Negotiating with Terrorists


Should the U.S. Negotiate with Terrorists for the Release of Hostages?

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In January of 2013, the “Masked Brigade” took more than 30 hostages, many of whom were Americans, in an Algerian gas field named Ain Amenas. They demanded the release of Sheikh Omar Abel-Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheik” (Burke 2013). This incident underlined the importance of having a coherent strategy should a large hostage crisis occur. To meet this need, I have compiled a comprehensive analysis of the two best policy options for dealing with hostage situations. The first is to maintain the current policy of negotiating secretly with some terrorist groups, and the other is to refuse to negotiate at all. While both of these policy options have relative merit, I strongly recommend that the US maintain its current policy.

Status Quo Policy:

The official position of the United States is that they do not negotiate with terrorists; neither do they negotiate for the release of hostages (Burke 2013). There are no exceptions, no circumstances under which the United States would consider such negotiations. This has been the official policy of the United States for at least thirty years. In 1985, President Reagan said “America will never make concessions to terrorists” (Alexander and Kraft 2008, 1073). In 1990, the state department issued a statement under George H.W. Bush saying “What we will not do is make deals. Making deals only encourages more hostage taking” (Alexander and Kraft 2008, 1075). In 2003, President Bush said “The only way to deal with these people is to bring them to justice. You can’t talk to them. You can’t negotiate with them” (Toros 2008, 407). Despite the insistence of every president since at least as far back as President Reagan that they absolutely will not negotiate with terrorists, the opposite is true.

The United States does, in fact, negotiate with terrorists. Each and every one of the Presidents quoted above has participated in some form of negotiations with terrorists or hostage takers. The disconnect between stated policy and actual policy sometimes causes problems. Because the US will not admit they negotiate with terrorists, oftentimes they just secretly give them what they want. For example, in 1983, suicide bombers attacked military compounds in Beirut where French and American troops were stationed. 241 American soldiers were killed (Friedman 2004). Within a short time, American forces were removed from Lebanon. Many think the Beirut Praemon 2 bombing was the deciding factor behind the withdrawal (Kydd and Walter 2006). Technically the United States did not negotiate with these terrorists; instead, they took orders from them.

Other times the policy of not negotiating with terrorists is blatantly broken. For example, in 1986 the Reagan Administration “traded arms to obtain the freedom of three Americans” (Lapan and Sandler 1988). More recently, a Taliban hostage named Warren Weinstein pleaded for President Obama to release several Taliban leaders to procure his own release. That same day, it was confirmed that twenty Taliban officials “were released from NATO custody” (Walsh 2012). How curious that these two events should happen on the same day. Obviously, the stated policy is simply not true. In some situations the United States is strong, and in others they are weak and give in to hostage taker’s demands.

The question is, how should the US decide when to stand firm and when to negotiate? Unfortunately, the answer is quite complicated. There are three main criteria decision-makers use when determining whether or not to negotiate with terrorist groups. The first is whether or not the group is aligned with a state sponsor. The second is the motives of the group. The final criterion is the power and influence of the group.

Whether or not a group of hostage takers or terrorists are aligned with a particular state sponsor is extremely important. This will determine whether or not a group has any form of legitimacy and whether or not they can be held accountable. For example, the group of students that took over the American Embassy in Iran had the complete support of Imam Khomeini (Bowden 2006, 93). This allowed the United States to negotiate with the state of Iran itself. In reality, the US was negotiating with terrorists; however, they did so under the pretense of negotiating with a legitimate state government. In contrast, during the recent situation in Ain Amenas, the US faced the Masked Brigade. The Masked brigade had no state sponsor. The Algerian government does not support the masked brigade and was firmly opposed to the hostage situation (Burke 2012). In this case, it was not in the interest of the United States to negotiate because the Masked Brigade could not form a credible commitment. The second criterion decision-makers use to determine whether or not to negotiate with a given terrorist group is motives. The US is much more likely to negotiate with a terrorist group with specific political goals than with a nihilist or millenarian group that simply wants to destroy the status quo. In analyzing a terrorist group it is important to consider the motives of the leadership rather than the lower levels of the group. For example, Al Qaeda leadership has specific political goals in the Middle East. The lower level “grunts”, on the other hand, may have religious motives that would not lend themselves to effective negotiations. A recent example of this would be our talks with Hezbollah (Israel National News 2013). Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with specific political goals such as the creation of a Palestinian state. We choose to negotiate with them because they have reasonable goals rather than anarchist ones.

