Negotiating with Terrorists: A Mediator’s Guide

Negotiating with terrorists

Officially public authorities do not negotiate with terrorists. However, governments frequently do end up negotiating with hostage takers and kidnappers and with political groups classified as terrorists. While this briefing does not necessarily advocate negotiating with terrorists, it outlines the practicalities of such negotiations, providing a guide to deciding how, when, and with whom to negotiate.

  • The main objection to negotiation with terrorists is that it encourages them to repeat their tactics. But it is not negotiation per se that encourages terrorism, rather the degree to which terrorists are able to achieve their demands by negotiation.
  • There are different types of terrorists, according to their reasons and goals for using terrorism. Contingent terrorists, such as kidnappers and hostage takers, do seek negotiations. Absolute terrorists, such as suicide bombers, view any negotiation as a betrayal of their very raison d’être.
  • Some absolute terrorists may become open to discussion and eventually moderation of their means and ultimately even of their ends. The challenge of negotiation is to move total absolutes into conditionals, and to work on contingent terrorists to either reduce or change their terms.
  • Effective negotiations can begin when the parties perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurting stalemate and see a way out. Negotiators must maintain pressure (stalemate) while offering a way out, thereby showing terrorists there is something to gain from negotiation.
  • Negotiators do not negotiate belief systems. They should help terrorists develop alternative means: changing terrorist ends can be tackled only over the much longer term.
  • Negotiation with contingent terrorists is a short-term tactic; negotiation with absolute terrorists is a long-term strategy. Patience and persistence will prove key to dealing with both contingent and absolute terrorists.
  • The negotiator needs to offer the conditional absolute terrorist concessions to his demands as the payment for abandoning his violent terrorism, not concessions to the pressure of terrorism itself. If the negotiator makes concessions to the terrorist part of the negotiation process, so too must the terrorist. Even the absolute terrorist organizer does have something to offer as payment — his choice of terrorist tactics.

open to talks.

Split moderates from extremists by emphasizing alternative means to the moderates at a lower cost than the use of terror. Moderation is a process and not a condition of negotiation.
Engagement in negotiation, and the new situation it produces, can gradually produce deeper changes, but this will take time.
Investigation, contact, and communication are the general means of negotiation with absolute terrorists. Find out as much as possible about the terrorists’ values and goals. Establish and maintain contact. Contacts are the crux of negotiation. Building contacts will doubtless be in secret but must be backed by public statements
indicating openness to negotiate. Use step-by-step agreements to advance terrorist negotiations. Negotiation is a matter of giving something to get something; hence the negotiator needs to offer the terrorist concessions to his demands as the payment for his abandonment of violent terrorism. The terrorist too must make concessions, and the absolute terrorist does have something to
offer as payment—his choice of terrorist tactics.


Specific tactics must be employed for negotiating with contingent terrorists, who are seeking negotiations. Specific tactics must also be employed for opening the possibility of negotiating with absolutes who currently refuse negotiations.

The key challenges facing negotiators are: to sense who the contingents are among the absolutes and to convert them to negotiability; to reduce and then change the terms of trade for the cessation of terrorist means, whether the release of hostages or the cessation of suicides; and to move from a reduction of means (terror) to a reduction of ends (motivations).Patience and persistence are key to dealing with both contingent
and absolute terrorists.

Further information
This Policy Brief is based on “The Mediator’s Toolkit: Negotiating
with Terrorists,” by Guy Olivier Faure and I William Zartman
(United States Institute of Peace, forthcoming). To request
preprints, e-mail [email protected].
Guy Olivier Faure is Professor of Sociology at the Sorbonne University, Paris V, where he teaches international negotiation, conflict resolution, and strategic thinking and action. I William Zartman is Jacob Blaustein Professor of Conflict Resolution and International Organization at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, USA. Both are members of the steering committee of IIASA’s Processes of International
Negotiation (PIN) Program.

Further reading on negotiation
Clutterbuck RL (1987). Kidnap, Hijack, and Extortion: The Response.

St Martin’s Press, New York Davidson TN (2002). To Preserve Life: Hostage–Crisis Management. Cimacom, Auburn, CA.
Faure GO (2003). Negotiating with terrorists: The hostage case.
International Negotiation, 8(3):469–494.
Hayes RE (2002). Negotiations with terrorists. In Kremenyuk VA
(ed.), International Negotiation. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Lanceley FJ (1999). On-Scene Guide for Crisis Negotiators. CRC Press, New York.
MacWillson AC (1992). Hostage-Taking Terrorism: Incident–Response Strategy. St Martin’s Press, New York.
McMains MJ & Mullins WC (2001). Crisis Negotiations: Managing Critical Incidents and Hostage Situations in Law Enforcement
and Corrections. Anderson Publishing, Cincinnati, OH.
Miller AH (1980). Terrorism and Hostage Negotiations. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
Thomson L (2001). Hostage Rescue Manual. Greenhill Books, London.
Zartman IW (ed.) (2006). Negotiating with Terrorists. Martinus
Nijhoff, Dordrecht. Originally published in International Negotiation, 8(3) (2003).


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