military actions to keep the sea lines of communication open in the Gulf of Aden.

A Somali Pirate walks along the shore near Mogadishu

The lessons learned from the Jefferson and Madison administrations will be an excellent place to start planning. Madison’s approach to the Tripolitan pirates would be considered anathema in today’s political world, an offensive strategy of preemption against the Barbary Alliances. President Trump’s National Security Strategy states the US will attack adversaries at their source. Preempting pirate operations inshore may bring a quick end to ransoms. I have one thing to say to our generation of Decatur and O’Bannon. To all of my US military Brothers and Sisters… implement GANGPLANK, good luck, and good hunting!

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.

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