Negotiate with Terrorists! or: Why Terrorism Cannot be Deterred – ANDREAS M. BOCK

negotiation with terror grouos

How can terrorism be deterred? With violence! This answer seems tobe obviously right, because terrorism has »a connotation of evil, indiscriminateviolence, or brutality« (Lutz, 2004: 9). How can one negotiate
with terrorists like Usama bin Laden or Hassan Nasrallah who kill innocent men, women and children? This proposition is, at the very least,absurd. Right?
I believe that the real absurdity is not an alternative security strategy

– even one that relies on negotiating with terrorists – but a security architecture that rests first and foremost on the threat of massive military force.
»Coercion or negative sanctions are found to have little effect [on terrorism, A.B.] and, in important instances, are even counterproductive« (Frey,2004: IX). That is something we could have learnt from everyday experiencein Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and, of course, from the (failed) attacks onAmerican and European cities. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it:»Retaliation against a suicide bomber only gives rise to more suicide bombers« (quoted in Govier, 2002: 94). In other words: fighting terrorismby force is of no use; it does not even have a deterrent effect. On thecontrary, the employment of massive military force makes it easier for terrorists
to justify their attacks, to find broad support, and to recruit newfollowers.

Nonetheless, if we are talking about fighting terrorism, we are talkingabout fighting terrorism by force. The security policy of the usa is the
prime but not the only example.1
French President Jacques Chirac de1.
The national budget for weapons and security under President George W. Bush
has received »the largest increases in funding since the Reagan Administration,
and this Budget builds upon that record. The 2006 request represents a 41-percent
increase over 2001, and a 4.8-percent increase over 2005. The Department
has used these resources to transform our Nation’s military capabilities to meet future
threats, to improve the quality of life for our troops and their families, and to
fight the Global War on Terror« (
defense.pdf, p.3). In 2006, spending increased overall to usd 419.3 billion.

clared at the beginning of 2006 that his country was prepared to launch
a nuclear strike against any country that sponsors a terrorist attack that
threatens French interests – a threat the usa added to its security strategy
as early as 2005.2 And Israel has been fighting the threat of Palestinian
terrorism for decades and a few weeks ago started its own »War on Terrorism«
against Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s Hizbollah. »A war Hizbollah
has already won,« as Zaid Al-Ali explains on »opendemocracy.«3
was able to hold its own on Lebanese territory and defend itself in
spite of Israel’s massive military efforts. But most of all Hizbollah won
because Israel’s attacks killed hundreds of innocent people, thereby not
only increasing public support for the organization but also helping it to
recruit new fighters.
Underlying all these measures is the contemporary concept of deterrence,
based on warding off the threat of (global) terrorism with enormous
military power and strength. In contrast to the Cold War, when
deterrence meant the credible threat of retaliation in case of an attack, it
now encompasses the threat of preemptive self-defense.4
However, both retaliation and preemption need a real target, such as
the ussr during the Cold War. In his »Mutual Deterrence« speech Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara explained in 1967 that »if the United
States is to deter a nuclear attack […], it must possess an actual and a
credible assured-destruction capability.«5
As defined by McNamara, this
meant the capability »to destroy 50 percent of its [the ussr’s] population
and industry in a retaliatory strike« (Lebow, 1994: 349).

  1. »Here [to influence terrorists] deterrence [i.e. nuclear deterrence] may be directed
    at states that support their efforts as well as the terrorist organization itself« (Doctrine
    for Joint Nuclear Operations, March 2005, under: http://www.globalsecurity.
    org/wmd/library/policy/dod/jp3_12fc2.pdf, p. 21). Note that »[t]he us does not
    make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use
    nuclear weapons« (ibid., p. 22).
  2. Zaid Al-Ali: »Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won,« on:
  3. »The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter
    a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is
    the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action
    to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the
    enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the
    United States will, if necessary, act preemptively« (»The National Security Strategy
    of the usa«, September 2002, under:, p. 19).
  4. »Mutual Deterrence« Speech by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, under:

