Why We Should Talk to Terrorists

23232Last night I went along to a public lecture by Jonathan Powell at LSE. It was called Why We Should Talk to Terrorists and was discussing people’s reticence to engage in conversation with terrorists and his own experience of negotiating with various terrorist organisations, most notably the IRA.

I went partly because I’ve been thinking about starting a new piece of research about terrorism for a while, and Powell’s view seemed to back up my own thoughts about there not being very much psychological research about understanding the behaviour and ideology of terrorists.

It is, in my opinion, a fascinating area of study and one that is certainly topical. I took copious notes throughout Powell’s lecture (detailed below) and ended up impulse-buying a copy of his book, Talking to Terrorists, which is out now.


In order to negotiate with terrorist groups, you need to be willing to put yourself in their territory and demonstrate trust.

Northern Ireland was the most difficult terrorist negotiation with which he was personally involved.

There is no such thing as a single model for dialogue with terrorist groups; all conflicts have different resolutions, but there are lessons that can be learned.

Governments always say they won’t talk to terrorists, but they almost always do so in the end. We have a collective amnesia about this, but we ought to remember it.

The main arguments people use against opening a dialogue are appeasement, legitimising and rewarding bad behaviour. Powell believes all of these to be invalid.

There seems to be no real alternative to talking if the group has genuine support; you can’t “police them out”. Decapitation – i.e. removing the leader – doesn’t usually work.

“If there’s a political problem, you have to find a political solution to it, not a military one.”

It’s difficult for democratic governments to be seen to talk to terrorists. People do understand in time, though. Governments will usually use intelligence agencies for these kinds of negotiations rather than speaking to them directly; for example, the SIS was used in communications with the IRA.

You need a level of bipartisanship when negotiating for peace. For example, Tony Blair supported John Major’s efforts to negotiate with the IRA; it would have been much more difficult if he hadn’t. In places where the government’s opposition party is working against the leading party, negotiating becomes almost impossible.

It is much easier if a third party is involved, but this can be difficult for a government. They fear a loss of control. However this has improved since the end of the Cold War. Sometimes this is the UN or a non-threatening government with a non-colonial past, e.g. Norway. Sometimes NGOs can now also play a part.

Making contact with/finding armed groups can be difficult. Upon making first contact with one terrorist group, the negotiator was told “No one has tried to talk to me in thirty years.” Sometimes you can find them in jail, e.g. starting conversations with Mandela in Africa. The point of first contact is to build trust; these groups want people to listen to them. Often you have to do a lot of listening, sometimes thousands of hours. It’s not just about listening, though, but actually hearing what they’re saying; understanding the nuances.

This can be difficult: sometimes mediators get a form of Stockholm syndrome or start “going native”, sympathising too much. Often terrorists live in a (physical and) mental ghetto, only communicating with those who share their views.

At some point an academic stalemate is reached, in which both sides realise they can’t win and it becomes uncomfortable.

There is a problem with these mutually hurting stalemates if they are too comfortable. Both sides need to be feeling the pain in order for negotiations to properly get under way.

Strong leadership is important for a successful peace process, e.g. Nelson Mandela.

“It’s when a leader thinks that a problem can be solved and that he can do it that it gets solved.”

Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe the problem of the IRA could be solved. John Major believed that it could be solved but that he couldn’t solve it. Tony Blair believed that it could be solved and that he could solve it, and that is when the negotiation process stepped up.

Almost no preparations seem to be made for negotiations, and they need to be. Negotiation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

“The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there’s no tunnel.”

Your job as a negotiator is to build the tunnel: put in place a process that allows negotiations to happen.

You need ingenuity to finish a negotiation. Getting to an agreement is not the conclusion. Usually it then takes several years to implement.

Terrorism isn’t going to go away. The only tools we’ll ever have are fighting them and talking to them. We also have to deal with the communities in which they move.

An agreement/conclusion is generally built on failures. Strange thing that happens in negotiations: you end up at a place of peace which seems inevitable once you’re there but which previously seemed insoluble.

Sometimes people try to use a process to manage a situation rather than to actually solve it. You do need a process in order to get to an agreement.

There should be no limit on whom we talk to; sometimes you can’t properly negotiate, but it’s worth talking. Each time we meet a new group, we say we can’t talk to them, but eventually realise it’s the only solution.

“Their rationality tends to be found out when you sit down and talk to them.”

What could we talk to ISIS about? There are genuine concerns of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria which make ISIS’s life easier and which need to be addressed.


1. Should there be an International Justice Court? Could this provide a platform for community groups to deal with people who are ‘above the law’, e.g. political and religious figureheads? 

There already is an international court (ICC) but it wouldn’t help. Terrorism feeds on grievances but it tends to be frustrations about people not being able to get what they want through political means.

2. Hostages – should we engage in negotiations? 

This is always a difficult question because it’s so emotionally charged. Of course if you were being held hostage you’d want your government to negotiate for your release, but hostage ransoms is one of the main ways terrorists fund their organisations, therefore by bowing to their requests you’re supporting their cause.

3. Colombian government – what measures should they take to deal with the eroding trust in the institution of government? 

The public often want difficult things, e.g. a peace agreement with no price. The ICC has changed a lot; now you can’t have amnesties and let people off because the ICC argues that without justice you can’t come to a proper agreement. Very difficult balance; Colombia will be the guinea pig for this kind of situation moving forward.

4. Is there any way to factor in the behavioural sciences (and awareness thereof) into counter terror?

Yes, definitely. Psychology and anthropology are very important. These are the skills that make a real difference. Currently the literature is scarce but it is a field that is likely to grow over the coming years.

5. What are your conclusions on what happened to Terry Waite?

He deserves credit for trying to negotiate; it’s a shame he got captured.

6. Are mutually hurting stalemates a prerequisite for negotiations? If not, whose is the prerogative to start negotiating? 

Mutually hurting stalemate is a useful tool.  You have to keep trying to negotiate; don’t wait. Most times you’ll be frustrated, but keep trying. Responsibility for this rests with the government. Governments always try military solutions first; when this doesn’t work they sometimes resort to other methods e.g. killing people, sometimes they up the ante, etc. Often this doesn’t make a difference.

7. Most of the literature on terrorists is written by psychologists who have little expertise in actual negotiations. What is your view on academic input? Is there something missing? 

There is crossover between the literature on negotiation and terrorism. It’s useful but it’s unripe. It’ll be a couple more decades before it’ll really be a proper academic field.

8. What are the personalities of terrorists and negotiators? 

A certain amount of humility is required to be a negotiator. In terms of terrorist leaders, to be successful in negotiations you need to have someone who thinks politically about an issue in order to have a political discussion.

9. What about insurgencies and disparate groups with no organisation / military response? 

The importance of a group being coherent and cohesive is crucial. Boko Haram is a good example of this: it’s not cohesive so you can’t make peace with the whole thing.

10. How to define the parties: who are the terrorists? Who are the ‘we’? 

Terrorism is not a useful term. Terror is a tactic that can be used by anyone, and often the people who we start off by calling terrorists we end up welcoming and even celebrating, e.g. Nelson Mandela. Unless you understand this you will never get anywhere.

The talk was fascinating and a real insight into the mind of a negotiator. Needless to say the views above are those of Jonathan Powell rather than my own, but it’s certainly given me some things to think about if I do decide to pitch some ideas for a study on terrorists.

LSE run public events on a regular basis, you can find out more about them here.