Talking to Terrorists: yesterday’s gunmen, today’s politicians?

June 16, 2009

John Bew-John Bew is Lecturer in Modern British History at Peterhouse, Cambridge University. Martyn Frampton is a Research Fellow, also at Peterhouse. Their book, co-written with Iñigo Gurruchaga, is called “Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country” and they blog at Talking to Terrorists. The opinions expressed are their own.-

One of the current fashions in British and American diplomatic circles is the idea that it is necessary to engage with our enemies, no matter how extreme they might seem. In response to the recent Iranian election results, for example, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation – a think tank with strong links to the Obama administration – suggested that “nothing at all has changed in the equation that Obama set out during the campaign: we have to deal with out enemies – we must engage”.

Equally, many observers now suggest that the same logic should be applied to non-state actors including Hamas, Hezbollah and even “moderate” Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the British Foreign Office reanimated contacts with Hezbollah and several senior British MPs invited Hamas to participate in a video-link discussion in Westminster.

On May 17, we will discuss some of these issues in a lunchtime event run by the Henry Jackson Society in the Houses of Parliament. As we point out in our book, Talking to Terrorists, this belief in the need to “engage with the extremes” often takes the example of Northern Ireland as an inspiration, where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ended a thirty-year campaign of violence in the late 1990s.

The assumption here is that the British government took the brave decision to talk to those who were committing terrorist violence and therefore managed to bring them within the fold of the eventual political settlement. Thus, yesterday’s gunmen became today’s politicians, so the story goes.

Yet this version of history does not accurately reflect what really happened in Northern Ireland. First, the British state had tried to talk to the IRA at various intervals throughout the conflict, starting as early as 1972. At various points, this encouraged the terrorists that momentum was on their side and coincided with a surge in expectations and in violence.

Second “hard power” also played a crucial role: the IRA only came to the negotiating table after a hugely successful campaign of intelligence and policing forced them to recognise that their military campaign was failing. They achieved barely any of the aims they had set out with and were arguably further from success than they had been thirty year before. As its star rises, does anyone expect Hamas to sue for peace with such lowered expectations?

The Spanish government’s recent success against the Basque separatist terrorists, ETA, provides an interesting contrast to the idea that talking to terrorists is a pre-requisite for peace. For years, the Spanish government tried talks with ETA but these never yielded a political breakthrough. More recently, however, the new strategy has been to asphyxiate ETA through proscription of its political wing, arrests of suspected high profile ETA members, and successful prosecution through the courts.

Ultimately, there is a crucial difference in talking to terrorists who are on the crest of a wave and believe they have momentum on their side and talking to those who have been made to realise – by hard power as well as a soft power – that their aims are unattainable through violence.

The message of our book is not to reject the idea of talking to terrorists outright. But it is to provide a reminder that it is unlikely to provide a magic solution and runs the risk of making the situation immeasurably worse. The U.S. and the UK are likely to travel further down this road in the near future; they should take care to proceed with extreme caution.


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This is an interesting little article which for some reason seems to wants to claim the IRA campaign ran from 1972 for thirty years!
I read a very interesting book recently called “Fenian Fire – The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria” (by Christy Campbell) which seemed to be very well researched. According to the book every single leader in a variety of the major American Irish societies (including the IRA) from the late 19th century were sending directly to the British (although not necessarily the incumbent government) the intended plans, in detail, of their various organisations – in return for quite considerable sums of money.
After reading the book I couldn’t help but wonder if anything has changed. It’s just a shame about all the little people who get splattered all over the place.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

The Irgun, Stern Gang, and the Haganah committed some of the worst massacres in Palestine during their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Ben Gurion, Begin, and Shamir were once members who went on to lead Israel, and other veterans of these terrorist organizations became Generals in the Israeli Defense Force. The atrocities committed during this period are still revered in Israeli political and academic circles. The current Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, heads a party whose sole mission is to expel the “Araboosh”. Yet despite all this, most Western leaders view them not as terrorists but as ‘statesmen’ and ‘peacemakers’.

Israeli terrorists have been feted by the West for decades, so talking to Hamas and Hezbullah shouldn’t make things immeasurably worse. Their tactics are nothing compared to those used by Israel. If anything, it’ll inject some balance into this lopsided affair.

