Negotiating with Terrorists

By Kelsay Calvaruso

Kuwait Airways Flight 422 Hijack


The concept of negotiating with terrorists is one that has been hotly debated for decades.  However, negotiation has been successful on many occasions.  The United States has been known to negotiate with terrorists, despite statements from recent presidents claiming otherwise.  This blog begins by defining terrorism in terms of its four main components: an act of violence, an audience, targeting civilians, and political motives.[1] This means terrorism must meet all four criteria.  Different types of terrorism are mentioned, and a focus is put onto religious terrorism.  Because of the political and religious nature of religious terrorism, negotiations with these terrorists are more difficult.[2]  I discuss government responses to terrorism, before delving into negotiations with terrorists.  I argue that negotiations with terrorists can indeed be successful, but that success is dependent on the correct analysis of several factors.  These factors include the type of terrorism, the actors involved, the location of the acts and that of the terrorists, and most importantly, the political motives and goals of these terrorists.

Defining Terrorism (Types of Terrorism or Motivation for Terrorism)

There are many different motives behind terroristic actions.  Narco-terrorism, state terrorism, and religious terrorism are examples of these varying motives.  It is important to understand the mindset of the people committing acts of terrorism.  As Combs notes, “The statement that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot’ illustrates the historical continuum of conflict under which terrorism is operationally defined.[3]” The individuals committing them often rationalize these terroristic actions.  Religious terrorism is the obvious example of this rationalization.

Religious Terrorism

Terrorism in the name of religion can be seen throughout human history.  These zealots act for two audiences: the state or entity they seek to change and their god(s).[4]  They do still have political motives or goals, but these are intertwined with the religious.  Combs makes an important observation: “Contrary to their claims, the zealots who carry out the acts of terror ‘in the name’ of their religious beliefs do not reflect the beliefs of the vast majority of those who share the basic faith.[5]”  While moderate religious activism advocates for gradual, but still radical, nonviolent reform by working within the current political systems, religious extremism seeks a rapid change, using political violence against regimes and civilians if necessary.[6]  Globalization has helped these movements gain momentum[7], and technology has improved communications and coordination.[8]

Government Responses to Terrorism

How governments respond to threats and acts of terrorism differs largely based on the type of government.  Democratic states are more limited because they must try to act without sacrificing their fundamental principles.

Efforts by the United States to intensify its counterterrorism methods resulted in widespread outrage upon the discovery of what was happening at prisons such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  This clearly underlines the restriction on a democracy in terms of counterterrorism.  Democracies are also highly influenced by public opinion.  An example of this can be seen in airport security in the United States.  Prior to 11 September 2011, security, though certainly not lax, could not be described as particularly tight.  Immediately following the attacks, amid public outcries about the lack of security that allowed 9/11 to happen, security was tightened considerably.  New machines and random explosive tests were introduced.  The outcries turned into complaints about invasion of privacy.  In response to those complaints, and as time passed, security has again lessened in intensity.  This example illustrates how public opinion can directly influence counterterrorism operations and reduce government effectiveness in this area. With these restrictions, what is the best way for governments, particularly in democratic states, to address the issue of terrorism?

Negotiating with Terrorists

Negotiations may or may not be effective, depending on a variety of factors and questions.  First, the type of terrorism must be considered.  Tied into this are the actors involved.  Is the terrorism state-sponsored?  Which state?  What are the motives behind the terrorism? If it is state-sponsored, what are the motives of that state?  Where are the terrorists acting?  How does that location relate to the goals of the terrorist or terrorist organization?  Combs (2013) points out that “Acts of terrorism are neither ends in themselves, nor are they often more than tangentially related to the ends sought.[9]”  This is important to remember, as focus is often placed on the act itself and not the motives behind it.

Negotiation is the best route in some cases of terrorism.  While Presidents of the United States have stated repeatedly that the US does not negotiate with terrorists, there have, in fact, been several cases when this has occurred, both directly and indirectly.  The American soldier Bowe Bergdahl was recently released in exchange for five Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay.[10]  A British civilian, Peter Moore, held hostage by Iraqi militants was released after American authorities freed Qais al-Khazali.[11]  Some deals are done indirectly and secretly because of worries about public opinion.  In 1985, Israel released seven hundred prisoners with American approval for the freedom of Americans held hostage on the hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847.[12]  Other negotiations are done to open the door to further peace talks.

The key to successful negotiations with terrorists is understanding the aforementioned factors and addressing them appropriately.  State-sponsored terrorism is one that has been notably misunderstood in recent years.  Efforts to counter this resulted in the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While some success can be claimed in Afghanistan, it is difficult to see Iraq in a successful light.  The advent of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) in Syria and Iraq certainly counters any claims that the latter state is better off or more stable than it was under Saddam Hussein.

