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Negotiating with Terrorists: Choosing Your Bargaining Partners

I do try not to stray into foreign affairs.  Heck, negotiating with (not always rational) attorneys is difficult enough!  Yet, occasionally, I mention negotiation in the context of international relations, as in my recent post -- Al Qaeda, Understanding the Bean-Counter Next Door -- which I knew might get some irritable comments.

Many (like Christopher Annunziata of the CKA Mediation and Arbitration Blog) will question my sanity or my patriotism (a word so "spun" by current political realities that it has nearly lost its meaning /*) if I say without citation to some legitimate authority that governments can and do negotiate with terrorists. /**

Therefore, I'm providing my readers with an excerpt from a Foreign Affairs article -- Negotiating with Terrorists -- by Peter R. Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.   

Before moving on to the excerpt, I want to share an experience with you.  While studying at the Straus Institute I took part in a mock mediation among principals of Hamas, Israel and the PLO.  The first thing the mediator said was, "there's a party missing from this meeting."  He pulled an empty chair into the circle and said, "the children of Hamas, Israel and the PLO are missing.  This chair serves as a reminder to everyone that any agreement we reach must serve the interests of the children and that our failure to reach agreement will harm them."  

It was a powerful moment and although the mediation was "mock," everyone assumed their roles with great stridency as to the virtue of their respective positions.  When the discussion started to wheel out of control, as it did many times during the day, all the mediator had to do was to put his hand on the "childrens'" chair to restore collaborative purpose.   

Excerpt from Peter Neumann's article Negotiating with Terrorists below.  If this topic interests you, also see attorney Adir Waldman's book Arbitrating Armed Conflict here.

The argument against negotiating with terrorists is simple: Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it. Negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and undermine actors who have pursued political change through peaceful means. Talks can destabilize the negotiating governments' political systems, undercut international efforts to outlaw terrorism, and set a dangerous precedent.

Yet in practice, democratic governments often negotiate with terrorists. The British government maintained a secret back channel to the Irish Republican Army even after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that nearly eliminated the entire British cabinet in 1991. In 1988, the Spanish government sat down with the separatist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (known by its Basque acronym ETA) only six months after the group had killed 21 shoppers in a supermarket bombing.
Even the government of Israel -- which is not known to be soft on terrorism -- has strayed from the supposed ban: in 1993, it secretly negotiated the Oslo accords even though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel's right to exist.

When it comes to negotiating with terrorists, there is a clear disconnect between what governments profess and what they actually do. But the rigidity of the "no negotiations" stance has prevented any systematic exploration of how best to conduct such negotiations. How can a democratic government talk to terrorists without jeopardizing the integrity of its political system? What kinds of terrorists are susceptible to negotiations? When should negotiations be opened?

The key objective for any government contemplating negotiations with terrorists is not simply to end violence but to do so in a way that minimizes the risk of setting dangerous precedents and destabilizing its political system. Given this dual goal, a number of conditions must be met in order for talks to have even a chance of success. Assuming that negotiations are appropriate in all cases would be no more valid a theory than one that assumes they never are. 

The first and most obvious question for any government considering negotiations is whether the terrorists it faces can make good negotiating partners. Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University; William Zartman, of Johns Hopkins University; and other experts believe that terrorists' stated aims and ideology should be the decisive factor in determining whether they might be willing to compromise. Hence, these experts draw a distinction between nihilistic terrorists, who have "absolute" or even "apocalyptic" goals (often religiously inspired) and for whom violence has become a perverted form of self-realization, and
more "traditional" terrorists, who are believed to be "instrumental" or "political" in their aspirations and so have the potential to become constructive interlocutors.

This distinction between supposedly rational terrorists and irrational ones, however, is often in the eye of the beholder. If the IRA and ETA appear to be more rational than, say, al Qaeda, it is because their goals -- nationalism and separatism -- have a long ...

The remainder of this article will unfortunately cost you $5.95 here (emphases my own).


**/  If you use the simplest definition of "patriotism"  -- pride in one's own country -- I, like 90% of Americans, am extremely "patriotic."  I am proud of our Constitutional form of government, the American Enlightenment from which it drew its wisdom, and the rule of law.  I am particularly proud of the Bill of Rights, a document guaranteeing the liberties of the minority against the potential tyrannies of the majority.  My own favorite amendments are the First, the Fourth through Eighth, the Thirteenth through Fifteenth, and, of course, the Nineteenth. 

