View Full Version : Piracy and the Prelude to 9/11

04-22-04, 06:59 AM

Guest Column: Piracy and the Prelude to 9/11

By Dennis Elam

As anyone who watched the televised hearings of the 9/11 Commission over the past month is well aware, the proceedings quickly descended into a partisan bickering match. As a result, the commissioners failed to ask the real questions and illustrate the underlying issues that helped lead to the massive terror attacks 2½ years ago.

One key issue is the failure of several U.S. administrations going back to the early 1980s to forcefully respond to previous threats and attacks from radical Islamic groups. These include Islamic Jihad’s bombing of the U.S. Embassy, Marine barracks and French camp in Beirut in 1983; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the Riyadh and Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996; the east African embassy bombings in 1998, and the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000.

The Cole bombing is illustrative of how both the Clinton and Bush II administrations failed to recognize how an act of piracy by terrorists is an act of war, rather than a crime. Coming just three months before the end of Clinton’s second term, the response to the bombing quickly became a challenge and responsibility for the incoming administration.

Piracy on the high seas is nearly always an act of war. Consider the historical record.

The line in the Marine Corps hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli,” is a legacy from President Thomas Jefferson’s response to the Barbary Pirates that preyed on American shipping in the Mediterranean at the start of the 1800s. His response was to dispatch Marines to stop the piracy on our ships.

Less than a decade later, we fought the War of 1812 because the British Royal Navy was shanghaiing American civilian into the British fleet – essentially another act of piracy, even if a foreign government was responsible. (An interesting footnote is that the mercenary Jean Lafitte played a major role in the decisive Battle of New Orleans, so we have at least one example of a pirate who fought on our side.)

The failure to respond to the attacks since the 1980s also has a historical antecedent in the U.S. military’s Louisiana War Games of 1939. The United States had so under-funded the military during the Depression that there was not enough real rifles to issue to the troops taking part and many were forced to use dummy weapons made of wood. When the Japanese read of this, they assumed that the Americans would not fight. This emboldened them to strike Pearl Harbor, the worst attack on U.S. soil prior to 9/11.

In the 1960s, the North Koreans seized the spy ship USS Pueblo and its crew, and in fact have it still on display as an example of American imperialism. Our inability of to respond to the capture – it occurred during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam – no doubt emboldened the North Koreans to engage in decades of bluster and threats against us, including the current nuclear blackmail.

This brings us back to the central – and largely ignored – issue before the 9/11 hearings: Why did al Qaeda organize and carry out the 9/11 attacks? Furthermore, why did it succeed?

The commission wanted to know if the president had information that we might be

attacked on 9/11. While the debate over specific strands of intelligence information may never be resolved, one thing is clear. The U.S. government’s ineffective and feeble responses to piracy and terrorism prior to 9/11 had emboldened them to escalate their moves against us.

What if Theodore Roosevelt had been president during the Cole attack? Would he have dispatched a squad of FBI agents to Yemen as President Clinton ordered? Would he have done nothing in the eight months between taking office and 9/11, as President Bush did?

While 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta and most of his gang were already in the United States at the time of the Cole bombing, it is clear that our failure to treat the October 2000 attack as an act of war, and to put the United States on a wartime footing against al Qaeda, enabled the 9/11 plot to continue.

If terrorism was important to either administration, the time to take action was in the immediate aftermath of the Cole. For that reason both the Clinton and Bush II administrations should be held accountable for what happened next.

A pirate of any age would understand.

Guest Contributor Dennis Elam lectures at Texas A & M Kingsville-San Antonio campus. He can be reached at de10@austin.rr.com.