In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The New Barbarians:Piracy and Terrorism on the North African Frontier
  • Paul A. Silverstein (bio)

Since the sixteenth century, North Africa has functioned as a frontier zone for "the West," as a space of abject uncertainty through and against which "the West" is defined and on which "the West" has variously engaged in violent intervention, often by proxy. From the final suppression of Barbary piracy with the French colonization of Algeria in 1830 to the military engagement against Algerian Islamist militias during the current civil war that has claimed at least 125,000 lives, North Africa has been at the forefront of the consolidation of state national regimes of violence against forms of economic and political banditry. At various historical moments, including the present "war on terror," these struggles have crossed the Mediterranean, as well as the Atlantic, and have taken on global dimensions. With a focus on the case of political violence in North Africa, this article explores the logic and effects of the war on piracy and terrorism in relation to emerging structures of national sovereignty and international cultural-political-economic hegemony. [End Page 179]

The Barbary Analogy

In the immediate wake of September 11th, 2001, the American news media searched for a nationally salient historical precedent through which to narrate the attack and the anticipated retaliatory strikes. Initially, comparisons with Pearl Harbor appeared most felicitous given the parallel use of aircraft to attack structures on U.S. soil in the absence of an explicit declaration of war. This comparison, moreover, owed its salience to the fact that the latest attack occurred in the context of an amped up American nostalgia industry focusing on the "last great war" and lionizing those who fought it as the "greatest generation." Indeed, an eponymous Hollywood blockbuster had been released to packed movie houses only several months earlier, and had received widespread commentary not primarily for its glossy portrayal of the attack but rather for its seamless narration of a little known American bombing mission into Japan as the logical and forthcoming response to the national humiliation. However, the Pearl Harbor analogy proved short-lived, made largely irrelevant by President George W. Bush's declaration that the war on terrorism would be fundamentally unlike the nation-state based wars of previous generations, that it would proceed in a fashion without boundaries and even without an end—implying that the new war was effectively without precedent.

Military historians and political pundits, not easily rebuffed by President Bush's ahistoricism, nonetheless persisted in reading the past struggles into the national present. By October 2001, they had discovered a seemingly more appropriate analogy for a war that threatened to annihilate time and space: the Barbary (Tripolitan) War of 1801–5. In what news analysts referred to as the "Barbary Analogy" (Mooney 2001), they presented the Mediterranean "pirates" of Ottoman North Africa as the historical forebears of twenty-first-century Islamist militants, as "terrorists by another name" (Leiby 2001; Jewett 2002). While several commentators observed that contemporary Islamist terrorists are more politically motivated than their opportunist pirate "cousins" (Langeweische 2003, 51; Leiby 2001), others insisted that the Barbary pirates also were "driven by a fundamentalist religious vision that seems achingly familiar today" [End Page 180] (Mooney 2001). In either case, the two were equally "pathogens" (Langeweische 2003, 51), "parasites" on institutionalized commerce, religion, and politics (cf. Starkey 2001b). Indeed, Captain Glenn Voelz, a history professor at West Point, even proposed to read the two sets of enemies as one and the same, wondering whether "we are still fighting the same war" two hundred years later (quoted in Leiby 2001).

The deployment of the analogy of piracy and terrorism led to two assessments of post-September 11th politics. On the one hand, conservative observers interpreted the nascent republic's first military campaign abroad as an unadulterated success. In an article entitled "Terrorism in Early America," Richard Jewett (2002, 1) concluded that the decision to fight rather than continue to pay tribute to the North African states "was bold, but the eventual victory by the tiny United States Navy broke a pattern of international blackmail and terrorism dating back more than one hundred and fifty years." For Washington...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 179-212
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.