EL DORADO CANYON Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi
By Joseph T. Stanik
Naval Institute Press Copyright © 2003 Joseph T. Stanik
All right reserved. ISBN: 1557509832
Chapter One Muammar al-Qaddafi and
the Libyan Jamahiriyya
History of Early Libya
Libya, whose name derives from the appellation given a Berber tribe by the ancient Egyptians, did not become an independent and unified state until the middle of the twentieth century. Since antiquity the three regions that comprise modern Libya-Tripolitania in the northwest, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest-have maintained relations with different parts of the outside world and developed unique histories and identities due to the harsh deserts that kept them separate. This internal disunity combined with Libya's history of foreign domination had a profound impact on its modern political development and the ideology of its mercurial leader, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Greek settlers founded Cyrene and four other city-states in Cyrenaica between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C. Phoenicians from Carthage established several commercial settlements in Tripolitania by the fifth century B.C. From about 1,000 B.C. Fezzan was loosely governed by the Garamentes tribe, which controlled major caravan routes in the Sahara Desert. The native Berbers, especially those of the hinterland, maintainedtheir autonomy and preserved their distinct culture despite the influence of Greek and Carthaginian settlers and domination by several foreign masters including, by the time of the Arab conquest of the seventh century, the Egyptians, the Persians, the forces of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Romans, the Vandals, and the Byzantines.
Already well developed, the cultural and historical differences between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica intensified during nearly five hundred years of Roman governorship. The two regions maintained their distinct Carthaginian and Greek cultures and, after the partition of the Roman Empire in 395, Tripolitania was attached to the western empire and Cyrenaica was assigned to the eastern. In the fifth century Rome recognized the mastery of the Vandals (a Germanic tribe) over much of North Africa including Tripolitania. Belasarius, a general serving the Byzantine Empire the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire-recaptured Tripolitania in 533 but, by the time of the Arab invasion, the once prosperous cities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were racked by political decay and religious strife and resembled bleak military outposts.
Ten years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, an Arab general by the name of Amr ibn al-As conquered Cyrenaica. Spirited Berber resistance, however, delayed al-As's conquest of Tripolitania until 649. Another Arab general, Ucba ibn Nafi, subdued Fezzan in 663. By 715 the Arabs had spread across North Africa and had captured all but the extreme northern portion of the Iberian Peninsula.
Over the next few centuries waves of Arab armies and settlers transmitted Islam, the Arabic language, and Arab culture to the indigenous populations of North Africa. City dwellers and farmers there converted to Islam and adopted Arab culture somewhat readily, but the Berbers of the interior, while professing Islam, remained linguistically and culturally separate from the Arabs. As part of the umma or community of Muslims, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were ruled by the caliph (the successor to the Prophet Muhammad) from Damascus and, later, from Baghdad, and were governed according to sharia, the Islamic legal code.
From the early tenth to the sixteenth centuries Tripolitania and Cyrenaica suffered widespread intraconfessional violence and political instability. Consequently, the regions were dominated by a series of Islamic dynasties, tribes, and Christian governments, which included the Fatimids of Egypt, the Berber Zurids, the Hilalian Bedouins from Arabia, the Normans from Sicily, the Almohads of Morocco, the Hafsids of Tunis, the Mamluks of Egypt, the Hapsburgs of Spain, and the Knights of St. John of Malta. During this very turbulent period corsairs operating from North African ports harassed commercial shipping in the Mediterranean.
In the sixteenth century the Ottoman Turks captured the entire North African coast except Morocco, and the sultan, the Ottoman ruler in Constantinople, established regencies in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, the principal city of Tripolitania. In Tripoli the political authority was conferred upon a pasha or regent, who represented the sultan there. In the early seventeenth century Tripoli lapsed into political chaos as coup followed upon coup, and few military dictators survived a year in power. In 1711 Ahmad Qaramanli, a Turkish-Arab cavalry officer, seized power in Tripoli and founded an independent ruling dynasty while acknowledging the Ottoman sultan as his suzerain. Politically savvy and ruthless, Ahmad Pasha recognized piracy as a valuable source of revenue. During the reign of one of Ahmad's successors, Yusuf ibn Ali Qaramanli, Tripoli's program of state-sponsored piracy led to a naval war with the newly independent United States.
