The Lessons of History and September 11

David Tucker

September 1, 2001

P>Reading and listening to reporting about the attacks on September 11th and the challenges they present us, one might think that we have never confronted a similar enemy or problems before. Some reports give the impression, for example, that Osama bin Laden’s organization, which may be responsible, is unique and that we have never successfully countered such an organization. Others have begun to wonder whether the American public will continue to support strong action if military operations result in casualties. In fact, on these issues, we can draw on past experience to help us understand the enemy we face and our prospects for success.

Three areas in particular deserve consideration: the suppression of piracy; the suppression of a terrorist group that was in significant respects like Osama bin Laden’s; and the past willingness of the American public to support military operations that result in casualties.

The Suppression of Piracy

Although there have been robbers on the seas as long as men have sailed them, the piracy we are most familiar with occurred from the seventeenth into the early nineteenth centuries. Some of these pirates had begun life as Privateers, private individuals authorized by a state to prey on the shipping of rival states. They received support from their sponsoring states but also operated on their own from bases that were far from the European powers that wanted to suppress their activities but near rich shipping areas. They operated, for example, in the Bahamas, and later from Madagascar, which allowed them to attack Indian Ocean shipping.

The pirates were very difficult to counter. They were a shadowy faceless enemy, very mobile, striking at random and then disappearing. They organized themselves in loosely affiliated groups. They had the protection of some states as well.

Suppressing piracy was a long arduous task. It required action against both the pirates themselves and the states that supported or tolerated their activity. There were no decisive battles. Indeed, there were no conventional military campaigns, except in the case of the Corsairs in the Mediterranean, because the pirates were hard to hit. The most important weapon against them was the agreement of a growing number of states that they would no longer support pirates or allow them to operate in territory they controlled. These agreements made the pirate life less and less appealing. They came about through persistent diplomacy and, in some cases, steady coercion, including military action, by states committed to defanging the pirates. In at least one case, diplomacy and coercion were not enough. The activities of the Corsairs in the Mediterranean, for example, did not cease until the French conquered Algeria in 1830. Although ending piracy was not the reason for the French invasion, this example persuaded Tunisia and other neighboring states to end their support or tolerance of piracy. But piracy never entirely vanished. It remains a problem today, especially in the waters of southeast Asia.

Obvious similarities exist between the pirates and the kinds of organizations that attacked the United States. The most effective ways of suppressing those organizations are likely to be similar as well. A fundamental difference between the two cases is that the enemy we face poses a greater threat to us than the pirates did or do to seafaring nations. Another equally important difference is that the pirates were in it for gain. Persuading them that they should give up was easier than it will be to persuade those who are willing to die for their religion. Considerations such as these may well change the mix of measures we use against those who attacked us but maintaining international support for this effort will be important. If we were not capable of being the world’s sole policeman against human rights abuses, we are unlikely to be capable of such a role in suppressing the ferocious violence now directed at us, even though the suppression of this violence is a necessity.

The Disruption of the Abu Nidal Organization

The case of piracy sheds some light on our current situation but we need not go back hundreds of years to learn something about our enemy and how we can fight him. In the 1980s, the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) was the most savage and feared terrorist organization in the world. It slaughtered hundreds of civilians in a series of attacks. It had cells in countries in the Middle East, Europe and South America. It even had operatives in the United States. It enjoyed the support of a series of states and financed its activities with a web of businesses, many of which were in Eastern Europe, an area then disinclined to cooperate with the United States.

To put an end to the activities of the ANO, the United States launched a coordinated campaign that used private and public diplomacy, intelligence gathering, covert operations and the help of many foreign countries and their intelligence services. We were added by a lucky break, which gave us unusually good intelligence on the ANO. With this in hand, we were able to persuade governments to shut down the businesses that the ANO was running. Some did it gladly as soon as we showed them what was happening on their territory. The governments of eastern Europe were less cooperative but even they, with the exception of East Germany, finally gave way before the weight of public exposure and private threats (economic and political) that we brought to bear against them. In addition, a number of covert steps were taken to sow suspicion within the group and to disrupt its logistic and financial operations. This process unfolded over several years, was not consistently successful but did eventually disrupt the group’s activities and undermine its support. By the early 1990s, members of the ANO were busy killing each other and not the innocent citizens who had previously been their targets.


The two examples we have considered so far place relatively little emphasis on military action. It may be more necessary now than in either of these cases, since the enemy we now face has a more lethal intent and more durable support than either the pirates or the ANO. If military action occurs and casualties mount, will the American people continue to support such actions? This question has arisen in the press since the attacks. The answer appears to be that they will, as long as a couple of conditions are met.

Research into the response of the American public to casualties as far back as World War II shows that the American people have always been concerned about casualties, as they should be. But they have been willing to suffer them as long as they have believed that the casualties were taken in a good cause and that there was a good chance that the military operation in which they occurred would succeed. If the American people recently seem less willing to suffer casualties than before, it is not because they have become more averse to suffering and death but because so many of our recent military operations—Haiti, Bosnia and the effort to rebuild Somalia—have been of dubious worth, either because they were related to no matter of national importance or because, as in the case of Bosnia, the means did not seem likely to achieve the desired end.

Compare these more recent operations with the Gulf War, where strong majorities supported the war even when they knew of predicted casualties in the tens of thousands or, on a different scale, the reaction of the public to the deaths of 24 American citizens and military personnel and the wounding of hundreds of others in 1995 and 1996 from terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia. Following these attacks, no calls were made for the U.S. to withdraw from Saudi Arabia. The American people understand the importance of the Middle East. As long as the U.S. Government pursues sensible policies there in a prudent fashion with a prospect for success, the American people appear willing to give their support.

In our current situation, it will not be difficult to meet one of the two criteria for maintaining public support for military operations even as casualties occur. After September 11th, there will be no doubt that the military operations are conducted in a good cause. But what about the other criteria, that there be a good chance that the military operations succeed? Success and steady progress will not always be evident. Those planning military operations and those approving them will have to keep this requirement in mind, as their predecessors did even in World War II. It will be one more thing to weigh and consider in the difficult days ahead.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of the book, Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.