‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’ – but why?

Why do US and UK governments not negotiate with terrorists, and to what extent is this stance effective?

Explainer Updated 19 December 2022 Published 13 January 2022 7 minute READ

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 payment of ransoms doesn’t work.

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.

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Does the US negotiate with terrorists?

The US has perhaps the strongest commitment not to negotiate with terrorists, but this stance has been breached occasionally, during various crises played out through successive administrations and in different nations, from Colombia, Iran and Lebanon to Iraq and Syria.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated on the same day that US hostages held in the Tehran US embassy were released, after two years of negotiations with Iran. This followed a botched rescue attempt in 1980 that helped bring down the Jimmy Carter administration.

Reagan’s tenure was marked by the Beirut crisis, which saw numerous hostages taken by Hezbollah, allegedly with the support and direction of Iran. The hostages included US citizens Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland and UK citizens Terry Waite and John McCarthy; Anderson was held in Lebanon for six years.

Reagan’s administration became embroiled in a major hostage-related scandal due to the Iran–Contra affair, which revealed secret sales of arms to Iran by the US despite an arms embargo. Some in the administration claimed the sales were meant to facilitate the release of US hostages in Lebanon, though funds were allegedly diverted to ‘Contra’ rebels in Nicaragua instead.

Bill Clinton

President Clinton helped launch ‘Plan Colombia’, a huge investment effort to tackle the booming drugs trade.

Combating kidnappings was part of this effort: hostage-taking had become endemic in Colombia, with an industry growing up to bring hostages back safely. Many of the victims were locals, and they were not used for propaganda purposes in the same brutal public fashion of later groups like ISIS.

In 1995, Bill Clinton met Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as part of his efforts to move forward the Northern Ireland peace process. The IRA was on the US State Department’s terror list at the time. His granting of a visa for Adams to visit the US was a source of disagreement between the US and UK.

George W. Bush

The ‘war on terror’ declared in the aftermath of 9/11 made negotiating with terrorists more difficult. Overnight, many different groups with formerly hazy definitions were designated as terrorist organizations, making it far more problematic for government, families and companies to get hostages home.
The ‘war on terror’, and the notorious prison at Guantánamo Bay, also escalated the brutality of the treatment of hostages by terrorists. ISIS and other groups paraded hostages in orange jumpsuits and sometimes issued specific demands relating to the treatment of prisoners in the Cuban facility. Terrorists also began taking different kinds of people hostage.

In the aftermath of 9/11…many different groups with formerly hazy definitions were designated as terrorist organizations, making it far more problematic to get hostages home.

Where Osama bin Laden had previously held press conferences and engaged with journalists directly, the escalating ‘war on terror’ saw journalists become regular targets of terrorist groups.

This may also have been a product of a changing media landscape, in which traditional news outlets were no longer needed by terrorist groups to communicate their message. Increasingly, NGO workers were also targeted.

Barack Obama

The Obama administration dealt with a large number of hostage crises, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, responding with limited success. In 2014, the administration negotiated the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Afghan Taliban, arguing he was a prisoner of war and not a hostage.

However, the same year Luke Somers, an American journalist kidnapped in Yemen, was killed during a failed rescue attempt. In 2015, two hostages, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, held by Al-Qaeda for several years, were killed accidentally by US forces during a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan.

President Obama ordered a review of US government handling of hostage cases, which resulted in a revised policy and presidential executive order.

The review explicitly excluded the question of US government policy on the payment of ransoms, but recommended a number of sweeping changes to encourage greater support for families of hostages, more sharing of intelligence with them, and better joined-up work across and between government agencies.

This followed complaints from US families who were angry at being threatened with prosecution for attempting to raise ransoms to free their loved ones.

Has the UK government ever broken the rule of never negotiating with terrorists?

The UK government has not officially acknowledged negotiating with armed terrorist groups for the release of hostages. The Northern Ireland peace process was negotiated with – among others – Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. Sinn Féin’s ranks included men formerly accused of terrorism by the UK, including its leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The US also endorsed those talks.

The US negotiated with the Taliban for the orderly evacuation of its citizens from Afghanistan in 2021. The Taliban are not designated as a terrorist organization, but when their forces overran Kabul, it was known that leading Taliban allies included Al-Qaeda associates such as Sirajuddin and Khalil Haqqani.

Both are now ministers in the Taliban Afghan government. The ‘Haqqani network’ is a designated terrorist organization said to be responsible for the most brutal suicide bombings in Afghanistan’s troubled recent history.

It could be argued that the US negotiated with terrorists, however indirectly, in order to withdraw from Afghanistan with the minimum possible bloodshed – while attacks on Kabul airport were carried out by even more extreme terrorist groups like ISIS-K.

How effective is the US and UK’s ‘no negotiation’ stance?

Refusing to negotiate with terrorists cannot be proven to have discouraged or prevented the taking of US and UK citizens as hostages, or to have facilitated their release.

The most effective counter to terrorism is effective law and order.

Payment of ransom, while morally questionable, does often succeed at bringing people home safely.

However, what Britain and the US do illustrate is that the most effective counter to terrorism is the maintenance of law and order – in both countries, hostage-taking and terrorism remain rare, and perpetrators are generally swiftly caught and brought to justice.

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