Should we Negotiate with Terrorists?

Posted in Terrorism , Peace and Conflict | 12-Oct-13 | Author: Lara Sievers,

The attack at the Westgate mall in Kenya is the latest incident where so-called terrorists are responsible for the death of more than sixty people. It can be seen as a reminder of not only the ongoing tensions in various parts of the world, but can also lead to the question of utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists when finding a diplomatic solution to such issues.

'One man´s terrorist is another man´s freedom fighter'.

The 11 September 2001 was a dramatic change in the approach of the US and Western countries towards terrorism and terrorist acts. Indeed, it changed the countries approach towards a strong political determination to combat terrorism without respite. With this in mind, the question of whether or not there is utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists has become a very accurate one in finding a diplomatic solution. Generally, and as this article will demonstrate, very distinct positions have generally been adopted on this matter, rejecting the utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists, leaving little room for new interpretations. Here an attempt will be made to consider different reasons and arguments as to why this is assumed and subsequently assess the prospects for negotiation.

The well-known quote stated above indicates the difficulty of determining this subject to begin with. Therefore, one has to start by defining the terms 'negotiation' and 'terrorism'. In the Dictionary of International Relations by Evans & Newnham, negotiation is defined as 'the process whereby macropolitical actors interact in order to effect a number of goals that can only, or most effectively, be realized by joint agreement'. Hedley Bull, in his chapter on diplomacy and international order in his celebrated book The Anarchical Society, further elaborated this term by stating that there has to be at least a prospect for common interests between the parties involved. These common interests are strongly emphasised in his book, while simultaneously being aware of the parties' different interests and focus on stressing these. Furthermore, the actors involved in negotiation have to recognise that a settlement is superior to the present situation.

It is also essential to define the term 'terrorism'. However, as opposed to negotiation, defining terrorism is a rather complicated procedure as no agreed definition about its characteristics, objectives or methods have been identified. The Terrorism Reader, for instance, provides a great variety of definitions by governments, agencies and scholars, demonstrating the difficulty of identifying one single definition. One reason as to why terrorism is difficult to define is the role of language, which is both to explain and to judge. Accordingly, 'morally non-neutral words' can have the affect of not only describing certain actions, but also condemning or applauding these. This can subsequently lead to legitimising or delegitimising certain actors. Additionally, some argue that terrorism is neither a political project nor an ideology. Instead, it is a method often used by the desperate and weak to achieve a specific aim. However, in order to assess the utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists, one definition is needed. Again, the Dictionary of International Relations provides one by incorporating the views of various scholars. There, terrorism is defined as the 'use or threatened use of violence on a systematic basis to achieve political objectives'. It further indicates that terrorism is generally assumed to include components of 'fear-inducement both horizontally and vertically'. Consequently, the focus of spreading instability, unrest and fear in a particular area is common to the various definitions of terrorism.

When examining the term terrorism, one has to understand that it is not a new but rather an old phenomenon. Its origins can be traced back 2000 years, when the Zealots-Sicarii resisted the Roman occupation. The assassins are considered to be another terrorist group dating back to the 17th century AD in the Muslim world. A modern form of terrorism started in the last part of the 19th century and was an approach taken by anarchist groups. Another distinction of 'old' and 'new' terrorism can be made. While 'old' terrorism incorporates individuals within a specific organisation with clearly identified economic, social and political aims, 'new' terrorism is carried out by individuals within more fluid, broad and indefinite movements. As opposed to the old form of terrorism, no central authority can be identified within this new form and the objectives and goals are more difficult to categorise.

A further differentiation can be made between terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) and its predecessors. While political aims of statehood and national self-determination were crucial for the forerunners of AQ, AQ´s aims are broader and therefore more difficult to define. It can thus be stated that AQ presents a new type of terrorist group, a more dangerous variant of sub-state terrorist groups than was present before. AQ can be characterised as a transnational organisation with multinational membership and the financing and support that is independent of states. Throughout the years, negotiations have been taken place between democratic governments and certain terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque Homeland and Freedom group (ETA). Nevertheless, as opposed to the separatist and nationalist aims of these terrorists groups, the goals of AQ are to re-establish an Islamic empire. As negotiation with these groups is considered to be particularly difficult, this article will focus on this new form of terrorism.

