Capt. Presley O'Bannon is Unimpressed

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Somali Pirates Attack US Flag Vessel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Pirates using rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons attacked a United States-flagged cargo ship on Tuesday off the coast of Somalia, but they failed to board the craft, the ship’s owner said.

The crew of the ship, the Liberty Sun, was unharmed, but the vessel suffered damage, according to a statement from the owner, Liberty Maritime Corporation, of Lake Success, N.Y.

A United States military official said the Liberty Sun was attacked about 11:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. The Bainbridge, a destroyer, was sent to provide assistance, the official said.

The USS Bainbridge, the same US Navy destroyer that was involved so prominently in the rescue of Capt. Phillips, is named after US Navy Commodore William Bainbridge. When Commodore Bainbridge was a mere Captain in October of 1803, his frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor...during an anti-pirating patrol. Capt. Bainbridge and his entire crew were taken hostage by Barbary Coast pirates, held for ransom, and USS Philadelphia was in turn occupied and utilized as a shore battery by the pirates.

I'm sure most of this is sounding familiar.

On the night of February 16th, US Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur (later a Commodore himself) sailed a small captured pirate ship rechristened USS Intrepid into Tripoli harbor. Leading a small unit of US Marines, they boarded USS Philadelphia, killed and captured the pirate contingent aboard, and burned her to the waterline to deny her use to the enemy. Following the successful first stage of the operation, the raiding party then took control of the entire port city of Tripoli and freed Capt. Bainbridge and his entire crew.

The line of the Marine Hymn "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" immortalizes the actions of the Marines and Lt. Decatur forever.

However, the Barbary Coast pirate war dragged on, and it wasn't until Marine Lt. (later Capt.) Presley O'Bannon led a mixed force of US Marines and mercenaries overland from Alexandria, Egypt to the Tripolian city of Derna (which is one hell of a march, by the way) and attacked the garrison there, securing the city's capture in May of 1805. With that action, a peace treaty was secured and the First Barbary War effectively ended.

So what modern lessons can be learned from this?

1) Piracy has been a way of life on the African coasts since waaaaay before it became trendy with today's Somalis (and the American media for that matter.)

2) The pirates haven't really changed their methods: kidnapping and capture of goods for ransom and demanding "tribute" is still the rule of the day.

3) (and this is the punchline) President Jefferson recognized that a strong naval presence in the region was just the beginning, and the only effective way to deal with piracy on the seas is to deal with it's roots on land. Defending ships at sea is just that: a defensive action. To take the fight to the enemy, you have to root out their strongholds on the beach. And that, even (especially) today, requires US Marines.

There is a lot of talk about how to best defend commercial ships that are at sea in the Gulf of Aden right now, and these defensive measures are certainly necessary, but they will not solve the problem. Piracy in the region can only be solved through offensive action. There is just too much water and too many ships to effectively safeguard in a defensive posture only. We have to take the fight to them. In short, turn loose the US Navy and US Marine Corps and let them do their jobs.

One other thing that hasn't changed much...when piracy on the Barbary Coast first became an American issue in the 1780's, then Ambassadors Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were dispatched to speak with Tripoli's ambassor to London, Abdul Rahman Adja, about the increasing piracy and demands for tribute off the Barbary Coast. Adja's response, as relayed by Jefferson to then Sec/State John Jay, was in part:

It was written in the Koran, that all nations which have not acknowledged the Prophet are sinners, whom it is the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every muslim who is slain in this warfare is sure to go to Paradise.

The more things change....

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