Is Privateering the Answer to Terrorism?

News Abroad

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington, DC. Anthony A. Cipriano is an independent researcher who specializes in military and diplomatic history and works in Washington, DC. This piece was distributed by the History News Service.

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.

Privateering arose in the Middle Ages as a form of"legalized revenge" whereby monarchs permitted merchants to recoup losses at the hands of enemy forces. It evolved into in a way for private companies to legally make war upon the enemies of the state. After paying a percentage of the spoils to the crown (anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of the goods seized), the remainder was divided among the owners, investors, and sailors. Because privateers had to be authorized by formal government decree (the so-called"letter 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 during time of war.

Privateering was a way for smaller, less wealthy nations to field effective naval forces against their enemies. This became apparent during the ongoing cold (and sometimes hot) war between the Spanish Empire, its rebel provinces in the Netherlands, and England. Queen Elizabeth found it quite useful to her government to unleash the"sea dogs"-of whom Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) is the most famous-private citizens who used their own resources to outfit ships to plunder Spanish galleons, and, who in return for a legal license from the crown, turned over a percentage of their booty to the state.

Privateers were not bloodthirsty pirates but often patriotic businessmen who combined devotion to country with an eye to personal profit. Privateers enabled governments to seriously disrupt the trade of their foes without engaging in costly military buildups. The Founding Fathers viewed privateering as an honorable and effective way to provide for the national defense. Indeed, 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.

Moreover, sailors and soldiers often preferred to serve on a privateer-where the food and conditions were often superior to those found on state-run vessels-because in addition to their wages, they were often eligible for a share of the prize bounty.

By the mid-19th century, however, the rise of mass-conscript navies (and the corresponding development of a professional officer corps) led some European states to question the need for privateers. Governments wanted tighter control over their militaries, and, more importantly, they wanted to be able to coordinate assaults against their foes rather than have individual privateers choose targets at will. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth had discovered during the assault of the Spanish Armada that Francis Drake, a wily and cunning privateer, was not an effective fleet commander capable of coordinating a large-scale defense of the English homeland. The allure of privateering also began to diminish; not only could governments now pay their officers and soldiers good wages, the costs of outfitting modern warships capable of seizing enemy vessels on the high seas was becoming prohibitive. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, a number of European states decided 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.

Al-Qaeda functions as a multinational corporation, with subsidiaries in more than fifty countries holding a variety of assets-including 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 are willing to take the risk (in terms of investments and personnel) to try and disrupt Al-Qaeda, why shouldn't they have the opportunity to be licensed by the Congress and to be recompensed from the"spoils of war?"

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 U.S. or overseas-that are designated as terrorist organizations 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 in pursuit of their objectives, 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 a number of professional entities that market their expertise to governments and corporations alike (Military Professional Resources, Inc., a Washington-area firm, being one such example). These companies have at their disposal a whole host of resources that only a few 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, if not in some cases even 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 both by patriotism and profit, privateers helped America win her independence. Twenty-first century privateers may help to safeguard it.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Stiofan Brown - 6/9/2007

I think it would be to the advantage of both the British and American Governments to allow privateers to operate on their behalf against our enemies.

Spain had a larger empire than us in the 1600's yet Sir Francis Drake and, later, Henry Morgan, reduced it. We had peace as a result.

Our enemies will think twice about doing any damage to our property or people when they know we will hit back using any means.

Mark Harju - 11/27/2002

I am looking for the whereabouts of Col Mike Hoare. Any help appreciated. Thanks!

Tomye Kelley - 9/13/2002

The President has said, all along, that this is a "different kind of war". Of course, to this point it has not been a war at all and whatever it HAS been, has been colossally ineffective. I am opposed to a first-strike at another sovereign nation. That violates everything that I see this nation standing for. I strongly feel we also could not win -- I believe it would be another VietNam.

When this nation finally does make up it's mind to do something, it can accomplish the task. Privateering seems the only surgical technique for going in and taking out the people who should be taken out, sparing innocent citizens.

Privateering seems the ONLY method for humanely and responsibly stopping terrorism with the smallest loss of life.

