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Should Governments Negotiate With Terrorists?

By Giacomo Bagarella, Zaki Djemal, Keshava D. Guha, Joshua B. Lipson, and MIchael Mitchell

This is the first installment in a series of online-only Roundtables. This new content form from the Crimson Editorial Board seeks to present a diverse array of high-quality student opinion on thought-provoking issues.

If you would like to submit an opinion for this week's Roundtable topic "Should women serve in combat roles in the military?", please e-mail your 200-300 word opinion to hpickerell@college.harvard.edu before Wednesday 6th February at 6pm.

Before It’s Too Late

It is unfortunate that the question of whether to negotiate with designated terrorists often comes up at moments of crisis, when governments are at their lowest point of leverage. This is to say, governments are much worse-poised to negotiate with elements they consider to be terrorists when the threat of violence is immediate than during times of relative calm, when state power and intelligence far outstrips the means of small terror cells and networks.

Although the wanton slaughters at the Tigantourine gas facility, Dubrovka Theater, and Lod Airport should not be minimized, it was clear in utilitarian terms to the Algerian, Russian, and Israeli governments during these moments of crisis that capitulating to terrorist demands would have been harmful to state interests and encouraged would-be terrorists lying in the woodwork. In 2011, contrary to this principle, Binyamin Netanyahu approved the release of 1,027 prisoners (responsible for the deaths of 569 Israeli civilians) to meet the demands of Hamas in order to secure the release of the kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit. As a consequence of the terrorists’ remarkable achievement, Palestinian moderates with less of a flair for drama and violent threats have come to seem impotent, given their inability to extract concessions without resorting to terror. Remarkably, the Israeli government continues to profess that it refuses to negotiate with terrorists—a line that only seems to hold when nothing is acutely wrong. This approach is the complete inverse of what reason would dictate. Operating on the assumption that terrorists are interest-driven creatures, governments ought to keep lines of communication open with anti-state extremists during quiet times—when the state can shape the terms of engagement—and respond to outbursts and standoffs with targeted force. This would deliver the message that acts of violence against civilians do not pay.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the co-chair of Harvard Students for Israel.

Dramatic Act, Quiet Coda

As a rule, governments should not negotiate with terrorists. That is the consensus of the global community because it is understood that declaring this policy may deter acts of terror. The logic is simple: If aspiring terrorists expect that their demands will not be considered, they will not waste their resources taking hostages. But proving its efficacy requires knowing a counterfactual.  Non-negotiation with terrorists is the most reasonable declarative stance on an issue in which no stance can be definitely validated. Nothing about the events in Algeria should call this into question.

Nevertheless, the events in Algeria raise troubling questions on which, unlike negotiation with terrorists, there is no settled, reasoned consensus.

Consider, for example, that the situation in Mali escalated because the Tuareg revolt was coopted by an AQIM splinter group, Ansar Dine. An ethnic independence movement became an ideological terrorist campaign. That is what happened here, but it just as often appears elsewhere as a false narrative employed by repressive regimes to justify their refusal to grant rights and autonomy to minority groups.  Examine how China brands the Uighurs—a Muslim community seeking greater autonomy—as it rejects their aspirations: It identifies them with Islamic terrorism. When nations do not want to negotiate with minorities, they simply claim that they are refusing to negotiate with terrorists.

Above all, though, I suspect that the legacy of this crisis will be that it spurred the US to cement and expand its drone program, furthering its disturbing unilateral redefinition of norms about when, where, and why people can be killed. Ironically, the terrorists responsible for the Algeria crisis should not expect that they have won a voice through their vocal acts. Instead, they should expect to hear a haunting whir far overhead, and then, if only for a moment, a terrible crash: a sentence, issued from a bench unseen and unexplained, to the eternal silence of death.

Michael Mitchell ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In his address to the Global Economic Forum in Davos last week, Algerian Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, admitted Algeria “made mistakes” in handling the hostage crisis at the BP gas plant but defended his government’s decision to launch a military operation rather than negotiate with the terrorists. The statement was issued no doubt in response to the criticism from the international community of Algeria’s decision to use military force rather than negotiation, which compromised the lives of dozens of foreign nationals.

Although it is clear that the Algerian government should have kept other stakeholders up to speed on its decided course of action, it is ridiculous and rather paternalistic to think that Western governments can teach the Algerian government how to deal with a terrorist situation. Medelci’s government has been combating terrorism and fundamentalist pan-Islamist groups for years, and has likely developed a substantially more comprehensive grasp of the risks of giving into terrorism than officials sitting in Tokyo, Oslo, or Bucharest have. Just as these foreign governments are right to prioritize the lives of their nationals, Algeria was right to look at the big picture and consider the long-term implications of negotiations in the cost benefit analysis of the situation. From a purely strategic point of view, negotiating publicly with terrorists is suicide. In the psychological game of poker that exists between terrorists and governments, negotiating is equivalent to revealing your hand in the middle of a bluff: It demonstrates susceptibility to pressure and sends out a message that, for the terrorists, staying in the game might just pay off. Additionally, it undercuts moderate forms of protest, empowers violence and invites a recurrence of actions. For Algeria, this could mean an ensuing blitz of attacks that would cost many more lives, drive away business and deal the already struggling country a devastating blow.

Now, can we deduce a general policy of non-negotiation with terrorists from this incident? I tend to think the answer is probably not. Despite grand declarations, in practice, most democratic governments—even the U.S. and Israel, both known for their uncompromising stance on the matter—negotiate with terrorists. An argument could be made for Israel, a country which has perhaps more experience than any other with terrorism, negotiating with Hamas. Sometimes a government might make a judgment call that the benefits of negotiating with terrorists surpass the costs. Israel’s decision to exchange 1,000 Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands for the 1 abducted soldier Gilad Shalit was heavily criticized by Jewish communities worldwide as offering a reward to terrorism. Yet, Israel made a choice to go through with the deal so that every Israeli mother who sends her son or daughter into battle will know that in the event something terrible happens—a child falling captive, for example, the government will do all in its power to amend the situation.

What becomes clear is that the question of negotiating with terrorists is not a matter of principal but rather a matter of strategy. Despite a natural inclination for rules and generalizations, governments would be wise to acknowledge the fact that in these complex situations one size simply does not fit all.

Zaki Djemal ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.

Negotiating with Terrorists: Neither Rare Nor Bad Idea

Recent events in Algeria indicate that such crises (as also exemplified by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis) should be handled with more prudence, both in the negotiation and, if necessary, military responses. I do believe governments should be open to negotiations with terrorist groups. This is not an atypical suggestion, however: governments already negotiate with terrorist organizations. The Guardian reports that, since 2008, Western governments have paid ransoms totaling between $40 and $65 million to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other factions for the release of nationals kept hostage. Furthermore, the French government attempted (unsuccessfully) to negotiate the release of intelligence agent Denis Allex from Al-Shabab for several years before attempting to rescue him (unsuccessfully) by force. An additional example can be seen by Israel’s occasional collaboration with Hamas—which both Tel Aviv and Washington define as a terrorist group—both in enforcing truces in Gaza and in an important prisoner exchange. Even the United States negotiated with the Taliban over a possible settlement of the Afghan situation, and the British and Spanish governments engaged the Irish Republican Army and Basque movements to resolve their own conflicts. This practice should not necessarily be undertaken in every occasion, nor is it always guaranteed success. However, automatically excluding the opportunity of a peaceful settlement to hostage or conflict situations leaves force—with the dangers it entails—as the only viable alternative. Governments should be scrupulous in examining every policy option before making a decision; this is a responsibility they owe both to affected citizens as well as to the soldiers who may be asked to intervene. One may be surprised to discover that there often is sufficient ground for an agreement, and establishing some sort of working relationship today may enable building some degree of reciprocal trust and help defuse worse situations tomorrow.

Giacomo Bagarella ’13 is a government concentrator in Currier House. He is the former co-chair of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

Politics is the Art of the Possible

On December 24 1999, a group of terrorists allegedly belonging to the Kashmir-based Harkat-ul-Mujahideen hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. They flew the plane via Lahore and Dubai to Kandahar, where the Taliban, not quite yet international pariahs, offered to negotiate between the hijackers and the Indian government. Nearly 200 lives—passengers and crew—were at stake. India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, secured the passengers’ release, but only by agreeing to the hijackers’ demands. Three prominent HUM allies, imprisoned by India for terrorism, were released.

Those three men were among the world’s most dangerous terrorists—including Ahmed Sheikh, who would go on to murder Daniel Pearl. India freed her citizens, but only at the cost of more terrorism. This incident is often seen in India as a pathetic capitulation, and as support for the popular maxim that one should never negotiate with terrorists. It can be contrasted with Operation Entebbe, the 1975 raid in which Israeli special forces stormed a Ugandan airport and rescued 102 out of 106 hostages being held by Palestinian hijackers.

But these two cases do not show that the right approach is to kill or capture terrorists, rather than negotiate with them. They prove, rather, Bismarck’s famous assertion that politics is the art of the possible. The Indian government could not have allowed 192 hostages to be killed. Alternatives to negotiation were considered and rejected as impractical. Operation Entebbe shows that, where possible, counterterrorism should come first, but “never negotiate with terrorists” is simply unsustainable as an inflexible rule of policy. Negotiating with terrorists must, at times, be resorted to where all other policies to prevent the loss of innocent life have failed or cannot be employed.

Keshava D. Guha ’13, a Crimson Books and Arts writer, is a social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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