I'm proud to be descended from immigrants, both externally -- England, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland -- and internally -- an escape from the Dust Bowl to California. I'm proud of our unique social and economic mobility though not blinded to the fact that many are stuck in a cycle of poverty from which they have not been able to escape.  I'm proud of the public education system that provided me with the ability to go to University and Law School at a very minimal cost.  

I am proud to be a part of a culture and political system that values and protects dissent and supports a "free marketplace of ideas" as the best  means of distinguishing between the better and the worse; the good and the bad, the moderate and the radical, the useful and the not so much.   

There is also much about America of which I am not proud.  Just as there is much in myself that does not stir pride.  Because we are all dual natured, our political, social, and economic systems naturally follow -- greedy as well as generous; empowering as well as stifling; peaceful as well as war-mongering; forgiving as well as retributive.  In a democracy that encourages dissent, my criticims of American institutions and activities should never be taken for a lack of patriotism.  In fact, I consider it my patriotic duty to engage in the political process with the intention of making what is good better and diminishing that which is bad.  

**/  Here's a useful wikipedia definition of terrorism: 

As terrorism ultimately involves the use or threat of violence with the aim of creating fear not only to the victims but among a wide audience, it is fear which distinguishes terrorism from both conventional and guerrilla warfare. While both conventional military forces may engage in psychological warfare and guerrilla forces may engage in acts of terror and other forms of propaganda, they both aim at military victory. Terrorism on the other hand aims to achieve political or other goals, when direct military victory is not possible. This has resulted in some social scientists referring to guerrilla warfare as the "weapon of the weak" and terrorism as the "weapon of the weakest."

Comments (2)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Christopher Annunziata - April 18, 2008 2:43 PM

For the record, I would question your sanity ;-) Not that it means much anymore, 15 years later, but my degree is in International Affairs and we did quite a bit of study of bilateral and multilateral negotiation among nations, organizations and other entities in the international arena. I still find the field fascinating and try to keep up where possible.

I think my skepticism would depend on which terrorist you claimed you thought could be reasoned with.

One of the reasons why “normal” negotiations methods are successful with parties in a conflict between nation-states, NGO's, etc., is that a rational self-interest can be indetified (as noted in the article above). Appeals to can be made to the parties self-interest and to "reason." They can be presented alternatives they might find tempting; they can be manipulated and simply, they can be bargained with. They WANT something.

Iran can be bargained with. They have a national identity and easily identifiable self-interests. The Mujahadeen who became the Northern Alliance and those who became the Taliban could be bargained with. The IRA? ETA? Red Army Faction? FARC? Shining Path? VC? Sandinistas? For the most part, they all had a national/racial/ethnic identity and identifiable self interests.

Al Qaeda does not. They do not fall within any previously known category. They are fully willing to place the interests of the “jihad” over their personal self-interest. They do not understand or believe in the concept of individualism or individual rights or even self-preservation. They have no national identity and believe their identity derives from being Muslim. They believe that their reward is in their vision of heaven/paradise. They believe that death is a greater reward than anything that can be offered by an earthly being, especially an infidel interrogator. They believe in an absolute vision where their viewpoint, their belief, is the “one true way” and they have the supposed “word of god” to support this. There are no “innocents” to them. If a bomb kills an infidel, then so be it. If it kills another Muslim or themself, then that Muslim is in “paradise” and should be pleased to be in the presence of “god.” They do not want simply to be left alone. They want to establish a Caliphate and rule the "holy land." They are not rational in any Western concept of the word.

There have been extremist groups willing to kill for their cause, and some groups willing to die in combat for it. History is also replete with famous “last stands.” Even a cornered mouse will turn and attack a human when it determines there is no other option. But the willingness to strap on a homicide bomb and walk into a crowd of innocents illustrates a fundamental difference in philosophy.

These people are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to slaughter those who do not believe, those with whom they do not agree, those who will not convert. Therefore, most of these pan-Islamic extremists are irrational and cannot be bargained with or reasoned with.

