Should We Negotiate With Terrorists?

Terrorism is largely thought of as an irrational act, a product of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism, but this is not the entire story. It can be a political tool employed by the militarily weak, who are unable to win in conventional warfare, to pressure stronger powers into acceding to terrorist groups’ political agendas. Effective policy must take into account the strategic nature of terrorism and analyze the perpetrators’ underlying motive in order to successfully combat it.

Negotiation with political actors employing terrorist strategies requires an evaluation of their motivations, of the unity of the movement, and of the intractability of the conflict at the time. Motivations of the terrorist group must be such that their terrorist acts are meant to elicit policy change, rather than encouraging their own constituency. In the latter case, nothing the opponent offers would be enough to deter terrorist actions. The unity of the terrorist movement can be assessed in two ways. An indication that the movement has internal tensions is the presence of a political wing, a non-militaristic representative of the movement that can be incorporated into conventional and non-violent forms of political action, i.e. engagement using political parties. This means that the movement has sought alternatives or options beyond terrorism and it is through this channel with which to offer negotiation. The second way is by determining how strong its base of support is. Terrorist groups rely on their political community for support as a base from which to draw recruits and other resources in order to sustain their operations. The political community must advocate the use of violence to achieve their aims. However, this support can be weakened with the effects of backlash, reforms, and deterrence (Gurr) and channeled towards the non-violent political wing. Finally, conditions that will result in successful negotiations requires that neither party feels as though defeat of the other is inevitable and that neither party believes that compromise involves surrender. At this stage of the conflict, both sides are exhausted by combat, deadlocked, and open to revising their initial goals. In such conditions of standstill, each actor would likely re-evaluate the efficacy of their methods which, in the right circumstances, may cause them to adjust their strategy away from instrumental violence.

 To determine the feasibility of negotiations the government must first seek to understand the nature of the terrorist group’s motivations and to whom is their political message for. Terrorism is a tactic in pursuit of a larger goal. Terrorism may be employed by both state and non-state entities and with a variety of motivations. These can be to preserve governmental control (i.e. Argentina’s military government in the 1970s), for ideological reasons (i.e. The Weather Underground, Al Qaeda), or to seek a particular policy change (separatist/independence movements or removal of occupying powers – i.e. IRA of Northern Ireland, FLN of Algeria, US forces in Saudi Arabia). If the goals of the terrorist actors are so divergent to the government’s existing political system and there is no common ground to base concessions on, then negotiation is not likely. For example, the ideological goals of extreme revolutionarily-minded groups such as jihadists (who support the deaths of infidels in a Holy War) or radical left/right groups (anarchists/sovereign nation – who strongly oppose the government system) make negotiation impracticable. There are no specific issues to bargain on because neither side has anything the other side wants. In this case, a desire for independence

The audience of which terrorist acts are directed is important to consider. If the use of violence is a form of revenge for past ills or the symbolic expression of power and self-esteem for a historically oppressed group, then negotiation may be futile. This is because these violent actions are not instrumental for political change, but rather a form of validation. The external actions of the group’s opponents are largely irrelevant. This type of terrorism is ‘solipsistic’, meaning that violence is used to satisfy psychic requirements – the creation of a sense of identity or liberation – for a community who have long felt subjugated (Lustick). For example, the Basque Country has felt historically dominated by Spain who, in the interests of empire, imposed the Spanish language and culture into the Basque regions. This memory instilled in the Basque people the “culture of violence” (Hannah Arendt), a desire for vengeance. This accounts for why, when Spain went from an authoritarian government to a democratic one, ETA refused to participate in legitimate political channels. Basque identity of subjugation had already been indoctrinated into their minds and according to ETA, the nationalist cause could not accept compromise. The five-point KAS Alternative outlines the minimum conditions for the cessation of violence, which include self-determination, territorial integrity, and the reinstatement of the Euskera language (Shabad & Ramo). ETA still maintains a rigid, emotionally charged perspective towards its political goals. In situations where the goals are intertwined with a psychological element inequality or subjugation, the concept of justice would have to be addressed in any potential negotiations. The alleviation of deep-seated grievances and resentments in a group is required for the maintenance of long-term peace.