Mr. Jefferson's War
For centuries the seizure of merchant ships and the imprisonment of their crews by North African corsairs prompted several European countries, and later the United States, to pay tribute or "protection money" to the potentates of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli-the so-called "Barbary states"-to ensure the safe passage of their merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The capture of several American merchantmen by Algerine corsairs spurred Congress to pass the Navy Act of 27 March 1794, which authorized the construction or purchase of six frigates to protect American commerce. Furthermore, in 1799 President John Adams began paying annual tribute to the rulers of the Barbary states. The share allotted to the pasha of Tripoli was eighteen thousand dollars. In exchange for the payment Yusuf Pasha promised that the corsairs based in his country would not harass American shipping.
In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson rejected Yusuf's demand for a huge increase in annual tribute and in response the pasha declared war on the United States. Unaware of the pasha's actions, Jefferson had already dispatched a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to protect American merchantmen and to dissuade the Tripolitan government from demanding additional tribute.
The lackluster performances of the first two U.S. squadron commanders, Capt. Richard Dale and Capt. Richard V. Morris, did not make much of an impression on the pasha. The deployment of the third squadron, commanded by Capt. Edward Preble, got off to a disastrous start when the frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef outside Tripoli harbor, resulting in the capture of the ship and the imprisonment of her crew. Despite the stunning loss, Preble displayed a relentless fighting spirit during his yearlong command of the Mediterranean Squadron. His first order of business was to destroy the U.S. frigate to prevent Yusuf from adding her to the Tripolitan fleet. In February 1804 Lt. Stephen Decatur led a raiding party that boarded and burned the Philadelphia directly beneath the guns of the citadel that protected the harbor.
On five occasions in late summer Preble shelled Tripoli with two bomb ketches borrowed from the Kingdom of Naples. Meanwhile, boarding parties led by Decatur captured or sank several Tripolitan gunboats after vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Despite the furious assaults Yusuf rejected Preble's offer of ransom for the crewmen of the captured frigate. In early September Preble's men loaded the ketch Intrepid with one hundred barrels of black powder and 150 rounds of shot and planned to detonate her inside Tripoli harbor. Preble hoped the explosion would stun the pasha, destroy the remainder of the pasha's fleet, and blast a hole in the city wall near his castle. The plan failed when the Intrepid blew up prematurely, killing Lt. Richard Somers and his volunteer crew of two midshipmen and ten men. A week later Preble's plucky squadron was relieved by a larger naval force commanded by Capt. Samuel Barton. Preble returned to the United States, where he received a hero's welcome and accolades from Jefferson and the Congress.
While Preble had relied on naval power to confront Yusuf, Barton supported a political scheme to remove the Tripolitan despot from power. William Eaton, the American naval agent in North Africa, located Yusuf's older brother, Ahmad ibn Ali Qaramanli, in Alexandria and persuaded Abroad to join him in a march on Tripolitan territory. Ahmad's promised reward for participating in the expedition was the regency of Tripoli, which Yusuf had snatched from him in a bloodless coup in 1796. Eaton's "army" included Lt. Presley N. O'Bannon of the Marine Corps, seven enlisted Marines, a midshipman, a sailor, several Greek mercenaries, and hundreds of desert tribesmen and camp followers. In April 1805 the irregular force, supported by cannon fire from the brig Argus, schooner Nautilus, and sloop Hornet, captured the Cyrenaican city of Darnah. When Yusuf learned of the loss of Darnah he quickly sued for peace. Yusuf dropped all demands for tribute and ransomed the imprisoned Americans for sixty thousand dollars. In return the United States abandoned support of Ahmad and evacuated Darnah. On 10 June 1805 the United States and Tripoli signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity, which ended the four-year Tripolitan War.
