Can we ‘negotiate’ with terrorists? It depends…

I am currently attending a very interesting conference in Tunisia entitled ‘International Panel on Exiting Violence’ as part of a multinational group looking at all kinds of issues surrounding terrorism and violent radicalisation.  Among the presentations I listened to was one in which the speaker talked about conflicts and how to ensure, to the extent possible, that they do not re-ignite. One of the statistics shared went something like this: if a war is decided through the outright victory of one party there is a high risk of a return to violence in the near future (probably because the losers are pissed) whereas if peace comes after negotiations between the combatants it stands a much higher chance of success.  I wish I could remember the name of the Swedish scholar whose work was cited so I could give specifics but jet lag had kicked in by then and I missed it.

This is of course relevant to the discussion on what to do with terrorist groups that have been engaged in conflict for long periods of time.  Some would argue that we can never sit down and talk with terrorists but rather have to kill them all.  Others know we cannot do that so clearly some hybrid solution is needed.  Negotiations can in fact work, as we have seen with the IRA and most recently the FARC in Colombia.

With respect to Colombia the deal between the government and the FARC was not uniformly accepted at first. In fact, a referendum to gain public buy-in lost very narrowly and the Santos regime was forced to make a new offer that did not go to a vote.  Early signs are positive that the agreement is working although a lot could go off the rails at any time. As for outsiders maintaining that the accord should never have been made in the first place and that no one should ever talk to terrorists, who are we/you to tell the Colombians what to do?  After all, 50 years of war is a very long time, perhaps people get tired of living in such a situation and they end up doing things they normally wouldn’t just to ‘make it stop.’

The Colombian (temporary?) success notwithstanding, is it prudent to enter into dialogue with terrorist groups in a general way?  I do not know the answer to that question as it relates to the wide variety of terrorist motivations but I do know one set of groups for which it will never (?) work: Islamist extremists.  Why: because they have told us in the plainest fashion possible that they have no interest in talks.

The ‘founder’ of Al Qaeda was a Palestinian named Abdullah Azzam.  He is largely responsible, with the help of another terrorist (or rather ex-terrorist since he is dead) named Usama bin Laden (sound familiar?), for the so-called ‘Afghan Arab’ phenomenon whereby thousands of Muslims flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets after they invaded the central Asian country in 1979.  Azzam is also the author of very influential jihadi tracts such as ‘Join the Caravan‘ and ‘In Defence of the Muslim Lands‘ and penned the famous line

  • “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues.”

Wow, it doesn’t get much clearer than that, does it?  I am not suggesting that all groups are carbon copies of AQ or that everyone follows Abdullah Azzam to the letter but there is a very important aspect to this quote.  To groups like Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, Ansar al Sharia and hundreds (thousands?) of others, violent jihad is the end all and be all of their existence.  They believe that they are carrying out a divine mission to both defend Islam from its enemies and to impose their intolerant and hateful interpretation of their faith such that negotiations are a non-starter.  Besides, they have such animus towards us in the West that they would not ‘lower’ themselves to talk in any event.  God is with them, so they think, and they will fight until they win, or die trying.

So it may indeed be possible on occasion  to get warring parties to the table, one of which carries the label ‘terrorist group’, and hammer out some kind of peace deal even if both sides have to hold their noses and set aside their deep-seated hatred for each other.  But it won’t work with Islamist extremist groups.  While we may succeed in re-integrating  a few disgruntled ex-members – and that is a tall order even in the best of circumstances given that disaffected deserters are still guilty of having joined a prescribed group and will have to face justice – we will have to capture or kill the leaders.  And I think that is what we would expect: who would want to give current AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri a second shot at a free life?  Not many I would wager.

In light of the abominable atrocities effected by these groups within their own societies the only option is to deal with them harshly.  So no, negotiations are not an option.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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