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A New Resource in the War Against Terrorism?

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Anthony A. Cipriano on Jul 9, 2002

Several credible reports indicate that al Qaeda (and other terrorist organizations) have begun to liquidate their bank accounts and other easily traceable assets in favor of gold and precious gemstones. The terrorists hope to disperse their wealth to prevent governments from seizing it, which would prevent them from financing further attacks against Western interests.

Given the limits on the time and resources of U.S. intelligence agencies, Congress should revisit the power granted to it by Article I, Section 8, of the U. S. Constitution to “grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.” In other words, it is time to consider reviving privateering for 21st-century conditions. After all, as Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller has observed, September 11th demonstrated how “war has been privatized.”

Al Qaeda functions as a multinational corporation, with subsidiaries in more than fifty countries holding a variety of assets — real estate, weapons, communications equipment and large amounts of cash and precious materials. Its front companies are involved in the import and export of a wide variety of goods, from agricultural products to construction equipment.

If private firms were willing to risk investments and personnel to disrupt al Qaeda, why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to be licensed by Congress and to be recompensed from the “spoils of war?”

Privateering arose in the Middle Ages as a form of legalized revenge whereby monarchs permitted merchants to recoup losses suffered at the hands of enemies. It evolved into in a way for private consortiums to make naval war legally upon the enemies of the state. After paying a percentage of the spoils to the crown of the state (anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of the goods seized), the remainder was divided among owners, investors and sailors. Because privateers had to be authorized by formal government decree (the so-called “letters of marque”) and were bound by a code of conduct (subject to review by prize  courts convened by maritime authorities), privateers were not freebooters but lawful combatants.

Rather than being bloodthirsty pirates, privateers were often patriotic businessmen who combined devotion to country with an eye to personal profit. Privateers enabled governments to disrupt the trade of their foes without financing costly military buildups. The Founding Fathers viewed privateering as an honorable and effective way to provide for the national defense. Privately owned vessels, not ships of the U.S. Navy, were responsible for the vast majority of the ships captured or destroyed during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

By the mid-19th century, the rise of mass-conscript navies (and the corresponding development of a professional officer corps) led a number of European states to renounce privateering as an instrument of state policy (codified in the Declaration of Paris, adopted on April 15, 1856). The United States, however, is not a signatory to this declaration, and the 1898 suspension of privateering during the Spanish-American War was a voluntary decision that can be revoked at any time by Congress. Indeed, legislation was introduced last fall to allow private entities to seize the assets of Osama Bin Laden.

There are many ways in which modern “privateers” could be utilized in the war against terrorism. Congress could  authorize bounties for hackers who disrupt terrorist communication networks, uncover assets or obtain intelligence on the movements of personnel and equipment. Licenses could be issued allowing private individuals to seize the goods of organizations — whether within the United States or overseas ? that are designated as terrorist by the State Department.

Moreover, just as bounty-hunters — private individuals authorized to apprehend fugitives and bail-jumpers — must be licensed and are subject to a code of conduct, Congress has the constitutional authority to determine the legal framework  governing privateer operations and who would be eligible to be licensed. Privateers would not have immunity to violate domestic or overseas law, and their actions — as well as all seizures — would be subject to review by duly-constituted prize courts.

Modern privateering need not be conducted by basement-dwelling devotees of Soldier of Fortune magazine. There are professional entities that market their expertise to governments and corporations alike (Military Professional Resources, Inc., a Washington-area firm, being one such).

These companies have at their disposal a host of resources that only scant years ago were the sole preserve of governments; Aerobureau (of McLean, Va.) can offer clients a state-of-the-art aircraft equipped with data links, satellite connections and the ability to deploy remote-controlled camera-equipped drones. In fact, a recent CIA test-exercise found that private “political risk consulting” firms were just as capable, and in some cases more capable than its own analysts in providing up-to-date intelligence on the world’s trouble spots.

America was successfully attacked last fall because conventional wisdom failed to anticipate the assault. Thinking unconventionally about prosecuting the war on terrorism is the key to success. Motivated by both patriotism and profit, privateers helped America win her independence. Twenty-first-century privateers may help to safeguard it.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.

Anthony A. Cipriano is an independent researcher who specializes in military and diplomatic history and works in Washington, D.C. He is also a writer for the History News Service.