Many scholars and policymakers state that negotiating with terrorist groups legitimizes them, their goals and their methods. They assert that such negotiations incite violence, weaken democratic states, and weaken the norm of non-violence.

However, the legitimization of terrorist groups through negotiations can transform a conflict away from violence, if groups have to renounce violence to engage in talks. Negotiations also enable groups to voice their grievances, and strengthen factions interested in non-violent solutions. In contrast, naming groups as terrorist with the intention of de-legitimising them can radicalize such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.

Issues of legitimacy and complexity should not rule out negotiations. Negotiations in terrorist conflicts are potentially less destructive than most other responses, offering an alternative to current policies of violent counter-terrorism. Exploring rather than rejecting complexity adds an important dimension to research and policymaking on Al-Qaeda. The key conclusions of the article include:

  • Negotiating with terrorists can lead to their legitimation, but also encourage them to transform into non-violent actors.

  • Al-Qaeda’s complex structure enables policymakers to engage with numerous actors, rather than the leadership. Separate peace processes could be conducted with different local groups, reducing Al-Qaeda’s
    global reach.

  • Defining groups as terrorist limits their possibilities of being anything else, and limits the state’s possible means of engagement.

  • Engaging through negotiations can potentially reverse isolating and radicalising processes through naming, creating instead inclusive
    and legitimising processes. This could strengthen rather than
    disempower the norm of non-violence in politics.

What rule/law if any, prevents negotiations between these organizations and the government?

  • I removed one of the two questions you were asking because a question should only ask one question at a time. Further, the second question "has this stance of not negotiating with terrorists reduce conflicts?" isn't answerable because the prevalence of international terrorism is influenced by too many factors to tell if this one factor influences it.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 16:11
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    @KDog ISNA is also not classified as a terrorist organization, and "Judge Solis, as affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, held that the government should not have listed CAIR and ISNA" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… (but don't expect the infamously deceptive Brietbart to make note of this).
    – Batman
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 19:22
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    Well, the policies is a joke anyway. An institutional level terrorism is mostly ignore by many as terrorism. But US government not only negotiate with terror state, some of them are even US "brotherhood".
    – mootmoot
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 8:52

3 Answers 3


It seems like basic common sense.

Suppose, for a moment, that you were a government dealing with a terrorist group that kidnapped one of your citizens who was traveling abroad, and demanded that you do something slap-in-your-face outrageous in exchange for that citizen's life or something.

If you negotiate and cave in, what do you expect will happen to other citizens of yours when they travel abroad? They'd get kidnapped right, left, and center. Because you'd have basically sent the message that any group with an agenda can coerce your government into doing whatever terrorists demand through kidnapping. So that's a non-starter.

If you officially negotiate to get the citizen released, you'll hopefully take the only reasonable stance - aka surrender our citizen or die. Else you're sending the message that any group with an agenda might be able to coerce your government into giving concessions through kidnapping.

If you try to do the same unofficially and behind the scenes, it's still problematic (think: word of mouth). But at the very least you're not officially broadcasting to the world that the terrorist group is a party worth talking to and taking seriously to begin with. (And FWIW, I can't imagine for a second that this unofficial option isn't the rule rather than the exception.)

By contrast, if you're adamantly objecting to negotiate with such a group as a rule of thumb, and stay true to your word, then your citizens know what to expect when traveling abroad and know you won't come to save them in areas they're advised not to visit. It also sends a clearcut message to would-be kidnappers: there's no upside whatsoever in taking one of ours.

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    Even if you don't negotiate, kidnapping a westerner makes the news. That in itself is enough motivation for terrorists (with their thing being terrorising people and all).
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 1:44
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    @JJJ So the obvious solution is to not report it.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 10:11
  • @gnasher729 yea, great idea, feed the conspiracy theorists. This would leave you (the West) particularly vulnerable to propaganda efforts from hostile nations. They could report it and stress that you countries would want to keep it a secret. Something along the lines of deep state conspiracy but then aimed at ordinary citizens. Were they even citizens? Or did the government send them there to be killed? wink, wink, FUD tactics.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 15:51
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    @JJJ: Or the media could simply treat it like any other petty crime, i.e. something that gets reported on in passing without any need for discussion panels and debates. Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 16:20
  • @DenisdeBernardy don't worry the Russians will keep covering it. And while they're at it they will build trust with their overseas viewers which they can use for their own gain at a later time. For more info on their MO, see NYT Magazine.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 16:30

You have to differentiate two things: not negotiating with terrorists vs. not negotiating based on terroristic actions.

The first is a bad strategy on the long term; the obvious failure of the "war against terror" shows that pretty clearly. For example, not negotiating with locally rooted groups like the Taliban deprived the NATO countries from a way to reach the local population. It leaves you with the only option of a complete military victory, which is largely unreachable when the terrorist organization is supported by the local inhabitants (if you don't want to resort to ethnical cleansing, that is). Another example is the Irish Good Friday Agreement, which would never have been possible without negotiations with the terrorists from the IRA.

Moreover, this strategy can easily be abused. Just declare all your opponents terrorists, like Turkish president Erdogan did with the HDP or the Gülen movement, and thereby justify that you don't have to talk and negotiate.

The second one, however, is a very reasonable strategy. You don't want to send the message that you can be coerced into negotiations or paying ransoms by terroristic actions, because that creates an incentive to engage in terrorism. The message should be: "If you want to negotiate with us, refrain from terrorism. Then we can talk." That is the main message behind "we don't negotiate with terrorists", and it often is misinterpreted in the way described above.


Probably one of the key factors is the legitimacy of such a group amongst the domestic population and also internationally, and hence the legitimacy of its political grievances; probably another important factor is also how long an armed struggle has been going on. Take for example the latest armistice between such a 'terrorist group' and a state. This is FARC, who had been leading an armed struggle in Columbia since 1964 and which in 2017 laid down its arms and turning itself into a normal political party.

Notably, it was recognised as a terrorist group by the Colombia, the USA, New Zealand, Canada, Chile and the EU; whereas Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador did not.

Such a difference of opinion highlights the political nature of the grievance and this in the end was how the armistice was reached.

Another historical situation that's worth bearing in mind is that the South African ANC was also listed as a terrorist group by the USA and it was only after a decade (or two) after the ANC had achieved both political recognition and legitimacy for its struggle internationally and domestically that the USA delisted Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

  • Notice that Brazil traditionally does not label any groups "terrorist", exactly to be able to negotiate when needed. (This is quite certainly about to change with the new far-right government, which will quite certainly make humoungous lists of "terrorist organisations", as it needs enemies to justify its intent of being on permanent "war".) So it wasn't tantamount to a position on the FARC's methods or aims, just a general policy that used to apply regardless of methods or intents. Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 15:33

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