Still, separatist groups have a tangible goal – independence for their political community. This category comes with opportunities for compromise. Groups with tangible political goals such as independence or autonomy carry out terrorist activities that are ‘other-directed’. This terrorism functions as a form of communication, thus being open to compromise or accommodation by its opponents. At this point in a conflict, negotiations are a viable possibility since the purpose of their terrorism is to affect their opponent’s behavior.

The extent to which the movement is fractured will also create conditions suitable for negotiations. In this case, the presence of a political wing implies tension between its military and political factions. The former’s method relies on violence to affect policy, whereas the latter is willing to utilize traditional channels of politics. It is the latter with which negotiation is possible. Militant branches of a political movement choose terroristic strategies because they feel that conventional tactics are insufficient and ignored. However, this is also a risky and costly strategy with regard to their own constituency. Terrorist attacks bring about extreme government responses (such as unlawful detention, infringements on civil liberties, etc.). This puts pressure and imposes costs on the terrorist group’s political community. The longer the struggle persists, the more intolerable these costs may become. The political wing then becomes a viable alternative to the military group. Political wings have the advantage of legitimacy and legality in the existing political system, and the government would have no justification for a ‘crack-down’ as they would on terrorist groups. The political community may agree with the objectives of the terrorist groups, and at the same time not support the violent actions of the military branch. Thus, the terrorist element of a political movement can be substantially de-legitimized, leaving open more moderate routes, which improves chances for successful negotiation.

To facilitate negotiations, one course of action the government may take is to weaken the military branch’s support among its political community. The government may accomplish this by instituting piecemeal political reforms. Offering concessions to the group’s base of support creates a rival alternative against a strategy of illegitimacy and violence. Concessions may have the effect of rendering the perceived need for terrorism irrelevant. However, there are contingencies to this strategy. One danger of this action is that it may instigate terrorist attacks that have the purpose of eliciting strong government response (anti-terror squads, martial law, etc.). The survival of a terrorist agenda is at stake and rather than discouraging further attacks with these severe and repressive measures, the government’s actions may actually serve to further radicalize the community by creating grievances of revenge that cannot be addressed through compromise. This is what happened in the Basque separatist case. ETA’s strategy during the Francoist regime was to elicit repressive action (security forces, torture, etc.) from the already fairly illegitimate (since it was an authoritarian dictatorship) government. This strategy gave credibility to ETA’s grievances and could easily attract recruits.

Gurr argues that undermining a terrorist group’s support requires three conditions: backlash, reform, and deterrence. All three elements are required to guide the sentiment of the movement towards compromise.

The endurance of a terrorist group depends on its support from the community. If the government can cut off this line of support, the terrorist group cannot be sustained for very long. Without sympathy and a base of active support the terrorist group cannot enlist recruits, hide amongst the general population, receive material support, or avoid informants (Gurr). Backlash is the primary cause behind the loss of support for terrorist tactics. Backlash occurs when the community experiences enormous costs associated with terrorist attacks or when the kinds of violence committed is perceived as unnecessary and unworthy. The separatist group of Quebecois Canadians, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), experienced its decline in the 1970s largely as a result of the kidnappings of top Canadian officials, one of whom was brutally murdered. In the eyes of the community, these actions were unjustifiable. Subsequently, terrorism as a strategy was largely discredited and the community turned against the FLQ in favor of more moderate separatist factions, the political party – Parti Quebecois. Likewise the government should try to avoid backlash that comes with excessively forceful countermeasures. In January 1972, British troops shot into an unarmed Irish Catholic rally and caused the numbers of the Provisional IRA to greatly increase (Council on Foreign Relations).

