In spite of an inability to flush out all of the extremist “vermin” out of their holes, Western military air technology seems to be getting the best of the Islamic State’s armament, something that no amount of religious fanaticism or even Allah himself can alter. Islamic fanaticism had been sufficient to keep European states off balance when military technology was still in the horse-and-sword era. Into the 16th Century, that fanaticism to extend the reach of Islam throughout the known world (including China) was sufficient to inspire fear of Islamic and Ottoman Turk armies even into the 18th Century, even though its capacities both internally and externally were in obvious decline. While scientific, technological, industrial and social reform changed the West in dramatic ways, the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment periods completely bypassed the Islamic world, the effects of which are still obvious today.
The reason for this was principally due to the belief that Islamic society was “superior” to the West, and thus there was no need for change. This belief had internal cachet only so long as the Ottoman’s could maintain at least the façade of military parity with the West, but by the 19th Century, the attempts at internal reform were hampered by the lack of cohesion, with competing factions endorsing either “liberalism,” nationalism or anti-West Islamism. The Ottoman military was weakened by the opposition of “traditional” elements (like the Janissaries—Christian soldiers converted to Islam) to European-style reforms, since it diluted their privileges and power.
The efforts at integration and efficiency ultimately failed because of the incompetence of the sultans, and predictably efforts at secularizing government and society had no chance of success until under the charismatic leadership of Kemal Ataturk. The sultanate and Caliphate was abolished, Islamic law abandoned, religious courts and schools abolished, and the idea of the state in “perpetual” revolution in order to maintain adaptation with change in the rest of the world kept Turkey from stagnating due to religious reaction (unfortunately, Turkey in recent years has drifted back toward that Islamic reaction).
The point is that only the acceptance of Western-style secularism allowed Turkey—but not the rest of the Islamic world—to advance to an even marginal level of modernization equal to the West on its own accord (rather than importing the trappings of Western modernity).
Since I’m on this historical tangent, it is also useful to note that the reported payment of $1.6 million to a Somali pirate commander in exchange for the release of a German-American journalist (both the U.S. and German governments deny this) several weeks ago is not unlike the activities of the Barbary Pirates during the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Unlike the Somali pirates, their activities were officially sanctioned activities by the “official” leaders in North Africa (the “Barbary Coast”), and whose principle economic undertaking was to raid European coastal communities as far north as Iceland in the quest of Christian slaves, as well as the extracting of “tribute” in exchange of refraining from capturing European shipping less often.
The initial success of the Islamic pirates was due to partly to the fact that after the Ottoman conquest of most of the Mediterranean coast in the 16th century—with the help of Europeans who converted to Islam with the hope of gaining riches and booty, and who brought with them European high seas ship-building technology—came with it the alleged “instruction” of the Koran to believers that it was their “duty” to capture and “enslave” non-believers. Over a period of two centuries it is estimated that one million Christians were seized for the purpose of being sold into slavery, and the frequency of the raids left many coastal areas of the European Mediterranean barren of people for over a century.
While there was some occasional effort by individual countries to force the modification of such behavior, Europeans were too involved in general warfare amongst each other to bring its superior military technology to bear on the Islamic threat and conduct a serious campaign against the pirates until after the Napoleonic wars. However, in the interim, the fledgling U.S., which generally kept out of international conflicts, decided to build a navy in 1994 to directly address the threat posed on its shipping by the Barbary pirates. It hadn’t help, of course, that after declaring independence, American shipping was no longer under the protection of the powerful British navy, whose superiority over the pirate fleet kept British shipping from being victimized by predation.
Until the Americans had built up its naval strength, it was forced to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates, the payment of which at one point constituted 20 percent of U.S. government expenditures. It wouldn’t be until Thomas Jefferson—who had opposed the payments from the start—decided to do something about it. In 1801, with the assistance of the King of Naples, an American squadron attacked the well protected fortress of Tripoli with some success, but not enough to force the pirates to talk, and the following year, Jefferson authorized American vessels to “seize vessels belonging to the Dey of Tripoli, with the captured property distributed to those who brought the vessels into port."
After years of tactically successful raids and blockades of the Barbary Coast and ports—but strategically indecisive—in 1805 a force of American Marines and international mercenaries conducted an overland operation that captured the pirate refuge of Darnah in eastern Libya—the first time that U.S. forces had won a victory on foreign soil outside the Western Hemisphere. The Dey of Tripoli was persuaded to sign a peace treaty which included paying ransom for captured American sailors and at least a temporary end of piracy.
However, in 1807 piracy on American shipping began anew, but because of the War of 1812 with Britain, the U.S. did not respond until 1815, when a naval force under William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur and several defeats later obliged the Dey of Tripoli to again sue for peace, this time without paying tribute or a ransom. The pirates—and the rest of Europe—were particularly impressed that this newly sprung nation half a world away could actually successfully engage in an international conflict, and win. But the result was inevitable, because by then the pirates were no match for Western naval technology. On the other hand, the U.S. government had the good sense not to maintain an occupation and ground force in North Africa; this was an operation with limited but highly attainable goals.
Today, the Somali pirates generally operate from small hit-and-run craft, hardly a threat against modern navies but more than capable against undefended oil tankers and merchant shipping—let alone journalists who are kidnapped while traveling by car to an airport. Are there any “lessons” to be learned from the past to confront such present day threats? Perhaps only that when the objectives are limited to forcing an aggressive opponent to stop offensive action outside its borders; controlling internal matters—even while utilizing superior technology—seldom ends in the results desired if there is no common culture to form a meeting of the minds.