Negotiating with Terrorists: A Mediator’s Guide

Policy Brief #06,  March 2009. Officially public authorities do not negotiate with terrorists. However, governments frequently do end up negotiating with hostage takers and kidnappers and with political groups classified as terrorists. While this briefing does not necessarily advocate negotiating with terrorists, it outlines the practicalities of such negotiations, providing a guide to deciding how, when, and with whom to negotiate.

Policy Brief # 6, cover

Policy Brief # 6, cover

Summary

  • The main objection to negotiation with terrorists is that it encourages them to repeat their tactics. But it is not negotiation per se that encourages terrorism, rather the degree to which terrorists are able to achieve their demands by negotiation.
  • There are different types of terrorists, according to their reasons and goals for using terrorism. Contingent terrorists, such as kidnappers and hostage takers, do seek negotiations. Absolute terrorists, such as suicide bombers, view any negotiation as a betrayal of their very raison d’être.
  • Some absolute terrorists may become open to discussion and eventually moderation of their means and ultimately even of their ends. The challenge of negotiation is to move total absolutes into conditionals, and to work on contingent terrorists to either reduce or change their terms.
  • Effective negotiations can begin when the parties perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurting stalemate and see a way out. Negotiators must maintain pressure (stalemate) while offering a way out, thereby showing terrorists there is something to gain from negotiation.
  • Negotiators do not negotiate belief systems. They should help terrorists develop alternative means: changing terrorist ends can be tackled only over the much longer term.
  • Negotiation with contingent terrorists is a short-term tactic; negotiation with absolute terrorists is a long-term strategy. Patience and persistence will prove key to dealing with both contingent and absolute terrorists.
  • The negotiator needs to offer the conditional absolute terrorist concessions to his demands as the payment for abandoning his violent terrorism, not concessions to the pressure of terrorism itself. If the negotiator makes concessions to the terrorist part of the negotiation process, so too must the terrorist. Even the absolute terrorist organizer does have something to offer as payment — his choice of terrorist tactics.

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Last edited: 11 April 2016

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