What was the premise behind the Bush/Obama administration's "we don't negotiate with terrorists" sentiment?


Many scholars and policymakers state that negotiating with terrorist groups legitimizes them, their goals and their methods. They assert that such negotiations incite violence, weaken democratic states, and weaken the norm of non-violence.

However, the legitimization of terrorist groups through negotiations can transform a conflict away from violence, if groups have to renounce violence to engage in talks. Negotiations also enable groups to voice their grievances, and strengthen factions interested in non-violent solutions. In contrast, naming groups as terrorist with the intention of de-legitimising them can radicalize such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.

Issues of legitimacy and complexity should not rule out negotiations. Negotiations in terrorist conflicts are potentially less destructive than most other responses, offering an alternative to current policies of violent counter-terrorism. Exploring rather than rejecting complexity adds an important dimension to research and policymaking on Al-Qaeda. The key conclusions of the article include:

  • Negotiating with terrorists can lead to their legitimation, but also encourage them to transform into non-violent actors.

  • Al-Qaeda’s complex structure enables policymakers to engage with numerous actors, rather than the leadership. Separate peace processes could be conducted with different local groups, reducing Al-Qaeda’s
    global reach.

  • Defining groups as terrorist limits their possibilities of being anything else, and limits the state’s possible means of engagement.

  • Engaging through negotiations can potentially reverse isolating and radicalising processes through naming, creating instead inclusive
    and legitimising processes. This could strengthen rather than
    disempower the norm of non-violence in politics.

What rule/law if any, prevents negotiations between these organizations and the government?


Posted 2018-06-23T16:04:53.177

Reputation: 4 549

I removed one of the two questions you were asking because a question should only ask one question at a time. Further, the second question "has this stance of not negotiating with terrorists reduce conflicts?" isn't answerable because the prevalence of international terrorism is influenced by too many factors to tell if this one factor influences it. – Philipp – 2018-06-23T16:11:18.000

"can" is a weasel word. My posting on Politics.SE *can* lead to world peace, after all. What is the assessed probability of a terrorist group to transform into a non-violent actor if they are engaged into negotiations with? How many of them did vs. didn't? (I can possibly think of IRA, but I don't know if it's even a valid example in this context for a variety of reasons). How many of their members were polled and answered affirmatively that they would immediately de-radicalize if someone just talked to them? – user4012 – 2018-06-23T18:29:14.257

Removed reference to Obama in OP as he repeatedly negotiated with terrorists; he even famously invited the Muslim Brotherhood to the White House. – K Dog – 2018-06-23T23:33:47.890

1@KDog The US does not even classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, but you probably already knew that. – Batman – 2018-06-24T18:47:46.540

@AlexanderO'Mara ISNA was founded in 1981 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing trial http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/02/07/the-muslim-brotherhood-comes-to-the-white-house/

– K Dog – 2018-06-24T18:53:34.987


@KDog ISNA is also not classified as a terrorist organization, and "Judge Solis, as affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, held that the government should not have listed CAIR and ISNA" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Society_of_North_America#Alleged_terrorist_financing (but don't expect the infamously deceptive Brietbart to make note of this).

– Batman – 2018-06-24T19:22:01.320

How do you go to chat? – K Dog – 2018-06-24T20:07:51.337

1Well, the policies is a joke anyway. An institutional level terrorism is mostly ignore by many as terrorism. But US government not only negotiate with terror state, some of them are even US "brotherhood". – mootmoot – 2018-06-25T08:52:52.467



It seems like basic common sense.

Suppose, for a moment, that you were a government dealing with a terrorist group that kidnapped one of your citizens who was traveling abroad, and demanded that you do something slap-in-your-face outrageous in exchange for that citizen's life or something.

If you negotiate and cave in, what do you expect will happen to other citizens of yours when they travel abroad? They'd get kidnapped right, left, and center. Because you'd have basically sent the message that any group with an agenda can coerce your government into doing whatever terrorists demand through kidnapping. So that's a non-starter.

If you officially negotiate to get the citizen released, you'll hopefully take the only reasonable stance - aka surrender our citizen or die. Else you're sending the message that any group with an agenda might be able to coerce your government into giving concessions through kidnapping.