Finally, the events of 9/11 should be mentioned as they overshadowed anything perceived as terrorism in the past. The attacks demonstrated an understanding of detailed planning and patience which is new to terrorism today. Eventually, this event led to the 'war on terror' initiated by the US, using it as the justified reason for fighting international terrorism by gaining legitimacy and support.

By excluding hard-power and rather emphasising soft-power, negotiation can and should be identified as one key factor in finding diplomatic solutions. This is due to the nature of negotiation being 'the most important function of diplomacy'.

No utility nor morality in negotiations with terrorists

The overall sentiment and stance by policy writers and scholars has been very distinct on this matter, focusing on violent means to counter terrorism. As stated by the White House, for instance, the US is averting terrorist attacks by delivering 'devastating blows against al-Qa´ida'. As opposed to this rather aggressive approach, negotiation could be an alternative when dealing with terrorist groups. However, as will be shown hereafter, this is often rejected. Also Osama bin-Laden, the former head of AQ, clearly indicated that one should 'take note of the ground rules regarding this fight. There can be no dialogue with occupiers except through arms'. Accordingly, it is widely believed that one can- and must not engage in negotiations with terrorist groups. Henceforth, three arguments as to why this is assumed will be examined and thereafter the possibility for negotiation will be assessed.

No common interests, no legitimacy and no morality

The first argument concerns the terrorists' interests and demands. It has been argued that terrorists have less concrete aims, emphasising on universal demands and erecting global networks in addition to a common ground of religious extremism. Others agree with this understanding, differentiating between groups such as AQ and 'non-ideological ethno-nationalist terrorists'. While most ethno-nationalist terrorist groups seek power, independence and autonomy for their ethnic group, terrorist groups such as AQ seek the confrontation with the West and the demolishing of the US. Accordingly, it is maintained that negotiation with the former group is more successful and common then it is with the latter. This essentially leads to the issue of common interests between the parties involved in negotiation. As stated above however, in diplomacy negotiation is based on the possibility of overlapping interests. Hence, the general assumption on negotiating with terrorists is that no common interests are present, indicating that there is neither possibility nor utility for this negotiation.

Second, the legitimacy of terrorist groups should be considered by initially referring to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Westphalian concept of sovereignty. This notion established a foundation for order in international relations, forming the basis for the principle of state sovereignty and non-intervention in the dealings of other states. Within this realist approach, the independent political states are defined as the sole representatives in international relations and hence in diplomacy. Consequently, terrorist groups such as AQ are considered to be illegitimate as these are multinational, multi-linguistic and multi-ethnical networks with no regime, land or military hardware. Additionally, as terrorists do not obey international law and other recognised principles and norms, it is regarded that terrorist groups may not be trustworthy partners in negotiations. Accordingly, terrorists cannot be considered to be justifiable representatives of a population or a territory which strengthens the argument of neither utility nor possibility in negotiating with terrorists.

Third, one should consider the concept of demonisation which is the classification of groups, political entities and individuals as evil with the intention not to negotiate. By portraying nations, movements or individuals as an adversary, one can gain support for its own purpose. This demonisation process, however, can decrease the likelihood for achieving an outcome for negotiation as it presents an escalation of the enemy´s image. The Western media, for instance, practises this in demonising Islam and Muslims by relating them to terrorism. Demonisation is, however, also performed by terrorists by, for instance, defining the US as the one and only rogue state and the White House as a clan of fanatics.     Furthermore, it is assumed that negotiation with terrorists would provide legitimacy to such groups as well as their means and objectives. This would thus weaken the democratic state and lead to more hostilities. Consequently, in addition to the assumption that negotiation with terrorists is rejected because it is impossible, one can also argue that negotiation is refused because it is considered as morally wrong. In sum, the three arguments mentioned above suggest that neither utility nor morality in negotiating with terrorists are present as terrorists are considered to be mad, illegitimate and unrepresentative and no shared interests can be identified.

Utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists

By analysing various works of scholars and confronting different arguments with each other, Carl Miller found a 'nuanced mosaic' of different environments, goals and objectives regarding the utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists in his article Is it Possible and Preferable to Negotiate with Terrorists?. Harmonie Toros, in her article "We Don´t Negotiate with Terrorists!": Legitimacy and Complexity in Terrorist Conflict also identified alternatives to the illegitimate and multifaceted role of terrorist groups, stressing the importance and possibility of negotiating with terrorists.

