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‘We Don’t Negotiate with Terrorists!’: Legitimacy & Complexity in Terrorist Conflicts

Debretsiyon gebremichael Terrorist designated tplf leader

Many scholars and policymakers state that negotiating with terrorist groups legitimises 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 legitimation 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 delegitimising them can radicalise such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.

Northern Ireland and Mindanao in the Philippines are two cases studies that highlight these issues. Northern Ireland provides a rare example of a successful peace process involving a group using terrorist violence. The start of talks with Sinn Fein and its legitimation were key to the peace process. The British Government’s recognition of Sinn Fein’s grievances as legitimate helped republicans to contemplate a negotiated solution. Government recognition of Gerry Adams as republican leader strengthened his dealings with hardliners, and strengthened factions favouring talks rather than violence. It offered Sinn Fein the chance to become a potentially influential political party.

The example of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of the southern Philippines region of Mindanao demonstrates that complexity can be a conflict-resolving factor. The MILF’s loose transnational links with Al-Qaeda enable local level negotiations to take place, despite Al-Qaeda central command’s rejection of dialogue. The MILF, like many of the other cells and like-minded groups that comprise Al-Qaeda’s loose coalition, prioritises its local agenda above any Al-Qaeda-imported transnational agenda.  It engages in peace talks with the Philippines Government over local grievances.  Further, the complexity of Al-Qaeda’s network means the government can choose not to classify the MILF as terrorists, and continue negotiations.  This non-hierarchical, loose coalition allows for policymakers to engage with various groups without being linked to the leadership.

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.

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