I will not discuss the internal problems of any deterrence strategy, such
as: What is an (unprovoked) attack and what is merely a defensive measure?6
How can both sides be sure they are speaking the same language
(cf. Jervis, 1976: 356–82; Morgan, 2003: 42–78; Davis: 2000, 10–25)? – but
let us focus on the essential problem: Terrorism cannot be deterred.
First, a terrorist organization like al Qaeda has no territory (on which
it could be attacked) and it has no population and no infrastructure (that
could be killed or destroyed). Al-Qaeda is invisible. Its training camps
and headquarters in Afghanistan have apparently been hit by the American
war machine – but not the network itself. Al Qaeda is an ideology:
followers join it, believe in it and fight for it, but they do not settle within
it, unlike a state. Al Qaeda can be anyone and everywhere. That is one
advantage of a terrorist organization over a conventional military power.
Al Qaeda is never ultimately threatened because its invisibility makes the
threat of retaliation and preemption less credible.
The same applies to an organization like Hizbollah. Maybe one can
argue, as Israel does, that it has a territory from where it launches its attacks
and where it can be hit (a conviction the usa also holds7). However,
in this way Hizbollah as such is not affected. Instead, merely its camps
and rocket launchers but unavoidably also the Lebanese people are hit.
Holding innocent men, women and children collectively liable for violent
acts for which they are not responsible8 will surely foster the belief
that Hizbollah is fighting a necessary and justified war.
This means, generally speaking, that attacking countries which are under
suspicion of supporting or harboring terrorists will only strengthen
the ideology these organizations stand for. In other words, these attacks

  1. The »War on Terrorism« can easily be used as evidence for a crusade against
    Islam and terror attacks can be used as an argument to expand the »War on Terrorism.«
  2. The »National Security Strategy« (nss), published in March 2006, is decisive:
    »The United States and its allies in the War on Terror make no distinction between
    those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them, because
    they are equally guilty of murder« (
    pdf, p. 17, italics added).
  3. Or do we really want to argue that the Lebanese people are collectively responsible
    because they support this organization or at least did not resist it? But then we have
    to accept that the same applies to us: that citizens of democratic states are held collectively
    responsible for the acts of th

give terrorists a pretext for their attacks and make it easier for people to
believe in their ideology and justifications.
Secondly, the threat of death and destruction has no purchase on someone
who is willing to sacrifice his or her life in a suicide bombing.
I will pose a simple question to back my thesis: Has the world become
more secure because of the »War(s) on Terrorism«? I don’t think so. But
that is something we could have learned from the Cold War: deterrence
leads to more insecurity.9 The same holds true of the fight against terrorism:
»Deterrence is based on a negative approach: terrorists are threatened
with punishment if they continue their activities. Coercive action is
answered by coercive action. Such interaction tends to degenerate into a
negative sum game between the parties involved, making each of them
worse off: both countries engaging in the coercive response and the terrorists
lose« (Frey, 2004: 34 – italics in original). The conclusion is clear
enough: Deterrence (even when combined with preemption) is neither
the right nor an adequate answer to the threat of terrorism.
To reduce the threat of terrorism we must reduce people’s willingness
to engage in terrorism. Our »line of defense« must run through areas
where we know (and fear) that new terrorists will be recruited: the less
support is offered to extremists like Usama bin Laden, the lower the danger
of additional attacks. But how can this be achieved if not by negotiations?
If we are willing to negotiate with terrorists we open up a window of
opportunity for them to attain some of their objectives in a peaceful way.
We can reward them if they are cooperative – for example, by instigating
a ceasefire or releasing hostages – by accepting them as a negotiating partner.
But this should not be misinterpreted to mean that we should acknowledge
all their objectives or accept all their actions. It means merely
offering them the same reward as that offered to rogue states like Libya:
becoming a negotiating partner. And offering terrorists and their supporters
a real and credible chance of achieving some of their objectives without
violence will challenge the terrorists’ claim that they have no other choice
than to use deadly force. Of course, there always will be some supporters
of violence for the sake of violence. But it will become more difficult for
an organization to find support and to recruit new followers for its violent

argument. By offering negotiations to terrorists, even when it seems
taboo,10 we start to fight terrorism at its source: in a setting where violence
is perceived, for whatever reason, as the only option.
This is not utopian: »In the Netherlands, for example, terrorist sympathizers
are granted access to the media to a considerable extent. As a
consequence, they do not have to turn to illegal means, and possibly
bloodshed, in order to communicate their views« (Frey, 2004: 111). In
Switzerland the »Front de Libération Jurassien,« that used violence in the
1960s for the independence of the Bernese Jura, was even integrated into
the political process. The Swiss government agreed to hold a referendum
on the future of the Bernese Jura and the attacks decreased immediately.
The majority voted against independence. And when the »Front« attempted
to recommence the struggle, »they lost popular support and
soon ceased to exist« (Frey, 2004: 112).
One may object that it is impossible to negotiate with, say, al Qaeda
or Hizbollah, because they make unrealizable claims. But of course in
negotiations demands are never completely realized. Which objectives
will be realized and to what extent is a matter of negotiation. And even
organizations like al Qaeda or Hizbollah have demands that could be
partially realized: for example, both justify their attacks with reference,
among other things, to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. An offer to negotiate
could be based, for example, on Security Council Resolutions 24211
and 154412 and link the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with an
unconditional commitment to acknowledge and respect Israel’s right to

