When is Negotiating With Terrorists Acceptable?


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July 30, 2014 19:36 EDT

Throughout history, negotiating with terrorists has become a contentious issue for international security. 


Nearly two months have passed since the Taliban exchanged captured US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Prominent conservative politicians and pundits have criticized the Obama administration for the swap, accusing the president of negotiating with “mass murderers.” Yet despite Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s admonition that US foreign policy has changed because “now we make deals with terrorists,” the deal for Bergdahl is just the latest incident in a history of negotiating with groups considered terrorist organizations by the US government.

In 1970, Richard Nixon helped secure the release of hostages captured in multiple airplane hijackings by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine through the release of Palestinian prisoners. The Reagan administration established secret channels for negotiation in the Iran-Contra affair and the 1985 Trans World Airlines hijacking. In 2007, the US exchanged Qais al-Khazali, a suspect in the killing of five US soldiers, for Peter Moore, a British IT consultant.

The US is not alone in negotiating with terrorist groups. The Spanish government negotiated numerous ceasefires with the Basque group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a violent separatist movement founded in 1959 and responsible for over 800 deaths. The British maintained clandestine dialogues with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) throughout their decades-long campaign for independence, even after a failed mortar attack on the prime minister’s office in 1991.

Even the Israeli government, notoriously tough on terrorism, took part in direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group it declared as engaging in terrorism, to create the Palestinian Authority (PA) in sections of the West Bank and Gaza. More recently, in a prisoner exchange with Hamas, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of killing civilians, for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Why is Negotiating with Terrorists Relevant?

Opponents of negotiations argue that by demonstrating a willingness to make concessions, governments can establish a dangerous precedent and provide incentives for future terrorism. Negotiations may grant political legitimacy to terrorist groups, potentially destabilizing polities and undermining other legitimate political actors.

According to a study by RAND researchers Seth G. Jones and Martin Libicki, military force ends terrorist groups only 7% of the time. In contrast, negotiations such as peace settlements and amnesty, combined with other political avenues, were responsible for ending 43% of the 648 terrorist groups surveyed. 

There is also a risk of a splintering effect, where factions within terrorist groups are unwilling to negotiate and continue to commit violence, as occurred with the IRA. These decentralized and more fanatical splinter groups can be more dangerous than the original negotiating group. Fanaticism, particularly the religious fanaticism of “new terrorists” such as al-Qaeda, may make groups less political than those like the IRA or ETA, and potentially incapable of negotiating rationally.

A common alternative to negotiations is force. Hostage rescue operations were successful in the Israel Defense Forces’ raid on Entebbe in 1976, and the rescue of the Maersk Alabama crew in 2009. Military force greatly diminished the operational capacity of the Taliban in Afghanistan — but not in Pakistan — while targeted strikes on key al-Qaeda leaders helped decentralize the movement, likely inhibiting the planning and execution of catastrophic terrorist attacks like 9/11.

However, such military and tactical operations have also ended in tragedy: the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Khartoum in 1973, the 2002 and 2004 hostage rescues in Moscow and Beslan, and other incidents resulted in unnecessary and preventable deaths.

Additionally, such operations are ineffective at permanently eliminating terrorist factions. According to a study by RAND researchers Seth G. Jones and Martin Libicki, military force ends terrorist groups only 7% of the time. In contrast, negotiations such as peace settlements and amnesty, combined with other political avenues, were responsible for ending 43% of the 648 terrorist groups surveyed. Though often politically and morally unpalatable, negotiations, particularly in hostage situations, may be the best — or only — option.

Despite the 14-year US-led “Global War on Terror,” terrorism remains a threat to governments worldwide. In fact, the problem is growing. A report by the US State Department found that global terrorism rose 43% in 2013, with over 17,000 people killed, 32,000 wounded and nearly 3,000 kidnapped or taken hostage.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni fundamentalist group, continues to destabilize Iraq, the Maliki government must consider bargaining if a military response fails. The nearly 150 school girls captured in Nigeria in April remain hostages of Boko Haram, and are likely to remain so until a negotiated release is reached.

Three Israeli teenagers were recently found murdered, allegedly by members of Hamas, and Israel and Gaza are mired in an intensifying conflict. The Syrian Civil War continues to escalate, with the resulting chaos providing safe havens and large pools of potential recruits for terrorist operations, but also providing space for negotiations with less radical factions. To refuse to negotiate as these and future crises develop is to unnecessarily constrain policy responses to terrorism and invite potential disaster.

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

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1 comment

  1. David Fremantle

    August 4, 2014

    I believe that, as a matter of principle, it is better to refuse to negotiate that to negotiate and pay ransom. If a nation refuses to pay ransom and pursues and kills the terrorists (the basic USA position) it leads to better outcomes than the French position of paying ransom. The French position merely puts a target on the back of all French citizens. The USA position ensures that US citizens are usually left in peace, because justice, certain if not necessarily swift (it took years to hunt Bin Laden down) will follow. You cannot compromise with those who hate you and wish to kill you. All you can do is protect yourself as best you can, and ensure those who hate you and wish to kill you know they will die if they try. Usually self-preservation will ensure you are left in peace.

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