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The War on Terror


HIP/Art Resource, NY

Pirates Attacking a British Navy Ship – 17th Century.

A War on Terror: Is it Possible?

by John Scott Cowan

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Editor’s Note: This is the text of the closing keynote address, given to the 7th Canadian Conference on Ethical Leadership, held at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), 28-29 November 2006, and sponsored by the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, the Defence Ethics Program, the Canadian Defence Academy, and RMC. The theme of the 7th Conference was “Ethical Behaviour in an Environment of Chaos and Complexity.”

Setting the Stage

The title that I chose for my comments today was: A War on Terror: Is it Possible? But it is certainly not my intention to talk about Mr. Bush’s war on terror, except perhaps tangentially, and I would also prefer to sidestep a host of technical issues. I am indeed aware that the lawyers tell us that technically you cannot have a war against a technique or activity, but only against a definable human opponent, and the use of the term “war” in this regard is a sort of hyperbolic, rhetorical flourish, where the proper terminology would probably be “campaign to reduce or eliminate.” In the United States and elsewhere, it is a common way to make something vivid, such as Nixon’s “War on Cancer” or the perpetually unsuccessful “War on Drugs.”

Furthermore, I do not propose to fret overly about the fact that there is not a generally agreed upon international definition of terrorism. And again, the lawyers often object to the term “terrorism” being applied to acts perpetrated or sanctioned by states, as they often view such acts as “war crimes,” and yet we speak easily of states and proto-states that sponsor, harbour or assist terrorists. For the time being, I am prepared to live with a broad-brush definition that has three features: (1) it does not restrict the perpetrators to non-state actors, (2) it is an action directed against non-combatants, and (3), it has a “political” purpose, using that term very broadly. For convenience, I will accept the definition used by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, in his address to the Madrid Summit on 10 March 2005, which is:

“Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

It is my view that there is at least one good historical analogy to a “War on Terror,” and that analogy is probably worth studying for lessons learned that could be applied to the design of a potentially successful war on terror. I am referring to the long war against piracy, which, by the early 1850s, had been essentially fully successful.


The Piracy/Terrorism Linkage

Piracy and terrorism have certain common features. Piracy was directed at civilians or non-combatants with the intent to do harm. For a long time, it was sanctioned by certain governments and was used as a form of irregular warfare. Moreover, its practitioners were called privateers rather than pirates. Consequently, many nation states acted as safe havens for pirates. A handful of such states became, at various points, pretty much pirate states, in that piracy was the defining activity of the state. Many of its practitioners engaged in both government sanctioned and unsanctioned forms in the course of their careers. Even the unsanctioned forms had their political uses for some states. In the early days of opposing it, some of those nominally opposed to piracy were two-faced about it.

Pirates operated very much like modern terrorists, in that their weapons were the “low-end,” somewhat improvised version of the current weapons systems of the states and peoples upon whom they were preying. They were not creators of new technology, but merely daring, unorthodox, and (by the standards of the day) unprincipled employers of the readily available low-end technology of their day. They acquired their capabilities by purchase, or often by theft from their opponents, trading up like the “red paper clip guy” of Internet fame. They rarely sought to acquire the heavier ships of their day, as those were too slow for the tactics they had developed, which usually involved speed, surprise, and a disinclination to stand and fight against conventional naval or land forces, unless such a confrontation could not be avoided. Today’s terrorist organizations and cells arm themselves and function similarly.

But a point was finally reached when, for the developed world, a confluence of four factors made piracy an entirely unacceptable activity, and it provoked a final, intense campaign to expunge it.

  • By the end of the 18th Century, privateers operating under Letters of Marque or Letters of Reprisal had ceased to be a useful device for increasing the military capability of developed states. After 1790, few such letters were issued, and the very last ones appeared in 1827.

  • Piracy interfered with international trade, and international trade had become vastly more central to the economic health of the entire population of the countries of the developed world than it had previously been.

  • More people from a wider range of classes were travelling by sea, so the perception of the risk of harm by pirates was more widespread. Hence, there was more pressure to remove the risk.

  • Perhaps most importantly, albeit strangely, were human rights issues. Piracy was intimately connected to the slave trade. Often, even usually, victims of piracy became slaves. Ultimately, laws declared the movement of slaves by sea to be a form of piracy. And so, the growing anti-slavery ideology became an anti-piracy ideology, and added a huge moral fervour to the campaign to expunge piracy.

