Talking to Terrorists

Publication Type:

Book Chapter


Combating Transnational Terrorism, Procon, Sofia, p.181-198 (2016)


Legitimate governments do not talk to terrorists. This is the standard, public response of political leaders throughout the world when asked about the possibility of negotiations with violent non-state groups. President George W. Bush famously claimed that “No nation can negotiate with terrorists. For there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” In 1979, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher declared with typical irony: “I have never done business with terrorists until they become prime ministers.” As this statement implies, despite the rhetoric, governments can and do talk to terrorists.
An oft-quoted RAND Corporation study on the reasons for the end of terrorist campaigns between 1968 and 2006 found that a transition to a non-violent political process took place in 43 percent of the 648 examples studied. In most cases, this transition could not have taken place without a willingness on the part of governments to negotiate. At the time of writing, talks are taking place to end long-standing terrorist campaigns in the Philippines and Colombia. Successful engagement with terrorists has previously ended bloody armed conflicts in countries as diverse as South Africa, the UK (Northern Ireland), Indonesia (Aceh) and El Salvador. As conflict analyst Roger Mac Ginty pithily states: “The phrase ‘we shall never negotiate with terrorists’ lacks one obligatory word: ‘yet’.”
This chapter examines the potential advantages and dangers of talking to terrorists and addresses practical and technical issues such as who to talk with and when and how to talk. It also identifies good and bad practice from the experience of dialogue with terrorist groups around the world. The final section addresses the prospects of talks in an era characterized by ideologically extreme, religiously motivated terrorists. The chapter deals with the option of talking to terrorists as part of a broader counter-terrorism (CT) strategy, where a government has a choice whether or not to open dialogue with a terrorist organization. It does not address the tactical level negotiations that are an essential element in the response to terrorist kidnapping and barricade hostage incidents. In these situations, government security forces usually have no choice but to talk to the terrorists involved in order to save civilian lives.

Last updated: Wednesday, 27 January 2016