If you try to do the same unofficially and behind the scenes, it's still problematic (think: word of mouth). But at the very least you're not officially broadcasting to the world that the terrorist group is a party worth talking to and taking seriously to begin with. (And FWIW, I can't imagine for a second that this unofficial option isn't the rule rather than the exception.)

By contrast, if you're adamantly objecting to negotiate with such a group as a rule of thumb, and stay true to your word, then your citizens know what to expect when traveling abroad and know you won't come to save them in areas they're advised not to visit. It also sends a clearcut message to would-be kidnappers: there's no upside whatsoever in taking one of ours.

Denis de Bernardy

Posted 2018-06-23T16:04:53.177

Reputation: 29 672

2Even if you don't negotiate, kidnapping a westerner makes the news. That in itself is enough motivation for terrorists (with their thing being terrorising people and all). – JJJ – 2018-06-24T01:44:52.263

1@JJJ So the obvious solution is to not report it. – gnasher729 – 2018-06-24T10:11:09.627

@gnasher729 yea, great idea, feed the conspiracy theorists. This would leave you (the West) particularly vulnerable to propaganda efforts from hostile nations. They could report it and stress that you countries would want to keep it a secret. Something along the lines of deep state conspiracy but then aimed at ordinary citizens. Were they even citizens? Or did the government send them there to be killed? wink, wink, FUD tactics.

– JJJ – 2018-06-24T15:51:21.407

1@JJJ: Or the media could simply treat it like any other petty crime, i.e. something that gets reported on in passing without any need for discussion panels and debates. – Denis de Bernardy – 2018-06-24T16:20:54.267

@DenisdeBernardy don't worry the Russians will keep covering it. And while they're at it they will build trust with their overseas viewers which they can use for their own gain at a later time. For more info on their MO, see NYT Magazine.

– JJJ – 2018-06-24T16:30:04.270


You have to differentiate two things: not negotiating with terrorists vs. not negotiating based on terroristic actions.

The first is a bad strategy on the long term; the obvious failure of the "war against terror" shows that pretty clearly. For example, not negotiating with locally rooted groups like the Taliban deprived the NATO countries from a way to reach the local population. It leaves you with the only option of a complete military victory, which is largely unreachable when the terrorist organization is supported by the local inhabitants (if you don't want to resort to ethnical cleansing, that is). Another example is the Irish Good Friday Agreement, which would never have been possible without negotiations with the terrorists from the IRA.

Moreover, this strategy can easily be abused. Just declare all your opponents terrorists, like Turkish president Erdogan did with the HDP or the Gülen movement, and thereby justify that you don't have to talk and negotiate.

The second one, however, is a very reasonable strategy. You don't want to send the message that you can be coerced into negotiations or paying ransoms by terroristic actions, because that creates an incentive to engage in terrorism. The message should be: "If you want to negotiate with us, refrain from terrorism. Then we can talk." That is the main message behind "we don't negotiate with terrorists", and it often is misinterpreted in the way described above.


Posted 2018-06-23T16:04:53.177

Reputation: 3 721


Probably one of the key factors is the legitimacy of such a group amongst the domestic population and also internationally, and hence the legitimacy of its political grievances; probably another important factor is also how long an armed struggle has been going on. Take for example the latest armistice between such a 'terrorist group' and a state. This is FARC, who had been leading an armed struggle in Columbia since 1964 and which in 2017 laid down its arms and turning itself into a normal political party.

Notably, it was recognised as a terrorist group by the Colombia, the USA, New Zealand, Canada, Chile and the EU; whereas Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador did not.

Such a difference of opinion highlights the political nature of the grievance and this in the end was how the armistice was reached.

Another historical situation that's worth bearing in mind is that the South African ANC was also listed as a terrorist group by the USA and it was only after a decade (or two) after the ANC had achieved both political recognition and legitimacy for its struggle internationally and domestically that the USA delisted Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2018-06-23T16:04:53.177

Reputation: 3 678

Notice that Brazil traditionally does not label any groups "terrorist", exactly to be able to negotiate when needed. (This is quite certainly about to change with the new far-right government, which will quite certainly make humoungous lists of "terrorist organisations", as it needs enemies to justify its intent of being on permanent "war".) So it wasn't tantamount to a position on the FARC's methods or aims, just a general policy that used to apply regardless of methods or intents. – Luís Henrique – 2019-01-05T15:33:53.173


Nation states not only negotiate with so-called "terrorists", they create fund and arm them; and parallel but opposing groups to fight among each other; for political purposes. One example is the group mentioned at the OP.