In addition to the alienating effects of violence on the community, the government may also provide them with positive incentives for the rejection of terrorism. If some of their demands can be met (for instance, official political recognition – i.e. what the Palestinian Authority received by the U.N.), they may be more receptive to the effectiveness of non-violent political processes. The separatist movement in Quebec has largely followed this trajectory in which access to government replaced violence as the dominant form of political action. As stated earlier, reforms can potentially escalate attacks as terrorist groups struggle to stay relevant. In addition, reforms may be perceived as the success of terrorist strategy and reinforce its use among militants. To illustrate, ETA violence greatly increased during the democratic transition post-Franco dictatorship and after three Basque Provinces (Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya) were granted regional autonomy (Shabad & Ramo). Rather than accept these mild reforms, ETA regarded them as evidence of the utility of terrorist strategies. These potential consequences require that the element of backlash is present before reforms and concessions to the political community are enacted. Thus, concessions are a vital part of discouraging terrorism and militancy but it is important that the community has first absorbed a high level of pain and costs due to terrorist actions.

The final factor a government should evaluate to determine if negotiations are appropriate is the condition of the conflict at present. To be more specific, that the conflict is at such a stage that the government and the terrorist group both do not feel they are making any progress or advancements while the costs of struggle perpetually increase. When offering their constituency an explanation for negotiation, governments must demonstrate that the costs of continued fighting are unsustainably high but at the same time avoid the appearance of surrender. On the other hand, if both parties feel equally uncompromising and are willing to absorb more costs for the struggle, then negotiations are inappropriate. This government, assuming it is democratic and with a constituency reluctant to accept either autonomy or independence, will probably experience a protracted struggle with the terrorist groups. The terrorist group has not signaled a desire to negotiate either. According to Crenshaw, the most durable of ongoing campaigns have been carried out on behalf of communal minorities (Gurr). Since both sides appear equally obstinate, the threshold for pain on both sides is very high and negotiations may not be likely. If considering negotiations, the government must find a balance between the terrorist group’s demands of sovereignty, and the constraints of public opinion and costs of demands (in terms of land, economic benefits, etc.).  One way to determine the feasibility of negotiation is to test each side’s commitment. When instituting reforms, it is important to start with issues that may be less contentious, so as not to drive any party to extremism. If the demand for independence involves political sovereignty then creating some reform in that general direction (for example, more political representation for the rebelling political community) would serve to test the resolve of both the government’s constituency and the movement’s.

Consider the following theoretical: There is no agreement in the terrorists’ political community over whether the goal should be “Independence” or “autonomy” but the government’s constituency has historically been opposed to either. The ‘terrorists’ have a political wing which is widely recognized by everyone as the political wing of the organization. The ‘terrorists’ have not called for negotiation. The ultimate goal of a negotiation is to produce a peaceful and long-term settlement.

There is still some indication of the potential for negotiation in this case. It is that the demands of the terrorists’ political community are not consistent. Some desire independence, while some would settle for autonomy. This creates a political space in which negotiations can occur. The radicalized segment of the community will be intransigent, committed to violence, and desire complete independence. Thus, the government should direct any negotiating efforts towards those who would choose autonomy. The government is better off taking indirect action that undermines the support the military wing receives from the political community by working to incorporate the more moderate political wing into the existing legitimate forms of policy action. The importance of supporting a movement’s political wing is seen in the diverging trajectories of the IRA and ETA. The IRA’s wing Sinn Fein led to the Good Friday accord in which political action took a non-violent form. A new legislative body for Northern Ireland and increased border ties were compromises that were acceptable to both parties. On the other hand, negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government have not yet achieved such progress. The political wing of ETA, Batasuna, was not given a chance by the Spanish government to develop as it was banned. Because both the government and the independence movement do not seem particularly inclined towards resolution as of now, this paper would recommend letting the conflict evolve before taking a decisive step towards negotiation.


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