I am not hawkish. I don't want to bomb them to the stone age, nor am I out of vengeance for 9/11. But I also do not believe that every conflict can be resolved with negotiation. Some parties simply need the resolution provided by a judge or jury and some international conflicts can only be solved by force. Ideally, I wish this were not the case. But it is.

Vickie - April 18, 2008 8:04 PM






What I would question here is whether radical Islamist movements are quite so united ideologically as you suggest. One suspects that there is a spectrum of members outside the inner circles of these movements ranging from the pure religious zealot to the true political revolutionary.

The present U.S. military strategy (of which I am not a fan) rests upon the principle that "the people" are rational actors who can be won or lost in a "war of ideas." That being the case, it would serve us well to make an effort to actually learn about the full spectrum of people within these movements, i.e., what motivates them REALLY, to have any hope whatsoever that non-fascist governments might develop in Muslim countries.

The Al Qaeda memos that started this exchange show its leadership to be at odds with itself and with its members. That heartened me because one despairs when one thinks the enemy is of a single mind and incapable of movement toward a center.

I pulled the following analysis of our present military strategy from an article written by a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps -- Michael F. Morris -- USAWC STRATEGY RESEARCH PROJECT AL-QAEDA AS INSURGENCY. Full article here: http://www.smallwars.quantico.usmc.mil/search/LessonsLearned/middleeast/Al-Qaeda%20as%20Insurgency%20.pdf

First, just to understand who we're talking about when we talk about al-Qaeda, Morris reports that it is "relatively small ([less than] 100 hard core adherents) but [that] in
Afghanistan it did train approximately 18,000 fighters, who have subsequently dispersed around the world in some 60 countries. Of this small army . . . perhaps 3,000 are true al-Qaeda troops, as opposed to mere beneficiaries of al-Qaeda tactical training."

3,000 al Qaeda members. That's small enough to get our arms around.

There remains a "heart's and minds" battle to be won here -- one that encourages moderates to step forward and resist the radical fringe. As Morris states, "the militant Islamic threat which al-Qaeda represents is not monolithic in nature." He explains:

Branches of al-Qaeda and organizations similar to bin Laden’s may be different in important ways.

In the early days of the Cold War, the West thought the communist threat was monolithic; time and experience proved that it was not. Neither is the Salafist threat. All politics are local – even the politics of religion.

[Integrated counterinsurgency] (COIN) strategists must therefore evaluate each case on its own merits.

While Islamic militants may cooperate with each other in a global fashion, the program they craft to topple a particular government requires independent analysis and a counterrevolutionary strategy that recognizes and leverages local conditions. . . . .

Al-Qaeda is the most deadly of the more than 100 Islamic militant groups formed over the past 25 years. The danger it poses flows from its willingness to employ weapons of mass effect, its global reach, its focus on targeting America, and most importantly its revolutionary and expansionist ideology.

Armed action is [al Qaeda's] primary strategy,but there are intriguing aspects of mass mobilization techniques that serve to strengthen its organizational impact and resiliency.

Elements unique to its methodology include transnational networking and a multi-ethnic constituency. Together these factors comprise an evolving
style of spiritually based insurgency . . . The disparate nature of the threat – in essence a global, but somewhat leisurely paced guerrilla war - makes it difficult to focus an effective strategic response. But al-Qaeda’s organizational and strategic choices also make it tough for the movement to concentrate its power in ways that achieve its political ends. Thus far no targeted Islamic government has fallen to al-Qaeda inspired violence.

Nor have bin Laden’s attacks compelled or coerced America to alter its policies in the Middle East. The resulting contest of wills is classically asymmetric.

Long term success for the United States will require support for true political
reform, a revolutionary cause in itself, among autocratic Islamic governments. This path, though potentially destabilizing in the short term, holds more promise in the long run as radical Islamic insurgents are forced to compete with more moderate political rivals in the market place
of ideas.

A clear policy – one that identifies Salafist ideology as the problem and enunciates America’s opposition to the politics of jihad - is essential.

Victory also demands delegitimizing
the radical Wahhabian strain of Islam that considers the killing of civilians not just a useful tactic but also a religious imperative. This goal, though beyond the means of a non-Muslim country to effect independently, is the crux of the issue . . . "

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