Posted by Nu’man El-Bakri | Report as abusive

While I have not read their book, the point that these authors make seems quite reasonable. I cannot see how a violent terrorist (on any side) would be willing to sit down and negotiate if the violence was improving their position. We should all recognize that tribal cultures revere ruthless, violent leaders. Such leaders will not sit down at the negotiation table until they are confronted with impending millitary defeat. A tribal chieftan only holds his position through violence. In Hamas, we see this in violence perpetrated on their own people, on the civilians of their opponents and by hiding amongst their own civilians thereby putting them at risk. It is long past time that the world should join the Israelis and stand up to a playground bully like Hamas. Had we assisted the Israelis in their campaign, the Hamas leaders would have begged to come to Camp David and talk peace. It is a sad commentary on our world that such force is required, but cowering in the face of Hamas’ threats will only lead to more threats.

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

Yes, the terrorists can and should be engaged – preferably by using drones armed with Hellfire missiles, or something similarly lethal. No legitimacy shall be afforded to them – ever.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

What an amazing world we live in where the country that kills hundreds of thousands for nothing but a pack of lies are the people we trust in putting the “violent terrorist” moniker on other groups.

Also Hamas kills 10 civilians, Israel kills 1,500 and their viewed as the polite statesmen.

Murder is no longer what matters and quantity no longer matters. If you kill a village with an F-16 you’re spreading peace, if you kill a single person with a homemade rocket than your entire country should bear the consequence.

Normally, this comes down to the same principal a few of us have been fighting for decades, prejudice and racism. If we were killing light-skinned Christians we’d be furious, but since we’re murdering brown skinned women and children by the hundred of thousand we’re just spreading peace.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

To Michael Ham,

You are confusing the use of force with violence. If Hamas stopped using violence, the Israelis would immediately lay down their arms and begin talking. If the Israelis stopped using force, Hamas would interpret this as a sign of weakness and increase their violence. (For proof of this, simply observe what happened when the Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza — Hamas violence grew exponentially.)

Again, it is a tribal world-view that perceives violence as an acceptable route to create change. The majority of the civilized world understands that violence cannot create a stable, peaceful society. The instant that the Hamas leaders (or the unfortunate Palestinian people) realize this, the USA, Europe, Russia and Israel will embrace them and we can end the bloodshed. Admittedly, the French Revolution (which established this priciple for the West) was a long and bloody process. I can only hope that the Palestinian people can learn from history and choose Democratic leaders rather than tribal cheiftans.

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

The difference between “force and violence” is veiled nuance.
Jesus of Nazereth asks regarding charity, ” Is not better to teach a man to fish than give him one?”. Abraham Lincoln stated “I get rid of my enemy when I make him my friend”.

Certainly showing a society how to better prosper or sending material aid can reduce the desperation of poverty. The time proven breeding ground of violent extremism. To merely give a man a fish he feeds his family for a day. This creates the cycle of dependence and manipulation.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Michael Ham,
You are again at your favorite topic – Israel bashing.
Consider this. If IDF limited itself to aerial attacks and artillery fire, they would not take any casualties themselves. However, in order to achieve the same objectives without putting boots on the ground, they would have to scale up these attacks – technically easy, but would inflict much greater collateral damage. If IDF exercised the same degree of restraint as Hamas (which is zero, zilch, zip, none whatsoever), and was as determined to maximize inflicted damage, there would be no Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore, and no need for Palestinian state due to lack of inhabitants thereof.
As a side note, Israelis don’t exactly fit your definition of “light-skinned Christians”. The inhabitants of Dresden that was pulverized and burned out by Allied bombers, on the other hand, fit it perfectly. Or, if you insist on more recent example, Serbs bombed by NATO also were “light-skinned Christians” – though, admittedly, perceived in the West as second-rate Christians because of being Orthodox, and Slavonic on top of that.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

You want submission from Hamas, submission and willing to bow and kiss the ring of the IDF. Even after Israel signs so called peace agreements the gunmen are still firing into Palestine and their still occupying the country. They haven’t left after decades despite plenty of peace agreements in the process.

I give credit to the few countries left in the world who are unwilling to bow at the knee to the United States where I live. That’s why Hugo Chavez is a hero to his people, that’s why Castro is a hero in the entire latin American world. Iran is the beacon of hope in the Middle East because they were right about Saddam while we were selling him biological weapons, and they were right about Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda while we were giving them weapons and blank checks.

