Terrorists are neither easy nor particularly appealing to talk to. Traditionally, states have been unwilling to send their representatives to communicate with terrorist organisations out of fear that the very fact of negotiation with violent anti-government actor, daring to break state monopoly on the use of force, might undermine governmental legitimacy in the eyes of domestic constituencies and the international community of fellow nation-states. Agreeing to terms with a terrorist organization might be seen as a sign of a state’s submissiveness; an agreement to not only recognize the validity of terrorists’ political endeavours but also to normalize unlawful coercion as a tool of political interaction. However, as political theory can tell us, a decision on whether states should negotiate with terrorists is not a straightforward one: often dependent on the context of the civil conflict and the nature of the terrorist organization that the state is seeking to tame.
In the wake of recent developments in Syria and Iraq and the seeming retreat of the Islamic State from its claimed territory, thousands of mujahidin (guerrilla fighters) are likely to resurface in their communities – a development that potentially creates a window of opportunity to approach the bleeding enemy with constructive talks. A 90% fall in civilian death toll, that has already ameliorated suffering of affected populations, is not permanent (Lincoln Center 2019). As Al Qaeda and Hezbollah show, Wahhabist salafi jihadism (a militantly extremist version of Sunni fundamentalism preached by ISIS) is a complex and sinister ideology, which can hide through the turmoil and re-emerge again to kill in the name of global jihad. Should the regional governments and international actors seize the moment of strategic weakness, luring and pressuring ISIS into negotiations? A demilitarising agreement today might pre-empt continuous, albeit, low-scale calamities for decades to come. The answer should be no.
Theoretically, negotiating with the terrorists can be seen as a legitimate strategy of conflict resolution. In some cases, the feasibility of such endeavour is a matter of proper interaction design, which takes advantage of face-to-face persuasion, coercive diplomacy (sanctions and ultimatums followed by symbolic concessions) and tough bargaining (making high demands and threatening great costs for non-compliance) while also securing the state a loophole to withdraw, should it feel the urge to do so (Marcus Holmes, 2013). In terms of moral imperatives, even a temporary ceasefire can significantly reduce a civilian death toll: giving terrorists a chance to make their point by shouting at the government’s representatives which might prevent them from blowing up buildings (or using crowds as a driving site).
Oftentimes the ideological undercurrent of the violent anti-state actors comes from socio-economic disparities rather than distinct political will (even though the two are much intermingled). According to Willson Center statistics (2019), female suicide terrorism increased by 15% from 2013, with attacks happening primarily in the MENA region. The findings of my research (Volozhanina, 2017) focusing on cross-case analysis of the reasons behind female terrorism revealed that the degree of the women’s emancipation largely affects the likelihood of their engagement in violent activities, but also the objectives that they seek to achieve in the process. In the states characterized by multidimensional gender inequality, such as Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, and Palestine, women tend to follow the extremist path due to restrained freedoms and opportunities rather than out of ideological devotion: they seek security and social validation, not a global victory of the religious doctrines. By sacrificing their ‘less significant’ lives in the name of male-led societies, women merely reaffirm their subordinate position rather than make their own political statements: as Mia Bloom puts it, “the message female suicide bombers send is that they are more valuable to their societies dead than they ever could have been alive” (2011: 100).
Importantly, what this research demonstrates, is that female terrorism could have been if not eliminated, then significantly curtailed, if the states tried addressing the structural conditions in which this terrorism is rooted: an insight that would have certainly surfaced if negotiations with terrorists from these cultures were to take place. Perhaps even more significantly, both the state and the terrorists usually perceive each other in equally absolutist negative terms. By showing the parties the mutuality of the villainization process, there is a tiny hope that negotiations might encourage both diplomats and terrorists to question the credibility of their binary vision, making the conflict seem less about the good-evil dichotomy and more about both sides having their rights and wrongs.
Yet a very fundamental counterargument is that regardless of their potential utility, all the strategies, modelling the conditions for engaging with the anti-state actors, rest upon the premises that the latter have the a) willingness, b) rationality, and c) representational capacity to engage in the talks. None of the criteria apply to the Islamic State.
First of all, concerning willingness, Wahhabist salafi jihadists, whether former or not, can never agree to interact with the diplomatic representatives of the ‘regimes’ that they consider to be the real-life embodiments of metaphysical evil, because any kind of such interaction can negatively affect their position within the terrorist structure as well as their ideological purity and self-respect. As al-Baghdadi put it, “the war will not be over until the caliphate covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth, filling the world with the truth and justice of Islam and putting an end to the falsehood and tyranny of jahiliyyah” (qtd. in Dabiq #5 108). Indeed, some of the practices (for want of a better term) in which ISIS is involved, render its followers unlikely to communicate with the state, even if they would have considered this option otherwise. Coming back to the case study on female terrorism: in general, female jihadists would have probably come to the negotiations table if they were given a chance, but would never engage with the authorities in a particular context of being on a suicide mission – they have already made up their mind, have been drugged into pacification and the lives of their families are probably at stake. It could also be the case that ISIS will never negotiate with the state not only because it sits uncomfortably within its ideological agenda but out of considerations of efficiency: violence yields them greater influence on the state than any kind of peace talks would ever have.