The final criterion decision-makers use when deciding which groups to negotiate with is how much power and influence the group holds. This is important because large terrorist organization tend to care about their reputations. The Taliban or the IRA will be much more careful to keep their commitments than a small group like the animal liberation front or a lone wolf terrorist. The Weinstein example given earlier illustrates this point (CNN 2014). The US knows that the Taliban wants to continue negotiating with the US; therefore, they are unlikely to renege on their commitments. The US gauges potential success of negotiations by how likely a group is to keep their commitments. This is essentially done by looking at how much a terrorist organization has to lose if they renege on commitments.

Ultimately, the current policy of the United States is convoluted and the lengthy analysis required causes difficulty making quick decisions. Despite its shortcomings, however, it is one of the better options available. Following is an analysis of this policy as well as an alternative policy that may be effective: refusing to negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances.

Option 1: 

Keep the status quo Advantages and Disadvantages

This option gives decision-makers a little more flexibility to define the terms of the negotiation. Previously, the US has allowed terrorists to define the situation. By taking control of hostage situations, it is easier to protect the lives of the hostages and the interests of the United States. The disadvantage to this strategy is that it is hard to trust terrorist organizations to uphold their end of the deal. The solution is simple and will be treated later on. Praemon 3 One of the greatest advantages to this option is that by having a set of defined procedures for hostage negotiation, the US takes control of the situation. As discussed previously, the United States often ends up making concessions to terrorist groups no matter what. This is unacceptable. Non-state actors cannot be allowed to control state actors. Using this method, terrorists will be forced to meet criteria set by the US and understand that no concessions will be made until this is done.

The key to making this policy work is making sure terrorists are held accountable. Since terrorist organizations are often not associated with a single state, this has often been difficult. Navin Bapat makes an excellent case for negotiating with terrorists. He says there are two basic ways terrorists can be held accountable. The first is to maintain their reputation and the second is to collaborate with their host state (Bapat 2006, 214-215). One essential feature of this plan would be to establish a “one strike, you’re out” commitment. If a hostage-taking group reneges on even a small part of their commitment, the United States will no longer negotiate with that group. This holds terrorists accountable to uphold their reputation. Another essential feature of this policy would be to associate the terrorist group with a specific state. For example, the current hostage situation has taken place in Algeria. We must commence talks with the Algerian government to determine how they will hold the terrorists responsible should they break their promises. One solution may be to have the Algerian government hold the hostages, although the masked brigade is unlikely to agree to this. Alternatively, the masked brigade may agree to hand over one of their leaders to the Algerians to be released once their obligations have been met. The specifics do not really matter as long as the group has something to lose that is greater than what they would gain from going back on the deal.

In discussing these details, it becomes apparent that holding terrorists accountable will only work under certain circumstances. A lone wolf, for example has no group whose reputation he could ruin. Millenarian groups may not care about their reputation. Obviously there will be some groups who cannot meet the criteria set forth. Unfortunately, in these situations we should never negotiate or make concessions. Luckily, these situations are usually the easiest to end. Rescue missions are much easier in a lone wolf or small group situation. For example, in 2009, Somali pirates captured Captain Richard Phillips and his crew. The situation eventually ended when Navy snipers killed all three pirates simultaneously. These types of rescue missions will help in situations were negotiations are not prudent.

The United States also needs to consider terrorist motives when deciding whether or not to negotiate. By adhering to a rigid “no negotiation” policy, the US is likely to rule out other options that may be more beneficial to both groups. Surely there are some groups with whom negotiations would be naive. For example, nihilist groups and anarchists are unlikely to make strong commitments. However, there are many other groups with very specific political goals with whom negotiation may be the best option. For example, ETA was a Basque separatist organization that began making violent attacks. Originally, the Basque public approved of ETA. However, after Spain made some very specific concessions to the Basque people, ETA lost public support. Stripped of its support, ETA officially announced an end to violent action in 2011 . Because the Spanish government knew how to negotiate, they were able to end violent action while maintaining most of what they wanted. Negotiations can be a powerful tool for the US if they choose their negotiations with caution.

There are other advantages to this strategy, but they have been treated adequately under option one. I will briefly remind you of them here. By negotiating with certain terrorist groups, the US may be able to reach conclusions that are mutually beneficial. Agreeing to negotiate with terrorists saves lives by eliminating the need for dangerous rescue attempts. If the US maintains a strong no negotiations policy, terrorists are likely to believe US leaders will break down and will continue to take hostages anyway. Finally, terrorists are often correct in the previous assumption and future presidents may simply drift back into the current policy.