Within three generations, piracy went from being a semi-accepted form of irregular warfare and an activity viewed as unsavoury, but likely always to exist at the edges of society, to being gone. Of course, it was not completely gone, but was so entirely marginalized that it continues to be a shock when it occurs. Other than in the Straits of Malacca and along the coasts of failed states, it is almost unheard of today. There is no longer an established international pirate culture, a sort of diffuse criminal enterprise and network of misfits and thugs, some with political objectives, but others who are just outlaws. It is gone, so far gone that flying the Jolly Roger is merely a tasteless joke, and dressing up in mock pirate gear is just a suitable activity for children on Halloween.

It is possible that terrorism is today at the point of its history where piracy was around 1800. Terrorism is not new. In its most horrible form, it is genocide and ethnic cleansing, and it has existed for thousands of years. Politically motivated terrorist acts by individuals and small groups are also not new, with a rash of noteworthy ones occurring in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, including the assassination act which touched off the First World War. Developed states have supported it. Even some actions by partisans supported by the Allies in the Second World War fall under the Annan definition. And, as the distinguished British scientist and novelist Charles Percy Snow (later Lord Snow) set out clearly in the Godkin Lectures given at Harvard in 1960, later published as the book Science and Government, the advice that Frederick A. Lindeman (later Lord Cherwell) gave Churchill and the War Cabinet, which led to the Allied bombing campaign, was, in part, an express targeting of enemy working class housing, and not military targets per se. Nor was countervailing advice by Sir Henry Tizard and P.M.S. Blackett based upon moral considerations, but upon what we now know were more accurate estimates of effectiveness, and a concern about diverting effort from certain other important activities. Arguably, some American tactics in Vietnam were terrorism, and reliance during a good part of the Cold War on city-killer nuclear and thermonuclear weapons could also be held to be a planned use of state-sanctioned terrorism.

But that may now have changed. The end of the Cold War in 1989 marks, to some extent, the end of the bargain with the devil, in which we accepted these methods in the huddling together of Westphalian states in the two great alliances by which the world had squared off into two technologically advanced but implacably opposed camps. The bargain had not only implied the acceptance of “terrorism,” but also, in order to create a system of international security, it had accepted an extreme version of the sacrosanct nature of the nation state, so that almost nothing, not even genocide, could justify intervention. But since then, a rise in emphasis upon human rights has begun to harden attitudes towards states or non-state actors who intentionally harm non-combatants.

At the same time, technology has reinforced the possibility of avoiding or reducing gratuitous harm to non-combatants, even in serious conflict. It is fashionable to be sceptical of the efficacy of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), but the absence of perfection does not mean that they do not work. PGMs can and do dramatically reduce the harm to non-combatants in theatres of conflict. This makes it easier to separate incidents of intentional acts against non-combatants or a cavalier disregard for the safety of non-combatants from genuinely unintended collateral harm.

Therefore, a case could be made that 1989 represents the same watershed date for an end of state endorsement of terrorism that 1790 represents for state endorsement of piracy. A few less powerful states still support terrorism. And until the late-1820s, a few less powerful states still licensed privateers. If the analogy holds, and a war on terror is now feasible, that “long war” ought to last until 2050.


NASA photo

New York City on 11 September 2001, as seen from space.

How Piracy was Vanquished

How was the anti-piracy “long war” of 60 years won? And what lessons can be learned from it and applied to the design of a “War on Terror,” which has, at least, some chance of success?

There were sporadic attempts to beat down piracy long before the 60 years that I have characterized as the “War against Piracy.” There are good reasons why these earlier efforts did not have long lasting effects, even though they sometimes contained elements that later were quite effective when used in a coordinated fashion during the early 19th Century.

The first major effort to defeat the Barbary pirates occurred in 1390, when the Genoese enlisted the help of England and France. The English commander was Henry of Lancaster, who later became Henry IV. The two-month siege was not fully effective, and it resulted in a negotiated peace of limited effect. The situation worsened after 1492, when many of the Moors, who had become refugees when forced out of Spain, became pirates. But there was also an internationalization of the pirates of North Africa, with many European renegades playing major roles. The two Barbarossas were Greek, but Sardinians, Corsicans, Calabrians, and even the odd Venetian, Hungarian, and Albanian, as well as Englishmen, Danes, and others, figured prominently. Until 1570, the Barbarossas and their successors were nominally local sovereigns under the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. Between 1533 and 1544, the first Barbarossa, Khair al-Din, was admiral of the Turkish fleet of Sultan Suleiman I, and he twice defeated the Genoese admiral and statesman Andrea Doria.

