360° Analysis

The Possibility of Negotiating With Terrorists


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September 03, 2014 16:39 EDT

Can governments be open to negotiation with modern-day terrorist organizations?

Government after government across the world has adamantly declared: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Colombians, Turks, Spaniards, British – confronted by bomb attacks, hijackings and kidnappings – vowed to crush terrorists, arguing that any dialogue with them would be immoral, if not impossible.

Legitimate Interlocutors

Terrorists do not recognize the rules of liberal democratic states and they do not respond to reason, governments have argued. Pundits and many academics followed suit, with the late professor Paul Wilkinson, one of the key figures of terrorism scholarship, stating in his book Terrorism versus Democracy that the “idea that such criminals should be accepted as legitimate interlocutors for their professed aims would surely cause general revulsion and in my view is totally unacceptable.”

The hard fact is that eventually most governments relent and, faced with the realization that they are unlikely to succeed in annihilating the terrorist group through legal or military means, agree to negotiate with terrorists.

The British government started direct talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighting British rule in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s. These talks were ongoing even when British Prime Minister John Major told parliament that it would “turn my stomach” to speak to the IRA.

Eventually, the UK, with the help of the US and Ireland, signed a peace agreement with the IRA, paving the way for an imperfect but nonetheless functioning inclusive political system. Today former IRA members are government ministers, sit on the policing board, and even shake hands with Queen Elisabeth II. Northern Ireland is a better place for it and there is no doubt that peace with the IRA brought a broad recognition of the complex identity politics of Northern Ireland and the need to include this complexity in its governing mechanisms.

Most importantly, Northern Ireland is no longer the exception. The Turkish government is finally talking to Kurdish rebels after decades of fighting that left tens of thousands dead; the Colombian government is in talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ; and in March this year the Filipino government signed a historic peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to end a conflict that ravaged the southern region of Mindanao. Finally, it seems government leaders are coming around to late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s maxim: “You make peace with your enemies – not the Queen of Holland.”

History seems to indicate that the earlier one enters such negotiations, the more one can avoid movements falling prey to their most violent factions.

Skeptics are quick to argue back that although talks may have been possible with “old terrorists” – those who had clear political goals and believed in the strategy of killing few to impress many – they cannot be undertaken with so-called “new terrorists,” in particular with al-Qaeda-linked or similar groups.

Are Negotiations Possible?

Such 21st century groups – of which the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is seen as a prominent example – are judged as being beyond the pale of reason since, to borrow a phrase from Mark Juergensmeyer’s analysis of Hamas, they are “doing this for Allah.” Indeed, Juergensmeyer argues in Terror in the Mind of God that religious terrorists “would do virtually anything if they thought it had been sanctioned by divine mandate or conceived in the mind of God.” With such groups, the argument goes, one cannot negotiate, as they would rather kill everyone and destroy the table than sit at it for talks.

However, scholars and area studies experts who have taken a closer look at ISIS are already warning us against quickly branding them as “apocalyptic terrorists” simply out to seek wanton destruction of anything they deem impure (from Shi’ites to Westerners to unveiled women).

Indeed, University of Bradford’s professor Paul Rogers has repeatedly pointed out that ISIS has some support amongst the local population in several cities they have captured and have also allied themselves with secular Ba’athists to maintain control of areas. Importantly, there are tentative signs that in some areas such alliances could moderate ISIS’s extreme Islamist policies, although Rogers warns that this may be simply in the short-term to maintain their grip on territory gained.

Victoria Fontan, a peace studies professor at the University of Dohuk in northern Iraq, and possibly the only western scholar who has had “tea and biscuits” with ISIS, stresses that the current military victories of ISIS are only possible because the organization benefits from popular support in areas – the result of nearly a decade of the anti-Sunni sectarian politics of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Dialogue Doesn’t Always Work

It is important to note that such experts are not arguing that Iraq is showing signs of an inevitable disintegration due to an age-old sectarian division between Sunni and Shi’a, but rather that the government’s politics of sectarianism has led to today’s situation.

If it is politics, there can be talks. Engaging directly with ISIS is no doubt difficult at the moment, but allied groups that are helping ISIS fight and maintain control of territory could be open to discussion to build a new inclusive Iraq. Indeed, Fontan states that the latest ISIS victories began with the Occupy Fallujah movement, a Sunni uprising that had three demands: equal opportunities for Shi’a and Sunni, the end of talks of federalism in Iraq, and the resignation of Maliki.

The movement time and again invited international actors to engage in a dialogue, but they were dismissed as “terrorists” and no one would talk to them. Such openings for talks can be seen as potentially fruitful opportunities missed by both national and international actors who chose to use a broad stroke in painting any ally of non-state armed groups as “terrorists,” thus dismissing them as inappropriate interlocutors. These are local movements, some of them nonviolent and certainly not all guilty of war crimes, who could be engaged with to try to build an inclusive political system.

Of course, dialogue does not always work, but neither do many military interventions aimed at eliminating terrorist groups. States – particularly leading states in the international system – and international organizations should therefore start contemplating the possibility of talking to non-state armed groups and their allies, whether or not they have engaged in terrorist violence.

History seems to indicate that the earlier one enters such negotiations, the more one can avoid movements falling prey to their most violent factions. Thus, no one here is arguing that states and international actors should always negotiate with terrorists. The argument here is that national and international leaders should contemplate such negotiations with terrorists much earlier than they currently do as they may find a means to avoid years of entrenched conflict marked by a radicalization on both sides.

They should also be open to a dialogue with all nonviolent political movements – however unsavory their allies may be – to avoid strengthening precisely those violent allies that benefit from politics of sectarianism and marginalization the world over.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Katarzyna Mazurowska / Shutterstock


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