Despite the many advantages of this policy, it is not perfect. In addition to the disadvantages already treated under option one, negotiating with terrorists actually undermines the normal political process (Neumann 2007, 128). There are people who are trying to make a difference politically, but have chosen to use the legal framework established by our society. A valid concern is that by negotiating with terrorists, the US may legitimize terrorism as a form of social change, thereby degrading the work of those who use other methods. This is a valid criticism, but I believe that ultimately negotiation is still the best option.

Politically, this is the more difficult option. There will be many on both sides of the aisle that will criticize the Praemon 4 decision to negotiate with terrorists. The best way to prevent these criticisms is to hold negotiations only under strict secrecy. The public should not be told when negotiates with terrorists occur. This will sometimes be difficult and undoubtedly shrewd observers will realize what is going on. However, by staunchly denying any negotiations, the US can avoid much of the possible criticism.

The US also needs to be extremely careful that terrorist organizations do not realize how we are making our negotiation decisions. If terrorists realize they can get concessions by meeting certain criteria, they can beat the system and renege on their commitments. This policy depends on terrorist groups not knowing how the US decides who to negotiate with. Secrecy is paramount.

Another disadvantage to this system is that even though government leaders may be able to set up a system where terrorists may be held accountable, there is a chance that negotiations will still fail. Host states may choose to support or even harbor terrorists. Because of this possibility, the US will need to make sure each situation is evaluated well before negotiations commence. This need sheds light on yet another disadvantage of this policy: time. Sometimes terrorist situations are extremely time-sensitive. This policy does not lend itself to making quick decisions. When faced with a limited time frame and insufficient information, decision-makers will need to refuse to negotiate.

Policy Implementation

Implementation of this policy will require a lengthy vetting process for each new situation. When a hostage situation arises, decision-makers should use the three criteria discussed above to decide whether the group is a valid negotiating partner. Obviously this will take some time. Intelligence agencies will need to discover what, if any, ties the group has to state governments. Experts will need to evaluate the group’s motives and goals. Analysts must decide if the group has anything to lose by reneging on commitments. A terrorist group should meet all three of these criteria before the US should even consider negotiating with them. Additionally, government leaders need to be very confident that their intelligence is good. Because of the risk involved every time a country chooses to negotiate with terrorists, decision-makers cannot afford to make this decision based on shaky information. If they are unable to find concrete intelligence, the US must err on the side of caution and refuse to negotiate. After decision-makers decide that a terrorist group is suitable for negotiation, they should look at the facts of the particular situation. Does this group have real leverage over the United States? Is a rescue attempt likely to fail? If intelligence suggests that the threat is real, all other remedies have been exhausted, and it seems as though a mutually beneficial conclusion can be reached, decision-makers can proceed to negotiations. Negotiations should always be conducted in secret as discussed above. They should be held through intermediaries; never directly with a terrorist leader. Government leaders should work as much as possible through host states to ensure that the terrorist group is held accountable. Each situation will vary, but by using these general guidelines successful negotiations are certainly attainable.

Option 2:

Never negotiate with terrorists Advantages and Disadvantages

The second option for the US is to implement their stated policy and refuse to negotiate with terrorists. However, for this policy to work the US must be absolutely unbending. The benefits of this policy are that it would be politically safe, eventually terrorists realize they will not get anything they want by taking hostages, and that negotiations with terrorists are sometimes ineffective. The disadvantages of this strategy are that people may lose their lives before terrorists realize their tactics do not work, difficulty of maintaining the policy long-term, and the necessity of rescue missions, which are often ineffective.

Politically, this strategy is much safer than choosing to negotiate with terrorists. The shift would require next to no public changes. The public already believes the US does not negotiate with terrorists; therefore the only changes necessary would be internal. This strategy best shields government leaders from political attacks. If leaders are seen as soft on terrorism, these attacks will surely come. Internally, there are lots of changes that would need to be made. These changes are discussed in the policy implementation section below.

Despite the relative political safety of this option, it is not without risks. If a large hostage crisis occurs, Praemon 5 the public will exert significant pressure on government leaders to resolve it. Decision-makers will be tempted to use whatever means necessary to gain the freedom of the hostages. If the public thinks leaders could have done more and American hostages lose their lives, their political careers are over. This may be a small price to pay, however, for the future safety of the American people.

The US may want to consider a no concessions policy because negotiations with hostage takers often do not go as planned. Terrorists and hostage-takers are likely to go back on their promises. Why should the US negotiate if they are unsure the terms of the negotiation will be honored? Navin Bapat wrote extensively on the topic (2006). This point is treated extensively under option one, therefore I find it unnecessary to do so again.