  1. As Frey notes, both the usa and Israel, that officially follow a strict policy of no
    negotiations with terrorists, at times make an exception to that rule and negotiate
    on the freeing of hostages (see Frey, 2004: 58–59).
  2. »Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict
    […]«, under:
  3. »Reiterating the obligation of Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously
    by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention
    relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949,
    Calling on Israel to address its security needs within the boundaries of international
    law, Expressing its grave concern at the continued deterioration of the situation
    on the ground in the territory occupied by Israel since 1967 […]«, under:
    pdf?OpenElement, italics in original.

A second objection, as an author suggests in The Conservative Voice, is
that negotiations with terrorists are futile because they have no interest
in keeping their part of the bargain, and they are not honest about their
wishes. That means, »killing terrorists is the only practical means of
coping with them.«13
But even if these objections are correct, they do not invalidate my
argument. As mentioned above, negotiations tend not so much to influence
the terrorists as their supporters and environment. Attempts to
satisfy some terrorist objectives peacefully will, in the long run, reduce
support for and belief in the need to use violence. And, unlike the demand
to hunt terrorists down, the offer to negotiate will not provoke
more violence. It is rather a rational attempt to break the vicious circle in
which violence only causes more violence.
However, an alternative security strategy that relies on negotiation
with terrorists is hard to imagine – at least as an official strategy. President
Bush meets with Usama bin Laden (or his successor) to negotiate the
conditions of a ceasefire. Handshake, cameras flash, incredible.
But why are negotiations with terrorists so hard to imagine; why do
they seem to be taboo?
Do we not negotiate even with rogue states that support or harbor
terrorists, or disregard human rights and international treaties. To put it
bluntly: Are we going to stop talking with Iran or North Korea and
bomb their nuclear facilities? No, of course not. Talking to rogue states
is not to be condemned, but something we expect from responsible politicians.
What about negotiations with, say, Muammar al-Ghaddafi? Libya’s
involvement with and support for terrorism were confirmed in the late
1980s. It delivered weapons to the ira and masterminded the bomb attack
on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, which
killed 270 people, everyone on the airplane plus eleven inhabitants of
Lockerbie. Libya was a rogue state and its revolutionary leader a supporter
of terrorism. Nevertheless, in 1997 South African President Nelson Mandela
and un Secretary-General Kofi Annan negotiated the repatriation of
two Libyan suspects involved in the attack to the Netherlands for trial
under Scottish law. In return, un economic sanctions were suspended.
Of course, one may object that this was just a »pawn sacrifice« because
Gaddafi went unpunished. However, Gaddafi stopped supporting ter

orism and became a moderate Arab leader, becoming involved in the
search for a peaceful solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a metamorphosis
that even the usa has acknowledged. On May 15, 2006 the us
State Department announced that it would restore full diplomatic relations
with Libya and that it would be removed from the list of nations
that support terrorism.14
Negotiations with Gaddafi have been vindicated, having reduced the
threat of terrorism. That is surely a positive outcome, regardless of the
fact that Gaddafi can be viewed as having been »rewarded« to some extent.

In the end we have to ask ourselves, what is more dubious: negotiating
with terrorists or fighting them?
Davis, James W.: Threat and Promises. The Pursuit of International Influence, Baltimore
Frey, Bruno S.: Dealing with Terrorism – Stick or Carrot? London 2004.
Govier, Trudy: A Delicate Balance. What Philosophy Can Tell Us about Terrorism, Oxford
Jervis, Rovert: Perception and Misperception in International Relations, Princeton 1976.
Lebow, Richard Ned: We All Lost the Cold War, Princeton 1994.
Lutz, James M., and Brenda Lutz: Global Terrorism, London 2004.
Morgan, Patrick M.: Deterrence Now, Cambridge 2003.


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