As Robert Pape (2005) famously argues, people resort to terrorism not to compensate for power disparities vis-a-vis the state, but because of “strategic logic” attached to the civilian killings, which generate social outcry – thus, restraining the potential for a full-scale response from the government. Indeed, the Islamic State seems to have mastered the art of spilling innocent blood – a grim achievement – in a variety of creative ways over a wide range of locations. According to CNN, over a period of time from 2014 till 2017 more than 2043 of people in 29 countries were killed and dozens injured as a result of 140 ISIS-organized or -inspired martyrdom operations (Lister et al. 2017). The group also used to leave the details of their brutal vengeance laid bare for the world to tremble (Manne 2016). Such playing on the public hysteria and grief to make regional authorities and international actors in particular watch their steps in fear of provoking another round of fatal violence works especially well in the context of highly accountable democracies, whose coercive capacities are bound by constitutional freedoms and who are, therefore, unable to violently interrogate the population in search of the threat (or just wipe out the suspicious ‘hot spots’ regardless of collateral damage as many authoritarian regimes would have done).
As far as rationality is concerned, it is not always possible to disentangle reasonable claims from unreasonable ones, as Spector (2003) proposes, just because the whole terrorist agenda might be built upon ideological fanaticism; or because bits and pieces of pragmatic demands, identified by the diplomats, cannot be incorporated in the government’s domestic policies if the government is still to exist. Indeed, there is no way in which the diplomats can negotiate with someone with the ultimate goal of destroying their state, no matter how rationally comprehensible and down-to-earth the language in which the given goal is being packaged. In other words, the notion of rationality is not universal: unification of all the Muslims within a global khilāfah (caliphate) is a completely rational objective to pursue from the Islamic State’s point of view; much less so for the Western and Middle East governments which the group targets.
On a functional level a diplomatic encounter with ISIS’ representatives can prove to be a rationality-trust deadlock. The very process of intention reading and diplomatic “brain-to-brain” coupling requires certain mental characteristics such as developed intuition, understanding of psychology, and, most importantly, empathetic bonding; a task that terrorists are often neither able nor willing to undertake. Wahhabist salafi jihadism rests upon dehumanization of its opponents to collectively justify mass killings and to mitigate individual trauma of taking an innocent life. When it comes to waging a holy war, the scale of the task and the nobility of intentions easily outweigh the atrocities which had to be carried out throughout the process: after all, according to Abu Bakr Naji, Al Qaeda’s propaganda chief, all the great empires rose from a bloodbath (35). To contextualize, as Graeme Wood finds out with astonishment, ISIS supporters can “mentally shift from contemplating mass death to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee, with apparent delight in each” (Wood 2015).
Finally, even if ISIS was willing to negotiate and voice rational demands that deserve regional governments’ consideration, there is no guarantee that the jihadists engaged with the authorities would in truth represent the opinion of the violent group as a whole, if there is any unilateral opinion at all. To avoid the dangers of being proliferated by the state agents or tracked down in case of betrayal, ISIS, learning from Al Qaeda, has increasingly adopted a clandestine system of organizations; operating as a web of autonomous decentralized cells connected by one or two people or even completely isolated from each other. Alternatively, the hierarchy-less, loosely coordinated nature of jihadi groupings can also be coupled with ideological fragmentation with one faction passionately disapproving another faction’s dealings with the authorities. In this case, negotiations with the ISIS’ ‘actors’ can even worsen the situation if the members of the dissenting faction decide to use even more brutal methods of fighting to “make up” for the betrayal of their counterparts, ‘corrupted’ by the state (for example, the ISIS Takfiri doctrine viewing liberal Muslim ‘apostates’, the kuffār, as greater enemies of the faith than initially deviant Western crusaders).
To conclude, the Islamic State’s brave jihadists are simply the wrong buddies for a political pillow talk – whether one recognizes the legitimacy of their grievances or not. In terms of feasibility, differences in rationality, extremely destructive political objectives, lack of proper hierarchy and the very willingness to establish a communication channel create physical constraints for negotiations to unfold. However, the question of conditional viability is not the only problem here: the principle of ‘doing no harm’ is the one to keep in mind. In attempt to tailor up conflict-torn societies, states need to think twice whether they want to strike a deal in the first place. There is a risk of successful negotiations resulting in a painful trade-off between immediate cessation of hostilities and resumption of instability in the long run. Questionable in their intentions and reasonability, the terrorists can be appeased and reintegrated for now but what prevents them from taking up arms again whenever they feel being treated unjustly (and having learned that dead bodies force authorities to listen)? As the saying goes, old soldiers never die, they simply fade away. ISIS is not up for negotiations, or to any good. Gambling with citizens’ life is a dictatorial luxury, something that democratically elected governments – thankfully – cannot afford.
Clarion Project. (2017) Islamic State’s (ISIS, ISIL) Horrific Magazine. Clarion Project. Available at: https://clarionproject.org/islamic-state-isis-isil-propaganda-magazine-dabiq-50/
Bloom, M. (2011) Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Holmes, M. (2014) “The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Mirror Neurons and the Problem of Intentions,” International Organization 67, no. 4: 829-861.
Lister, C. (2016) Profiling the Islamic State. Brookings.
Manne, R. (2016) The Mind of the Islamic State. The Monthly.
Pape, R. A. (2005) Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York, Random House.
Report: Terrorism on Decline in Middle East and North Africa. (2019) Wilson Center. Available at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/report-terrorism-decline-middle-east-and-north-africa
Spector, B. (2004) “Negotiating with Villains Revisited: Research Note,” International Negotiation 9, no. 1: 613-621.
Volozhanina, T. (2017) ‘To What Extent Does the Degree of Women’s Emancipation Determine Their Reasons for Engagement in Terrorism?’ John Cabot University Coursework, 1-10.
Naji, A. (2006) The Management Of Savagery. Translated by William McCants, pp. 2–268.
Wood, G. (2016) What ISIS Really Wants. The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company.