Perhaps the main reason Presidents have adopted the “no negotiation” policy is that it dissuades potential hostage takers by convincing them there is no way they will succeed in getting what they want. On the other hand, studies have shown that after concessions have been made, violence rises (Bueno de Mezquita 2005). If potential hostage takers believe they have nothing to gain by taking hostages, they are much less likely to do so. History supports this argument. For example, in 1970 Palestinian terrorists hijacked three airplanes and held their occupants hostage. They demanded the release of seven Palestinian prisoners. A few of the hostages aboard the plane were from Germany, and the German government openly tried to persuade Britain and Switzerland to release the prisoners. Noticing this, a flood of attacks was launched against the Germans (Clutterbuck 1992, 267).

Apparently not noticing the pattern, the German government repeatedly paid terrorists for the release of hostages. In February 1972, Germany paid five million dollars to hostage takers who hijacked a Boeing 747. Later that year, terrorists took 11 hostages at the Munich Olympics and eventually killed them all. While the terrorists were being transported, they “escaped” to Tripoli. In 1975, Germany released five prisoners in exchange for several hostages. It wasn’t until 1976 that Germany realized that rewarding hostage takers was a bad idea (Clutterbuck 1992, 267-269). Needless to say, Germany now has a strict “no concessions” policy.

Just because hostage-taking incidents rise when a state proclaims its willingness to negotiate does not mean that non-negotiation policies are completely effective. In fact there is ample evidence to the contrary. For example, many terrorists do not believe that states are willing to uphold their no concessions policy under severe pressure. This is proven by the relatively high number of hostage crises despite the widespread acceptance of non-negotiation policies by states. Unfortunately, the assumption that states will eventually break down has proven to be true in many cases. One example that hits close to home for Americans is the Iranian hostage crisis. After the Iranian revolution, the Shah was taken to the United States for medical treatment (Farber 2005, 122). Iranian students, thinking the United States would support a return of the Shah, stormed the American embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage. President Carter felt significant pressure to resolve the situation. As a result, he not only negotiated but made important concessions to the Iranian Government. Among these concessions were returning the Shah to Iranian officials, promises to curb future sanctions, and even a promise to stop making hostile statements (Bowden 2006, 399-400). Obviously President Carter was willing to do almost anything the Iranians told him. These concessions are no isolated event. In fact, Robert Pape’s landmark study on terrorism suggests that as many as “half of all. . . attacks have resulted in significant concessions by the target” (2005). This is quite a troubling number, especially because the majority of all countries claim to have a strict non-negotiation policy. The first page of a quick internet search for “terrorist negotiation” yields statements from the Kenyan Prime Minister ( 2013), the French Defense Minister (Reuters 2013), and of course the United States State Department (Burke 2013), all claiming they will not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances. Obviously many of these states are giving concessions to terrorists and hostage takers. There is no other explanation for the disparity. The only way to combat this weakness is to immediately refuse any sort of concessions. It will take time, but eventually terrorists will realize that America truly will not give in to their tactics.

Another possible problem with this policy is how terrorists will react when they realize the United States will not negotiate. During the transition period where terrorists still think they can gain concessions, there will undoubtedly be more hostage situations. There are only three ways a hostage situation can end. One, the terrorists give themselves up and release the hostages. This is unlikely and I was unable to find any situations ending in this way. Two, the US negotiates for the release of the hostages. Under option one, this route is unacceptable. Three, we mount a rescue attempt. While this is usually the most feasible option, history has shown that rescue attempts rarely end well for hostages. The already cited Iran hostage crisis and Munich Olympics hostage crisis illustrate this point rather well. Unfortunately this will be the only option should the US decide to pursue a true “no concessions” policy.

Policy Implementation

This policy would need to be implemented very discreetly. Government leaders would begin by explaining the change to military and bureaucratic officials. They would then ask them to review their current Standard Operating Procedures and to come back in a week with changes they think need to be made. Top decision-makers will then evaluate the changes and make revisions as necessary. For the current situation, decision-makers would simply remind the masked brigade of the United States policy not to negotiate with terrorists. It would be important not acknowledge the situation publicly, and if the press asks for a statement, to simply repeat the phrase, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.” Mounting a rescue attempt would remain an option; however, as stated previously, rescue attempts rarely go as planned.


Taking into account the merits of each of the two options, I must recommend option two. The United States cannot “defeat” terrorism. To do so would require a complete surrender of our freedom. The only way to stop terrorism is to negotiate. This is not ideal, but it is reality. States have proved this again and again by saying they will not negotiate with terrorists and then doing it anyway. By setting up procedures for negotiating with certain terrorists, the US government will be able to protect the lives of hostages as well as keep control over any and all hostage situations. This is truly the best option available.

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