The 16th Century witnessed only minimal developments that presaged future policy changes. Henry VIII of England and Louis XII of France concluded an anti-piracy treaty, agreeing to suppress piracy by their own subjects and to keep their own coasts free of it. More than two decades later, in 1536, Henry VIII passed the first Piracy Act, which created a Vice-Admiral of the Coast.

The 17th Century saw little progress in the Mediterranean area. It has been estimated that, in 1634, there were in Algiers alone 25,000 Christian slaves, largely being victims of piracy, and another 8000 that had converted to Islam following capture. The expeditions against the North African pirates during this period were half-hearted, except for the great raid led by Robert Blake, which was ordered by Cromwell. It suited various states to have the pirates of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli prey upon the shipping of other states.


HIP/Art Resource, NY

Factual pirate – Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688), Welsh buccaneer, pirate, and Lieutenant-Governor, then Acting Governor of Jamaica.


CMJ collection

Fictional pirate – Captain Jack Sparrow, circa 2007.

And, while the 17th Century was also part of the golden age for buccaneers in the New World, as it drew to a close there were interesting hints of things to come. The first was the concept of co-opting the saner amongst the pirates. The story of the famous Welsh pirate leader Henry Morgan serves as an example. By 1671, his outrageous exploits, condoned by the Governor of Jamaica, Thomas Modyford, provoked an English reaction. A new governor was sent to arrest Modyford and Morgan. Nevertheless, while Modyford was confined in the Tower of London upon his return to England, Morgan agreed to change sides, was knighted and sent back as Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica in 1675, with a brief to suppress piracy. From then until his death in 1688, including two years when he served as Acting Governor, he was moderately effective in that role, resulting in a substantial decline in piracy in the region. The second development was another Piracy Act that created Admiralty courts in North America and the West Indies, so that long time lags would not exist between arrest and trial. Until then, the costs of sending prisoners and witnesses back to England had frequently caused charges to be dropped.

But by the last years of the 18th Century, the world was primed to stamp out piracy. Letters of Marque or Letters of Reprisal were no longer being issued. Privateering was dead. Admittedly, it had a modest rebirth during the war between Brazil and Argentina that lasted from 1825 to 1827, during which both sides issued many such letters. In so doing, they did indeed create a new pirate class that went rogue for a couple of years after that war ended, but, by 1829, they had been beaten down. The end of privateering meant there were no more ships and bases functioning as officially sanctioned schools for those who would later go rogue and strike out on their own.

It had also long been recognized that the slave trade and piracy were intertwined. There were many reasons for this. First, slaves were amongst the most valuable cargoes to steal. Second, captured crews or passengers could be sold as slaves at any rate. Third, early in the 19th Century, the slave trade became illegal in stages. Outlaw seafarers engaged in one criminal activity were naturally the ones to gravitate to another illegal maritime activity. In 1807, Britain made its slave trade illegal. In 1808, the importation of slaves to the United States became illegal, and trade in slaves was deemed piracy. This law was not enforced for many decades thereafter, but it was “on the books.” At the Congress of Vienna, Lord Castlereagh persuaded the four major slave-trading nations – France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal – to accept the abolition of the trade in principle. In 1824, Britain passed an Act which declared that a British subject “who upon the high seas carries away any person as a slave...” is guilty of piracy. Long before this, in 1721, an Act had extended rules related to piracy to those who traded with pirates.

The stage was thus set for a major campaign against piracy. Even the young American republic became involved. After 1785, the newly independent United States found itself paying tribute to the pirates in the Mediterranean, but by 1798, the American consul in Tunis, Mr. Eaton, had written home advising resistance. The Dey (ruler) of Algiers offered America “protection” in exchange for a frigate. And the Bey (leader) of Tunis wanted something as well, as did Morocco. After a symbolic act by the Yusuf of Tripoli, namely, cutting down the flagstaff at the US Consulate on 14 May 1801, the US lashed out, which eventually generated heroic stories about Commodore Edward Preble and Commodore Stephen Decatur, but these operations had no real effect upon the pirates.


US Naval Historical Center photo

Commodore Stephen Dacatur of the United States Navy was a hero of the early–19th Century piracy wars against Tripoli.

In August 1816, a huge British operation led by Lord Exmouth against the great pirate base at Algiers had a bit more impact. It was provoked by failed negotiations with the Dey of Algiers over the release of Christian slaves. The British fleet incurred 818 casualties, 128 of them fatal, but the action freed 1642 slaves.

Then, in 1824, a British blockade and the threat of long-range bombardment again brought the Dey onside on 26 July, and, on 24 October, he accepted a British offer to mediate with Sardinia as well. Shortly thereafter, the British squadron got the Bey of Tunis to agree not to allow the sale of Christian slaves. By 1828, Tangiers had been blockaded, and in 1830, the French, in frustration, occupied Algiers, and thereafter, much of North Africa.

But the end of the pirate states of North Africa was not the end of piracy. From 1808 to 1848, the Royal Navy had been able, through huge effort, to liberate only about one-eighth of the slaves being shipped from Africa to Brazil. In 1848 alone, some 60,000 slaves were landed in Brazil, despite an 1845 British decision to allow the Royal Navy to capture Brazilian slavers, even when they were empty. In 1849, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston extended this policy to Brazilian waters, and, in 1850, to entering Brazilian ports for this purpose. The key, however, was the revival of parties in Brazil opposed to the slave trade, and hence the decision in July 1850 of a new Brazilian government to enforce its own 1826 treaty against the trade. Consequently, in 1852, only 800 slaves were imported. Force projection without effective diplomacy and politics had failed. Force projection with effective diplomacy and politics had succeeded.

The same lessons were learned with respect to Cuba. There were no successes of any permanent nature over the Cuban pirates by the Americans or the British, despite many raids, until the mid-1820s, when the Spanish authorities began to cooperate. Interestingly, this was the first instance of very strong British-US cooperation, and it occurred two generations after the Revolutionary War.

By the late 1820s, even Greek pirate activity was exceedingly low, and, in North America, the 1832 saga of the Baltimore clipper pirate ship Panda, captured eventually in Africa by the British brig HMS Curlew, was the last gasp, except for the slavers. They persisted, and, in 1859, 15,000 slaves were still being landed in the United States. In 1861, the American steamer Mohican captured the slaver Erie and 937 slaves were found aboard. The captain, Nathaniel Gordon, was tried for piracy and hanged in Portland, Maine, on 8 March 1862. He was the last to be brought to justice in this manner for slave trading in the United States.


CMJ collection

The execution of Nathaniel Gordon, the slave trader.

In the Far East, the chronology of the war against piracy was only slightly later. In the 1840s, Chinese pirate admirals had 500-ton junks with up to 18 guns, some of which were “18 pounders,” and crewed by nearly 100 sailors. Between 1843 and 1851, British warships captured or destroyed almost 150 junks and earned “head money” or bounty for the capture or dispatch of 7500 pirates. In September and October 1849, the great raids of the pirate Shap-ng-tsai brought him up against Captain Sir John Dalrymple Hay. In the final analysis, 58 of Shap-ng-tsai’s 64 junks were destroyed and he ultimately lost 1700 men. No British vessels were lost. Shap-ng-tsai’s deputy was captured, but the pirate admiral himself retired into a Chinese civil service post. While piracy in that region took a further quarter century to fully suppress, due to careful British, Dutch, and other allied cooperative actions, 1849 proved to be the watershed point.

Some observers have mused that technology killed piracy. It did not. It would have done so eventually, with the coming of iron ships and rapid communications. However, British statesman Richard Cobden declared piracy dead in 1849, 11 years before the iron-hulled battleship HMS Warrior was launched. Piracy grew up during the age of fighting sail, and it died before its technological context died.


Author’s collection

Chinese war junk.

The Long War on Piracy took three generations. It worked where earlier efforts had failed because:

  • The developed nations stopped using piracy as a convenience themselves.

  • It was a multilateral effort grounded in a shared ideological conclusion that piracy had to be rooted out, and citizens as well as their rulers shared this vision.

  • Force projection alone was not effective, but force projection accompanied by intensive diplomacy, co-option and even bribery did work.

  • Laws were important, but laws that governments chose not to enforce were unhelpful.

Applicability Today

These lessons may be applicable to the design of a war on terror. It should not surprise us that American moves away from multilateralism have been counterproductive. Multilateralism is awkward. It involves constant negotiation and compromise. It is slow, but it is critical to closing off safe havens. Nor should it be a surprise that, in my opinion, America’s greatest success to date in its war on terror was its very effective bribing or co-opting of Libya to get out of the terror business. Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on 21 December 2003, and it has taken all reasonable steps not to be a safe haven for terrorists. While implied force was certainly a factor, it was not, in the end, the critical factor.

A war on terror is not a military exercise. It is a political, diplomatic, economic, and social exercise in which military force must always be available and occasionally be used.

There are those who argue that it is different this time because the majority of terror incidents today are related to a revolutionary movement within Islam, a movement unlikely to respond to the subtleties of the proposed approach. This is a point worth considering. There is no doubt that there is a fierce struggle underway for the soul of Islam, and that struggle must be resolved within Islam. We on the outside, in Dar al Harb, the regions of the world where Islam does not dominate, are not mere bystanders, but we are also not central to the issues at stake. We will need to fight a holding action to prevent that struggle from ruining our lives, and will need to do so until the community of Islam has been able to resolve this internal conflict.

This revolutionary movement deeply believes in a return to an imagined short Golden Age, the 29 years after the death of the Prophet, (632 to 661), which is the period of the reign of the rashidun, the four righteous caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali. It is a movement distinct from customary Islamic orthodoxy, which had learned to live with political structures, and it is a movement that is useful to certain unprincipled men within Dar al Islam. It espouses certain values that most of us on the outside see as anti-human, and it is these striking and extreme postures that, in the end, may cause it to fail, and may cause other more adaptable theologies within Islam to prevail. There are differing views as to the origins of this movement. Some believe that it has been implicitly present all along. Most Americans seem to believe that it is a child of the austere Sunni branch of the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and that it dates to his alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud in 1744. Others, including myself, would tie it more closely to the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in Ismailiyya in 1928. But in fact, it does not matter. No one in this room will see the end of that struggle.


Author’s collection

One of the suspects in the attempted bombing of the London Underground, 21 July 2005, caught on security camera as he makes his way into the station. This event occurred just two weeks after the terrorist attacks that killed 52 London commuters and wounded 700 others.

But terrorism is not central to it. It is the tool of the moment. In the same way that the end of the Cold War and a rising tide of sentiment about rights of individuals has made the developed world very recently decide to put terrorism behind it, it is possible to persuade the remainder of the world, over time, that terror is the wrong tool.

And in doing so, it is important to persuade more than just the rulers of nation states. If the ulama, the intellectual and theological leaders within orthodox Islam, were to become convinced that terrorism was an unsuitable and inherently inappropriate tool for believers, even the most radical fundamentalist leaders would start to look for other methods to pursue jihad.

And there may be other levers. In the first half of the 19th Century, the “last straw” for piracy was its association with the slave trade, about which a moral outrage was developing. The laws making the two crimes equivalent removed the last shred of sympathy for pirates. And recently, Elie Wiesel and others have been trying to persuade world leaders to reach a formal agreement that suicide terrorism is a form of crime against humanity. Perhaps that linkage could be extended over time, so that all terrorist acts might be viewed in law as crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity not only carry the severest penalties, but over last 60 years, the world has begun to develop a suitable moral outrage about them. Linking the two villainies might well be the modern equivalent of the 19th Century legal equivalence between piracy and the slave trade.

The techniques for persuading states and non-state actors that it is time to put terrorism behind us are similar to those multifaceted but muscular techniques that made piracy a minor activity at the margins. The struggle for the soul of Islam may be partly a violent struggle right up to the point that it is resolved, but the unethical and unappealing tactics of terror may be discarded by all protagonists long before the greater questions are resolved. It is to producing the pressures to discard such practices that we must apply ourselves. And the Long War on Piracy points the way.

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Doctor John Scott Cowan, who has been Principal of RMC since 1999, is also the Senior Academic Advisor to the Canadian Defence Academy. He is a former Vice-Principal of Queen’s University and a former Vice-Rector of the University of Ottawa.