From the perspective of Palestinians and many others Isreal is a "terrorist" state, condemned by the U.N. on numerous occasions for their conquest of the Palestinian nation.

From the perspective of many Native Americans and black Africans, the U.S. is the only actual "terrorist" organization that they will come into contact directly beginning in childhood (i.e.g., "public" school systems; "public" safety administrations), both historically as the "terrorist" organization which perpetuated genocide and exploitation against those peoples, for profit, fun and glory.

The U.S. negotiated treaties with Native Americans which they have not honored since the ink dried. The U.S. does not negotiate with so-called black Africans, not because the latter are considered "terrorists", but rather because that group has not yet demanded reparations as a whole for their forced labor as prisoners of war for at least 200 years in the United States. Perhaps if those groups did demand that treaties be honored and reparations be paid in full, they would be labeled "terrorists", and the state would not "negotiate" with them by way of words, but as the state does negotiate, by means of reverting to direct genocide.

Nation states only proclaim a policy of "we don't negotiate with terrorists" when they believe that they have political and material leverage to do so. Even then, the state is constantly attempting to infiltrate, disrupt and bribe groups to adjust their views; that is, negotiating by political means.

Hunger strikes are an example of where the state, in general, has a policy where they will not "negotiate" when there are only one to several hunger strikers. When the hunger strike participants number in the hundreds or thousands, and their political goal is clear to the state, the state will negotiate if only because it would be more cost effective than strapping each of one thousand individuals to a table to in order to force feed them by way of a tube, so the hunger strikers will not perish.

It is publicized that certain states do not "negotiate" with so-called "terrorists", but that is historically and politically false. Whether the negotiations be by military force, bribery, division or other ruthless means, the state negotiates with every individual or group in some form, as the modern nation state seeks as its primary aim control over all thought, speech and action; thus the state must "negotiate" in each field of human activity to achieve that aim.


Posted 2018-06-23T16:04:53.177

Reputation: 1

5I think this answer misses the question. We all know that one side's terrorists are another side's freedom fighters. The question is about whether one negotiates with the organizations they themselves consider to be terrorists. – Philipp – 2018-06-24T08:39:26.870

@Philipp The answer unequivocally states yes, negotiations are fundamental to politics. Not sure how that fact is missed by you to the point that you would make such a comment? There are recent examples of "secret" negotiations prior to public negotiations. The Nation of Islam at one point met to negotiate with the Ku Klux Klan. Whether the parties admit to such negotiations is a different matter of policy for that particular administration. – guest271314 – 2018-06-24T12:46:43.897

3I'm not sure how this answer addresses the question. For example, the link between hunger strikes and terrorism is not explained, nor how 'military force' is considered negotiation. – NPSF3000 – 2018-06-24T17:55:49.043

1I think that this answer, while interesting, is off-topic to the question specifically asked. You have a good answer here about the otherization processes inherent in the naming of someone as a "terrorist", and that can be valuable in the context of other questions with a more critical bent. This question, however, is a pretty simple mechanical question about when governments negotiate with groups they call terrorists, and as such pointing out that the state can be the instrument of terror or that Native Americans negotiated with the government is irrelevant to the question asked. – Eremi – 2018-06-26T16:12:20.033

@Eremi At least you are able to articulate your critique of the answer coherently. Native American nations are still trying to negotiate with the U.S. relevant to treaties signed, in some cases, over 100 years ago. African Americans are still trying to negotiate reparations for being prisoners of war in the U.S. On the one hand the U.S. publicizes a policy of the organization: "we don't negotiate with terrorists"; the term "terrorists" can be substituted for any entity; i.e.g., North Korea. The U.S. negotiates with whomever that organization decides to, when they decide to do so. – guest271314 – 2018-06-26T16:32:49.173

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