Ottoman Rule, the Sanusis, and Italian Colonization
In the years following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the European powers forcefully eradicated Mediterranean piracy and put an end to the system of paying tribute to the Barbary states. Deprived of the revenue derived from piracy, Tripoli's economy declined and the country slipped into civil war. In 1835 the Ottomans forced the Qaramanli ruler, Ali II, into exile and reestablished direct rule over Tripoli. The Ottomans combined the three regions of the country into one vilayet or province-Tripolitania-ruled by an Ottoman wali (governor general) who was appointed by the sultan. In 1879 Cyrenaica became a separate province. Ottoman rule in the two provinces was for the most part turbulent, repressive, and corrupt.
In the early nineteenth century Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanusi, a highly respected Islamic scholar and marabout (holy man) from present-day Algeria, preached a message of Islamic revival based on the purity and simplicity of the early faith. He won many followers among Cyrenaican Bedouins who were attracted to his message of personal austerity and moral regeneration. In 1843 the Grand Sanusi, as he came to be known, founded the first of many lodges in Cyrenaica, which became the center of the new religious order. By the end of the nineteenth century virtually all of the Bedouin tribes in the region had pledged their allegiance to the Sanusi brotherhood. In the next century the Sanusis spearheaded the nascent Libyan nationalist movement.
A late starter among European powers in the race for overseas colonies, Italy coveted the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. In 1911 the Italian government sent an ultimatum to the sultan, demanding to occupy the two provinces to protect Italy's growing commercial interests. When Constantinople ignored the demand, Rome declared war. Italian forces invaded and captured Tripoli and occupied several coastal cities in Cyrenaica. Libyan tribesmen fought alongside Ottoman troops to resist the Christian invaders, but with war looming in the Balkans the Ottoman government had no choice but to sue for peace. Under the ambiguous terms of the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1912, the sultan gave up his political dominion in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica but retained the right to supervise Libya's religious affairs. Rome's annexation of the provinces, recognized by the other European powers, marked the start of a colonial war that lasted off and on for two decades.
Fighting for both Islam and their independence, Sanusi tribesmen prevented the Italians from expanding beyond their enclaves on the Cyrenaican coast. By contrast, in Tripolitania the Italians had greater success subduing and controlling large portions of the region because many local leaders lacked the will to continue armed resistance. After Italy's entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies, Sanusi leader Ahmad ash-Sharif sided with the Central Powers. Following a disastrous raid into British-occupied Egypt in 1916, ash-Sharif turned the leadership of the movement over to the young, pro-British Muhammad Idris as-Sanusi. In 1917 Idris negotiated a truce with the Allies whereby Italy and Great Britain recognized him as the ruler over the interior of Cyrenaica, while he agreed to halt attacks on Italian-held coastal cities and Egypt.
After the war Italy attempted to govern the country with a colonial policy that was both moderate and accommodating. The Italians recognized the autonomous Tripolitanian Republic and accepted Idris's hereditary rule in Cyrenaica. Nevertheless, in 1922 when Idris reluctantly accepted Tripolitania's suggestion that he become the ruler over all of Libya, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini responded by launching a brutal campaign of military conquest. The Second Italo-Sanusi War began later that year, and by the end of 1924 the Italians had subdued northern Tripolitania and most of coastal Cyrenaica. Southern Tripolitania was pacified in 1928, Fezzan in 1930. The fiercest action took place in the interior of Cyrenaica where the aged but vigorous Shaykh Umar al-Mukhtar led Sanusi tribesmen in a relentless guerrilla campaign against the larger and technologically superior Italian forces. The Italians completed the conquest of Libya in 1931 when they captured Mukhtar in the Green Mountains of northern Cyrenaica and defeated the remnant of his rebel army at al-Kufrah Oasis in southern Cyrenaica. During the last stages of the war the Italians executed more than twenty-four thousand Cyrenaicans, herded most of the civilian population into concentration camps, and forced the remaining population to flee into the desert.
Excerpted from EL DORADO CANYON by Joseph T. Stanik Copyright © 2003 by Joseph T. Stanik
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.