It just surprises me that after continuous mistakes of Vietnam, War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, Iran-Contra, Oil for food in Iraq that people STILL have such blind faith in the U.S.’s foreign policy. It’s astounding.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“You want submission from Hamas, submission and willing to bow and kiss the ring of the IDF” – Posted by Michael Ham
Go learn history. Unconditional surrender – that’s what was demanded from Germany by the Allies, and the legitimacy of the demand was never questioned, except maybe by some neo-Nazis and other marginals. Do you imply that Israel is a less sovereign nation than the Allied nations? Why? Because Israel is a Jewish state and, as such, is not entitled to the same rights as any other state? Or, rephrasing Orwell, “some states are more sovereign than others”?
Or maybe Hamas deserves more delicate handling than Germany? If anything, Germany was a sovereign state, and the Nazis, however criminal and despicable, were the legitimate German government. Hamas, on the other hand, is a terrorist organization and, if anything, must be treated even harsher than Germans were.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

To the readers:

I do not intend to change Michael Ham’s mind. What I do hope that the readers realize is that the difference between necessary force and violence is not a “veiled nuance.” Consider the gang-banger and a police officer. Both can shoot a human being but only one of them is protecting society. Israeli rockets and Hamas rockets both kill people (including civilians — no argument there). The meaning is in the intent. Hamas rockets do not protect their own society. They serve to destabilize their own society with threats and intimidation and to keep the tribal cheiftans in power. Israeli rockets maintain a democratic society where power is legitimately authorized (and often revoked) by the people.

I have now read a fair amount of the book reviewed above (has Michael Ham?) and it is clear that many of these terrorists will only talk about peace when they are almost militarily defeated. I do not want Hamas to “kiss the ring of the IDF.” It would be much preferable if they sat down to discuss peace voluntarily. The authors’ point is that they have not done this in the past and are unlikely to do so until forced. They argue that we should be very careful about negotiating with tribal leaders who benefit more from continued violence than from peace.

Let’s all sit down and talk! It’s better than killing! (duh!)

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

Anonymous, you have your history wrong. Zionists took Palestinian lands to form the state of Israel in the first 3 years subsequent to WW II. Anti semitism here prevented Jewish refugees from entering the U.S.. Shiploads of people were refused entry to the U.S. and the Gulf coast islands. Most other nations of the world refused Jewish immigration. As a result countless thousands of Palestinians were removed from their land and became refugees that the west did not want too.

In my limited view, this is a problem the nations of the world at war caused 60 plus years ago. The long history of western civilization is one violence towards Jewish and Arab peoples alike. It is time we loose this callous disregard and work together to find a solution.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Anubis, you have your history wrong. Unfortunately you accepted and rehashed the Arab version that is as simplistic as remote from the truth. The Holocaust didn’t result in Israel. It was lack of the state of Israel that resulted in Holocaust.
Jews owned the land of Israel since the days of Abraham. Jewish presence there was continuous since the days of Exodus, but the same can’t be said of Arabs. Here’s the story – whether true or made up, that’s what it is.

Once during one of international parleys on ME an Israeli representative took the podium:
– Ladies and Gentlemen, before discussing the issues I’d like to tell an old story. Moses sent scouts into the Promised Land. It was hot, and when they reached the west bank of Jordan, they undressed and went for a swim. When they came back ashore, their cloths were gone. It’s believed that the cloths were stolen by Palestinian Arabs.
Palestinian rep jumps up:
– It’s another blatant Zionist lie! It’s a proven fact that in those days there were no Arabs in Palestine!
Israeli rep:
– Now that honorable Palestinian delegate generously helped us to establish the facts, we can start discussing the issues.
The modern Zionist movement started way before the world learned of Nazis, in XIX Century.
During WWI, allegedly to earn favor of Jewish financial community (and better credit terms) the British Government issued Balfour Declaration. The Mandate of Palestine was meant, among other things, for implementation thereof. However the Brits reneged, largely to keep their relations with Arabs on good terms. One of the most prominent Arab opponents of Jewish state was Al-Husayni who later openly sided with Hitler.
The Holocaust was one of causes of Israel establishment after WWII, but neither the only one nor even the main one. The main cause was the millenniums-long connection of Jewish people to the Land of Israel. In every generation, every year during Passover ceremony, Jews kept repeating: next year in Jerusalem!

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I have not been clear Anonymous. The holocaust in Europe was real. Six million or more Jews and by some accounts just as many Gypsy’s and political prisoners were sent to their death as well. Even after the fall of Nazi Germany the remaining and or freed Jewish population was not wanted anywhere in the West. That is why there were so many Jewish refugees. They had no where else to go.

This was a humanitarian disaster in the making. I would submit the long history of Crusades and the murder of Jews through out Europe’s Plagues and wars that the West has historically held little regard for Arab or Jew.

If you ever come to Chicago visit the University of Chicago. They have the richest collection of Assyrian and Middle Eastern literature in the U.S. that I am aware of. You will find that Jews, Christians and Muslims have had maintained a presence in Palestine for almost a thousand years. Jerusalem barely had a population 12,000 people at the turn of the twentieth century. There has been by all accounts a tremendous migration to Palestine and Israel in the twentieth century.

Come and see for yourself if you are able. There are greater things to be learned.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive