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Should We Negotiate with Terrorists?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Jeff J Mitchell / Staff
*Updated 2023
One of the original thinkers of sociology, Max Weber, defined the modern state as “a human community which holds the claim for legitimate use of force within a given territory.” To humanity’s great chagrin, most terrorists have probably never read Weber, and thus go about their plots to influence politics with violence, mostly at the expense of civilians. Since Ronald Reagan’s infamous pledge to never negotiate with terrorists, the public, globally, has debated whether negotiations with terrorist groups are warranted or even advisable. In fact, in 2015, former President Obama announced a policy overhaul that would publicly state that the American government could start communicating and negotiating with hostage-takers.
Below, we’ll discuss three reasons for negotiating with terrorists, and three reasons for refusing to negotiate with them.


We shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists


Negotiating with terrorists isn’t necessary.

The shock and awe tactics employed by terrorists are intended to scare the public into believing that its powers are larger than they are and that its aims are an urgent matter. However (and with the utmost respect for the suffering of terror victims and their families), statistics reveal that losses of human life due to terror attacks are low in number.  The 9/11 terror attacks killed 2,977 Americans. Since those attacks, 549 Americans have been killed in other terror attacks. In 2019, the most recent year that data is available, 51 people died in terrorist attacks in the US. That same year, around 20,000 people died from terror attacks globally – that’s an estimated 1 in 2000 deaths that year. For comparison, the odds of dying from heart disease or cancer are much higher: 1 in 6. And from COVID-19? 1 in 10. In general, terrorists have no armies and minimal funding; terrorist activities are generally unable to make a destabilizing impact on target countries. Victim countries maintain their militaries, territory, and political systems. Negotiation is not merited when the state holds all the cards.


Terrorists do not represent the people they claim to represent.

ETA, the militant Basque separatist movement, was formed with the goal of winning independence from Spain. The only problem was that violent resistance in general and the ETA in particular was never popular among Basques. Similarly, at their peak, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS claimed to speak for all Islam, when polling from Muslim-majority countries revealed that these groups couldn’t have been less popular. Negotiating with such groups assigns them legitimacy they do not have. It therefore does a disservice to the populations that these organizations pretend to represent by associating them with causes they, in fact, do not believe in.


Negotiating with terrorists undermines the rule of law.

Terrorists are criminals, period. The tactics utilized by terrorist organizations and organized crime families, particularly drug cartels, are basically interchangeable. Murder, extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, rape, and innumerable other acts committed by terrorists are already codified by law as criminal acts. Touting some purported grievance as the reason for these crimes in no way excuses them. Societies ruled by law expect their governments to pursue justice. Just as we would not negotiate with John Gotti or El Chapo over the nature of their crimes, we should not negotiate with terrorists in response to theirs.


We should negotiate with terrorists


Negotiating with terrorists affirms the values of human life and community.

Consider Israel’s history of lopsided prisoner swaps with terrorist groups. Israel once traded 4,700 detainees to the Palestinian Liberation Organization for six Israeli soldiers. That’s a 783:1 ratio. The stakes were even higher in the 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas, wherein 1,027 convicted terrorists were released in exchange for just one captive soldier (that’s a 1,027:1 ratio for those keeping count). Is there anything more endearing to a country than the public proclamation that a single life of one of its citizens is worth 1,000? Such negotiations send a clear message to the communities who benefit from them: You are part of this community, and your life has value.


Negotiating with terrorists can sometimes be a necessary evil.

Let’s talk about the world’s most tenacious narco-terrorist, Columbia’s cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. When extradition of narcotraffickers to the US became a Columbian imperative, Escobar sought to influence the policy with the tools at his disposal – namely, political assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings (lovely guy). Average citizens should not be forced to bear the consequences of terrorists’ disagreement with the government. So, Columbia’s decision to reverse its extradition law and even to allow Escobar to serve out his prison sentence in a luxury prison of his own design was welcomed warmly by the public and was a necessary measure in ensuring public security. Similarly, negotiations with terrorist organizations can serve as a starting point for a broader peace agreement, as secret and public negotiations between the government of the UK and the Irish Republican Army and the latter’s subsequent disarmament and participation in politics demonstrate.


Negotiating with terrorists is preferable to the alternatives.

Say what you will about terrorists, they are persistent. FARC guerillas made Columbia’s jungles untraversable for three decades. Al Qaeda has been in business since (gulp) 1988, and despite Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the terror group may still considered a looming threat, not to mention ISIS. The threat to public security is real, present, and potentially long-term. Governments must therefore weigh the cost of non-negotiation, which can range from indiscriminate bombings, the kidnapping and torture of innocents, to biological warfare against potential gains of peace to be won through negotiation. Non-negotiation can also mean confrontation through violence. The only problem is that this kind of warfare is asymmetrical and generally more costly for governments than it is for terrorist groups. For instance, in 2021, a Brown University Costs of War project asserted that 20 years of post-9/11 wars have cost the US an estimated $8 trillion and have killed more than 900,000 people. Thus, perhaps negotiations with terrorists may have actually benefited national economic and security interests.


The Bottom Line: While the reasons for refusing to negotiate with terrorists are plain, this inflexible stance is not always feasible or necessarily desirable. But neither can a policy of negotiation always create positive results. With globalization and social media affording terrorists broader possibilities of influence, do you think governments should negotiate with them or refrain from doing so?

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