The Barbary Pirates Circa 2021

Detail of A French Ship and Barbary Pirates by Aert Anthoniszoon, c. 1615. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

A lesson on ransomware from the Founding Fathers.

Colonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount recently admitted that Colonial paid a ransom of $4.4 million to the criminal hackers who caused the company to shut down the country’s largest transporter of fuel. One news source reported that the decryption tool provided was not effective in restoring operations. Colonial managed, however, to recover by reliance on backup systems.

In the wake of the Colonial cyberattack, the Biden administration has indicated that it is looking again at the government’s “approach to ransomware actors and ransoms overall.” On the theory that the payment of ransoms encourages more attacks, the FBI has had a longstanding policy against paying ransoms.

It is the right policy and has been since the early days of the United States. The administration would do well to heed the wisdom of the Founding Fathers who found themselves in the ransomware crisis of their day — attacks by the Barbary pirates.

From the Crusades until the early 19th century, the Barbary pirates dominated nautical activity around northern Africa. They captured ships, stole cargo, and enslaved crews. Between 1530 and 1780, an estimated 1 million Europeans were enslaved in North Africa. In his best-selling book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, acclaimed historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote that from the 12th century until the early 19th century, Barbary piracy was Europe’s “nightmare.”

Piracy during the early centuries was mainly religiously motivated — Al-jihad fi’l-bahr, or holy war at sea. However, when the Moroccans gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century, piracy became a tool of foreign and trade policy. In many cases, pirates were given private commissions by the ruling pashas.

Rather than go to war, most of Europe mollified the Barbary states by paying “tribute” — the colonial equivalent of “ransomware.” According to Oren, this was a “cold calculation that tribute was cheaper than the cost of constantly defending the vital Mediterranean trade routes.”

In the early days of colonial commerce, the New World merchants found prosperity in the growing trade centers of the Mediterranean. Throughout most of the 18th century, pirate attacks on American ships were relatively infrequent, as these ships enjoyed the protection of Britain’s powerful navy. By the mid-1770s, 20 percent of colonial exports were to Mediterranean ports.

Following 1776, Britain removed protection from American ships. With no real navy to defend itself, American ships were helpless on the open seas. The Barbary pirates could attack American ships without fear of retaliation.

After the war, the new nation attempted to protect itself with diplomacy. It attempted to negotiate protection under France’s umbrella, but France refused.

Between October and December 1784, with the humiliating capture of three ships (notably, the Betsy by Moroccan pirates), American shipping to the Mediterranean came to an almost complete halt. America’s economic survival was in serious peril.

In response, Congress directed American ambassadors Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate a peace agreement with Morocco, which had been the first country that recognized American independence. In exchange for a “gift” of $20,000, Jefferson and Franklin secured the release of the Betsy and a peace treaty with Morocco.

Jefferson was skeptical that a treaty with any of the Barbary states would stand unless America had the power to enforce it. Jefferson was correct. Almost immediately following the Betsy’s release, in late 1786, it was captured again, this time, by Tunisian pirates.

Jefferson, who, in the early years following independence, opposed the creation of a navy, now became convinced that the only way to end the terror of the Barbary pirates was to defeat them. While John Adams still opposed the idea, George Washington shared Jefferson’s view. Washington described most nations’ payment of bounty to pirates as “the highest disgrace on them.”

During the debate at the Philadelphia constitutional convention, James Madison argued, “Weakness will invite insults. . . . The best way to avoid danger is to be in capacity to withstand it.” After the adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, the Barbary challenge, and the need to address it with strength, played a large role in ratification. In multiple essays in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton argued that a commercial nation required a navy, and that without a navy, America would eventually be “compelled to ransom themselves from the terrors of a conflagration, by yielding to the exactions of daring and sudden invaders” (Federalist No. 41).

After the Constitution was ratified on March 4, 1789, the nation, still in debt from the Revolutionary War, remained ambivalent about the creation of a navy. However, news of a series of Algerian attacks beginning in 1793 changed things.

In September 1793, Algerine pirates attacked the Polly, an American ship, stole the cargo, stripped the crews of their clothing, and enslaved them. During the next months, the Algerines captured another eleven ships. News of these captures and the often inhumane treatment of Americans spurred Congress to act. On January 2, 1794, a divided House of Representatives, by a vote of 46 to 44, resolved that “a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against Algerian corsairs, ought to be provided.” Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Act to Provide a Naval Armament that provided funding to build six frigates. President Washington signed the bill into law in March; the United States Navy was born.

The actual building of the Navy was slow; the first three frigates were not seaworthy until 1799. In 1796, the U.S. entered into an expensive and humiliating peace treaty with Algiers, which would cost American taxpayers $642,000 in bribes and tribute payments — about one-fifteenth of all federal payments that year — to secure the release of 107 American hostages. In 1800, the United States had paid almost $2 million — one-fifth of its annual revenue — to the Barbary states.

The United States did not begin to demonstrate its naval power until Jefferson’s presidency in 1801. In response to an attack on the U.S. merchant ship by Tripoli, Jefferson dispatched three frigates and a schooner to the Mediterranean. The United States decisively defeated the Tripolitan navy, and established a continuing presence in the Mediterranean. During the next four years, the first Barbary Wars were waged; in the end, the United States achieved its two main goals: the release of captives and the establishment of treaties (with minimal tribute) with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

During the War of 1812, most of the U.S. Navy was redeployed from the Mediterranean. The Barbary States took advantage of the vacuum and resumed their attacks on American vessels. In 1815, one week after the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war with Britain, at President Madison’s request, Congress declared war on Algiers.

On May 15, 1815, Captain Steven Decatur led a powerful group of ten ships to Algiers. Within weeks, Decatur had so convincingly defeated Algiers that he was able to dictate unprecedented surrender terms from the Algerians; they would cease to receive tribute from the U.S., they would pay $10,000 in damages, and they would release all American captives unconditionally. Decatur then sailed on to Tunis Tripoli and Morocco, where he made similar demands and received similar terms. The Second Barbary Wars opened free trade in the Mediterranean, not only for the U.S., but also for Europe. A mere 50 years after American independence, the U.S. was still isolated but able to defend its commerce. Free of piracy, American trade flourished.

America today faces the modern equivalent of the Barbary pirates. And, similar to the Barbary pirates, today’s hackers often operate with the support or cover of hostile powers. The wisdom of our Founding Fathers should not go ignored. Although most of President Biden’s May 12 executive order was already U.S. government policy, his call to strengthen the cybersecurity of government and its contractors is a correct one. As the administration has correctly indicated, the trade-offs for private companies are complex, and government should generally continue to defer to the decisions of their owners and boards. While Europe has a history, going back to the Crusades, of attempting negotiation and paying tribute, and some colonial leaders (such as Adams) preferred this route, most of our Founding Fathers were resolute in their opposition. American policy today should not waver in its opposition to negotiating with terrorists and paying cyber ransom. Our Founding Fathers did not do it. Neither should we.

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