Common interests, legitimacy and morality

While the difficulty of common interests between the negotiation partners has already been discussed, attempts will hereafter be made to argue that, in fact, certain overlapping interests could possibly be identified. First, it can be stated that terrorist groups hold rather temporal than transformational aims. An example of AQ is provided arguing that while, as previously stated, the group holds global aims, it also emphasises temporal and local goals which are held by specific local groups. These aims can be identified, for instance, as security in certain districts. If these aims are placed within the present socio-political context one can argue that these temporal aims hold more common values than is generally assumed. Secondly, terrorist groups can act with surprising loyalty to existing diplomatic norms. The Taliban, for instance, engaged in public diplomacy in the time between the events of 9/11 and the demolishing of the group by the US in Afghanistan.

Second, as a response to the above mentioned illegitimate role of terrorists, the following should be considered. Today, the traditional diplomacy model based on national sovereignty is increasingly becoming irrelevant due to new emerging players entering international politics. This new model provides for a less hierarchic network approach where diplomats have to engage with various new actors in the host country. According to Miller therefore, this is 'the end of the diplomatic monopoly of states'. Consequently, it could be argued that terrorist groups are not as illegitimate and unrepresentative as previously stated. Furthermore, while certain scholars neglect negotiation with terrorists as it may lead to the legitimisation of these groups, their aims and actions, Toros argues that this legitimisation could provide terrorists with an alternative course of action and the possibility to convert into nonviolent players. Although, with the example of AQ, the multifaceted structure can be an obstacle, it could also increase the opportunities and provide various entry points for negotiation such as via local subgroups.

Third, when assessing the morality and utility of negotiating with terrorists and stating that terrorists are portrayed as evil and mad, one should remember and regard the following. As stated at the beginning of this essay, various definitions of terrorism can be identified. Therefore, it is important to remember that the term terrorism holds a different meaning for different states and people. Provided that terrorism indicates violent behaviour according to those using the term, the effectiveness of 'terrorism' is in propaganda and not in research. Hence, as opposed to the demonisation process described above, one should emphasise other measures, reflecting on the desire for merging a person´s stand in negotiations with past actions and words. One such measure is 'devillanisation' which can be a last opportunity for peace, providing the villain with the important possibility of being reframed and decomposing it from its stigma. This could then facilitate any kind of negotiation with terrorists and should therefore be remembered and emphasised.

So can and should we talk with terrorists?

Establishing a precise picture of terrorist groups often involves many nuances of grey and is therefore a difficult task. The same applies to answering the question of negotiation with terrorists as it depends on various factors such as the environment, the parties and most importantly the objectives involved. Even though the arguments in this article present only a limited understanding of this subject with more pro and contra arguments possible to identify, the following can be said about the utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists.

Firstly, as opposed to the argument of no common interests between the possible negotiation parties, certain overlapping interests could be identified. Secondly, the proliferation of non-state actors in international relations suggests that terrorist groups are not as illegitimate as it is often assumed. Thirdly, by emphasising on the difficult definition of terrorism and the demonisation process, the understanding of terrorism in general is very biased. Thus, by further stressing the process of 'devillanisation', it might be possible to facilitate the negotiation with terrorists in the future. Overall, by examining three different arguments, this article attempted to demonstrate that a broader approach and analysis should be adopted in this discussion, refraining from limiting the conclusion to widely believed claims. Moreover, it is vital to indicate that trust and legitimacy, two essential elements for negotiation, can indeed develop throughout the process of negotiation. Diplomacy does not only emphasise certain values and conventions but fosters these as well, being 'both a civilized and civilising institution.' Accordingly, as opposed to the initial realist approach and in line with diplomacy being a civilising institution, a more liberal view, that people and groups are able to change, should be emphasised. Certainly, in line with Toros argument that legitimising terrorists through negotiation could convert these groups into nonviolent players, one should also state that these negotiations cannot always be achievable or fruitful. However, talks with terrorist groups should not be excluded from the outset due to their violent behaviour. Negotiation with terrorists should rather be considered as an alternative path to the aggressive counterterrorism measures that are strongly promoted today. Accordingly, as a former head of MI5 suggested, '[i]t´s always better to talk to the people who are attacking you than attacking them, if you can'. It can therefore be argued that negotiations with terrorists in conflict situations are possible and less destructive than other reactions to terrorism envisaged by policymakers and academics today.

To conclude, the utility and morality in negotiating with terrorists is dependent on different factors but could be identified as feasible. In Millers words, 'if something is not demonstrably impossible, it is possible, and if something is not implacably unpreferable, it stands every chance of being used with profit'.