For decades, politicians in the US and the UK have regularly stated that ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’, arguing that it is both morally indefensible and impractical – likely to encourage more terrorism and legitimize terrorist aims.
However, other Western governments have negotiated with terrorist groups. In 2014, countries including France and Spain were reported to have paid millions of euros in ransom to bring home journalists and aid workers captured by Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
It is important to note that the definition of ‘terrorist’ is not always clear in this context. The FBI has, for instance, allowed private companies to negotiate the release of hostages taken by certain Mexican drug cartels, as they are not designated terrorist groups – even though they undoubtedly terrorize local communities.
Designations also change over time: FARC and the ELN in Colombia were only classified as terrorist groups after 9/11.
Equally, both the US and the UK can be said to have negotiated with designated terrorist groups when hostages were not directly involved.
Should we negotiate with terrorists?
There is a moral argument that governments should not negotiate with terrorists. Paying ransoms, for instance, helps terrorist groups maintain control over territory, pay their members, and fuel further terrorism and hostage-taking.
Some argue that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, responsible for numerous kidnappings in Algeria, has been significantly boosted by millions of euros paid by France, Germany and Spain for the release of their nationals.
‘Negotiating with terrorists encourages more terrorism’
The ‘do not negotiate with terrorists’ position is underpinned by the argument that the best way of stopping hostage-taking by terrorists is to remove the incentive.
By creating solidarity among nations around the principle of never paying ransoms, terrorists will, according to this theory, stop seeing hostage-taking as a viable way of raising funds or extracting concessions.
However, some experienced negotiators believe that governments absolutely should negotiate with terrorists; that by refusing to engage with terrorists, governments are only repeating old mistakes and misconceptions; and that lives are lost unnecessarily as a result.
A history of negotiating with terrorists
The doctrine of not negotiating with terrorists came about by chance. In March 1973, members of a Palestinian militant organization took a group of hostages in the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, among them three Westerners.
Asked at a press conference how his government would respond, US president Richard Nixon replied, seemingly off the cuff, that there could be no negotiation with terrorists.
The following day the Western hostages were killed. Since then, the policy has become all but impossible to row back from, becoming integral to US and UK foreign policy doctrine.
Strategies and tactics around negotiating with terrorists
One of the first things to identify in negotiating with terrorists for the return of a kidnapped person is who actually holds the hostage.
When large sums of money are potentially at stake, it can be difficult to understand exactly who has committed the crime, as other parties might falsely claim involvement in order to intercept payments.
It can also be unclear if those holding hostages are criminals seeking financial gain, terrorists with political demands or some mix of the two. The lines are not always clear.
For instance, Somali pirates, whose activities around the Horn of Africa peaked between 2008 and 2012, were operating off shore while the terrorist group al-Shabaab was active on shore in the same period. It is almost certain that the proceeds of sea piracy and hostage-taking helped fund al-Shabaab through informal taxation or bribes.
A further consideration is that terrorists might exchange hostages with other groups or change their plans for them.
In 2002, the group that kidnapped US journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi initially demanded better conditions for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, the release of Pakistani prisoners and the delivery of military equipment to Pakistan. When the ransom was not forthcoming, Khalid Sheik Mohammed of Al-Qaeda exploited the situation, having Daniel Pearl murdered for propaganda ends.
Pros and cons of negotiating with terrorists
Most Western governments will say that they do not negotiate with terrorists, or that they do not make substantial concessions to terrorists. However, some European countries have repeatedly paid ransoms.
The UK and the US governments do not pay ransoms for hostages or terrorists, while some countries – including Colombia and Italy – have made the payment of ransoms illegal.
The problem is that banning the payment of ransoms doesn’t work. Historical evidence from Colombia and Italy shows that outlawing ransom payment has various adverse consequences.
Where ransom payments are illegal, victims’ families have no state support, while reporting of the kidnapping goes down and understanding of its prevalence is diminished.
It is also questionable whether the UK/US stance of non-negotiation discourages hostage-taking. Arguably, it makes the safe return of British and US hostages less likely.
During 2013–14, ISIS in Syria captured around 20 Western hostages. All of those hostages’ families received financial demands, and every government except the UK and US paid. The British and American hostages, including aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller and journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were tortured and eventually executed as part of a depraved ISIS propaganda effort.
ISIS gained tens of millions of dollars from Europeans for hostages which accounted for between 3–5 per cent of the group’s income for that period.
But it could be argued that executing hostages was more valuable to the group, raising its international profile (ISIS was largely unknown before 2010), bringing notoriety and aiding recruitment to its cause.
From the perspective of political power, it is at least worth considering if paying the ransom quietly would have been a better tactic than making the hostages less valuable to their kidnappers and leaving them prey to an execution squad.