John Horst - 8/9/2002

One lesson of September 11 is that the government can't guarantee your safety and well-being. Hopefully Americans will be awakened out of complacency and begin taking care of their own. Is this labeled privateering or vigilantism? I think not (and I don't care if it is). Every day the media is reporting on incidents where civilians are increasingly taking action to stop crime. I applaud the American people for that. The Amber alert is an example. In the past few weeks at least 3 people have been saved by this method of "deputizing the public". To my mind, the previous posters to this website have allowed themselves to be duped into believing that only the government trained and sanctioned are qualified to fight crime and threats to our country. I say, give the common man a chance, and you will be pleasantly surprised. Sure, the possiblility exists that a few criminals might have their civil rights violated, (in my home town a would-be robber ended up in shock-trauma at the hands of some would-be victims). I say "so what"?

John Horst - 8/8/2002

I'm a little confused by the comment related to Lt. Calley and Officer Candidate School. Officer Candidate Schools of the United States Military have produced the majority of officers engaged in combat in our history. Additionally, the vast majority of the officer Corps of the American Revolution had no previous military training as was also the case of the American Civil War on both sides. The Citizen soldiers, particularly the junior officers, are credited with turning around the debacle on D-Day. Service academies do not hold the exclusive franchise on ethics. Lt. Calley was a bad man. He would have been a bad man had he graduated from West Point or the local community college.

Bill Bernard - 8/2/2002

The U.S. has already been using privateers for peace-keeping operations and who knows what else in the Balkans and elsewhere. Executive Decision, and other companies that simply change their names should unfortunate publicity occur from "mistakes" like say attrocities, are frightening entities. Capitalism is definitely NOT the way to go for security or foreign relations.

Pierre S. Troublion - 8/1/2002

A century having passed, are our privatizers and privateers up to the task of dismantling evil axes ? This is a tricky business and will require a rifled approach rather than shotgun broadsides.
We're going to need a lot of target practice, and therefore, a lot of targets to practice on.

Why not recycle old maps ? With GPS on our cruise missiles, who needs maps anyway ? Takes too darn long to find Kosovo or Kabul on them, and you have to be able to read to know which side is up
to begin with. Way back when high schools taught English and History and Geography, wall maps were useful tools, but with
students nowadays focusing their competitiveness on cellular speed-dialing, global gangsta rap, and culturally-sensitive illiteracy, maps are clearly obsolete.

Where to practice safely ? Why not use airplane cockpits ?
Good way to test those bulletproof doors. Hits two birdy puts
with one rolling stone, or something like that.

But, think of all the privateers having to stand in line
at airport security before they can even start taking aim.
And they really need to practice on moving targets. Not a problem, friends. Just let 'em shoot whenever they want at anyone with something on their head. Sure a few rabbis and Sunday school teachers are going to die accidentally on purpose, but we have to make some sacrifices if we are going to heal the wounds, stand up to evil, restore investor confidence and make this world a safer place for golfers, SUVs and pretzel-eaters.

If the Department of NotatHomeland Privateers is oversubscribed with offers, then we can start screening them, picking only those would-be privateers who can correctly identify the section of the U.S. Constitution covering privateers.


Andrew Todd - 8/1/2002

Look at Hans Jacob Cristoffel von Grimmelshausen ( _Adventures of
a Simpleton_) and the engravings of Jacques Callot for a sense
of how free enterprise land warfare works out in practice.
Likewise, read Mike Hoare (_Mercenary_, 1967) for a sense of how
twentieth century mercenaries actually behaved. Nowadays, that
sort of thing is called ethnic cleansing. On the ground, nasty
little wars inevitably wind up involving the most brutal
characters. Even in peacetime, it seems difficult enough to keep
our glorious paladins from occasionally kidnapping Japanese
schoolgirls. In wartime, the controls will inevitably slip. Free
enterprise will inevitably worsen the process. The efficient and
businesslike way to find a fugitive Al Quada leader is to pick
twenty villages in which he might be hiding, saturate them all
with nerve gas, killing, say, twenty thousand people, and then go
and rake through the bodies to find the right man. The basic
techniques of man-hunting haven't changed appreciably since the
time of Herod.
There are certain time-tested principles for controlling the
violence of war. For example, the commander on the spot must be
as directly as possibly representative of the national
authorities. It must not be possible for these authorities to
simply disavow him. Many officers of the United States Army seem
inclined to attribute My Lai to the fact that Lt. Calley was not
a "real" officer, but merely a "mail-order-commision" officer,
meaning an Officer Candidate School graduate with no education to
speak of, and no enlisted service to speak of, recruited more or
less directly from boot camp, after having enlisted to avoid
being drafted. The term "mail-order-commision" is the American
equivalent of "temporary gentleman," and expressed the same basic