In some cases, negotiations can be effective in handling state sponsors of terrorism.  Nacos (2010) points to Libya as an example of this.  The United States and Libya settled lawsuits and compensation for families of victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism and responding American air raids.  These air raids had not convinced Qadhafi to end Libya’s involvement in terrorism, despite the death of his adopted daughter in a raid, but economic sanctions from the United States, Europe, and the United Nations that isolated Libya economically and politically, together with the settlement with the Americans, reengaged Qadhafi in direct diplomacy and ended his involvement with terrorism.[13]

One of the most important factors to understand before a negotiation is the political motive or goal behind a terrorist or terrorist organization.  It is only through this that the interests can become known.  Interest based negotiation allows both parties to walk away from the table successful.[14]  While compromise is key for both parties, history has shown that negotiations can be successful.  Nacos (2010) cited a recent study of all terrorist groups active worldwide from 1968 through 2006:

“…7 percent ceased to exist because of military force, 40 percent because of policing, and 10 percent because they realized their typically very limited objectives…43 percent of these organizations terminated their violence because of political solutions or settlements.[15]

This shows that negotiation is actually the most successful method of dealing with terrorists and terrorist organizations.

Confronting religious terrorism is more challenging than other forms because of the entanglement of politics and religion.  This is manifested in multiple ways.  The first, as previously mentioned, is that there are two audiences: the state or entity the terrorists are seeking to change, and their god(s).  This makes failure impossible to accept.  Religion also acts as justification for violent acts.  Combs (2013) describes the enemy as much more powerful, with monolithic strength and many alternative courses of action from which to choose.  Conversely, the terrorists have no choice but to turn to terrorism to confront the “monster,” and this becomes a response to oppression and therefore, not a free choice, but a duty.[16]  Combs concisely explains, “Terrorism remains, paradoxically, both an instrument designed to force radical social and political changes and an instrument of oppression in seeking to prevent such changes.[17]

Religious terrorism is further complicated by a variety of goals. Because of the entangled nature of religion and politics, these goals are difficult to define.  Furthermore, while the terrorist groups may share some of the same goals, there may not be agreement on the primacy of those goals.  This makes it almost impossible for a negotiator to know what they could offer to satisfy demands for change.[18]


Negotiation with terrorists and terrorist organizations is possible and often successful.  The first step to this success is having a workable definition of the term “terrorism”, such as an act of violence, an audience, targeting civilians, and political motives.[19]  It is also crucial to understand that there are different types of terrorism, and the motives behind each type, and even within each type, are different.  Religious terrorism is particularly difficult to address because its nature is intertwined with religion and politics.  The presence of two audiences serves to further complicate matters.

Government responses to terrorism differ, most notably by type of government.  Democracies are limited by their adherence to fundamental principles and human rights, as well as by their dependence on public opinion.  Autocracies and totalitarian regimes are able to combat terrorist acts with terroristic acts of their own.  Democracies have maneuvered through this issue before by working with authoritarian regimes to combat threats.  This has been subject to public backlash as controversies such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have arisen.

As previously stated, negotiation is a feasible avenue for governments to travel.  However, certain factors must be understood for success to occur. These factors include the type of terrorism, the actors involved, the location of the acts and that of the terrorists, and most importantly, the political motives and goals of these terrorists.  The interests of the terrorist or terrorist organization can be developed and understood from these factors, allowing negotiations to proceed.  It is important to note that while negotiations can be successful, based on the analysis of the aforementioned factors, another method of combatting terrorism might be more successful, especially in cases of religious terrorism.

[1] Combs, 6. 2013.

[2] Combs, 2013.

[3] Combs, 3. 2013.

[4] Combs, 44. 2013.

[5] Combs, 44. 2013.

[6] Schwedler, 392. 2013.

[7] Mandaville, 181. 2013.

[8] Combs, 122. 2013.

[9] Combs, 6. 2013.

[10] Engler, 2014.

[11] Engler, 2014.

[12] Engler, 2014.

[13] Nacos, 206-207. 2010.

[14] Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 1991.

[15] Nacos, 213. 2010.

[16] Combs, 59. 2013.

[17] Combs, 2. 2013.

[18] Combs, 44. 2013.

[19] Combs, 6. 2013.

unnamedKelsay is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School studying International Security and Commerce.  She has a special interest in the intelligence community, geopolitics, and terrorism studies.  Feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or opportunities at


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