Many times I have walked the beaches of Tripoli in Libya, but I was never once shown the graves of U.S. sailors from the U.S.S. Philadelphia, or graves of the American Marines who marched there across the desert under the command of Gen. William Eaton in 1805. They are memorialized in the Marine Hymn: “…to the shores of Tripoli.”
Marines also earned their nickname–”Leathernecks”–during those Tripolitan battles which ended the tyranny of the dreaded Barbary Pirates, because they wore uniforms which had leather high collars to protect them from sword wounds.
I never imagined when I traveled to Tripoli–first in a 1978 delegation led by former U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, with Presidential brother Billy Carter in the country at the same time; or later after 12-hour boat rides from Malta; or after eight-hour motor caravans from Tunisia with Min. Louis Farrakhan during the era of sanctions–I never imagined that the heroism of those Marines would ever again be a practical example for modern American leaders.
But, lo and behold, the 21st Century world of naval shipping is again bedeviled by and at the mercy of pirates off the coast of Africa.
Then it was the Mediterranean Sea, the West Coast of Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar, and the Atlantic Ocean all the way from Iceland to the Caribbean which were plundered and were for centuries defenseless against the Barbary Coast pirates, the most notorious of whom was Hayreddin Barbarossa, better known as “Redbeard.”
Now it is the Horn of Africa and its waterways–the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Arabia and the Indian Ocean. The modern pirates are from the lawless state of Somalia, which the U.S. tried and failed to convert into an ally 15 or so, years ago.
The Somali warlords claimed victory after they shot down two U.S. military helicopters sent to referee their clan war in October 1993 and then drug the naked bodies of the American pilots through the streets of Mogadishu before a large screaming mob. With no one in particular to target its retaliation against, America withdrew from the Somali warring feud in humiliation.
Since then, Somalia has been a lawless state with no central government, ruled by armed, warring clans. In recent months Somali pirates captured one of the largest oil tankers in the world, demanded, and were paid a huge ransom for its release. Hundreds of other ships have been captured, and millions of dollars in ransom has been paid to free their crews and their cargoes.
The most recent incident however, may (or may not) point to a turning tide in the war against piracy. Capt. Richard Phillips, of the Maersk Alabama, surrendered himself for ransom to win the freedom of his crew when his ship was captured. The crew liberated the ship from the pirates, who escaped in a lifeboat with their hostage, demanding a $2 million ransom. Well, a commando team from the U.S.S. Bainbridge carried out a daring rescue of Capt. Phillips, killing three of the four pirates who held him in the process.
All’s well that ends well, although the larger problem of piracy of unarmed merchant ships on the high seas still has to be addressed, presumably now by the Obama administration. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, there is another, more costly and more dangerous piracy going on in Somalia, according to The Wisdom Fund. Sadly, this more expensive, damaging, and longer lived piracy in Somali waters does not get any headlines whatsoever. It is the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing fleets there from Europe, Arabia and the Far East, and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters. But since Somalia has no government, there’s no one to complain, and this looting of Somalia continues, without any signs of abatement.
Maybe if the pirates got together and raided a few of the sludge barges they might draw some attention to their country’s problem. Then again, maybe the Europeans, the Arabs, and the East Asians involved might just say to the pirates: “You guys can keep the toxic waste. We didn’t want it anyway.”
Somali pirates are still holding more than a dozen ships and more than 200 hostages. Piracy began in the region after Western ships started dumping toxic waste off the coast of Somalia, devastating the Somali fishing industry.