By Eline Hietbrink

On June 18, 1985, then President of the United States Ronald Raegan stated: ‘let me further make it plain … that America will never make concessions to terrorists – to do so would only invite more terrorism’ [1]. This claim would be reiterated by many of his successors, and the political leaders of numerous other nations took on the no-negotiation stance against terrorism as well. However, the Reagan administration itself already deviated from this policy in September 1985, when it traded arms in order to obtain the freedom of an American citizen[2]. This deviation from the official policy on terrorism seems to be adopted by leaders around the world as much as Reagan’s no-negotiation policy was in the first place.

In his book Talking to Terrorists, Jonathan Powell revealed the perpetual discrepancy between what political leaders say and what they do when it comes to negotiating with terrorists [3]. Negotiations between nation-states and terrorist groups does not only take place at a small-scale, as to obtain the freedom of one individual, but also at a more structural level. A 2008 study showed that of all the terrorist groups that had “ended” since 1968, 50% had negotiated a settlement with the governments they had been fighting against. On the other hand, only 19% of the researched terrorist groups had been defeated militarily [4].

The most recent example of a government that has made concessions to a terrorist group is the Colombian government, that signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). In this peace accord, it was agreed that the FARC-EP would be supported in its transformation into a political party and that the members of the FARC-EP would receive relatively low – or in numerous cases even no – sentences for committed crimes during the Colombian conflict [5]. The Colombian government is currently involved in negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN.). To be clear, the political leaders of Colombia have in the past repeatedly referred to both the FARC-EP and the ELN as terrorist groups with which negotiation was unthinkable.

As the act of negotiation with terrorists appears to be very common, the question rises why we still believe our political leaders when they tell us that they will not negotiate with a certain terrorist group. One of the tricks that political leaders use to convince us that negotiation with a terrorist group is unthinkable is the claim that this specific terrorist group is different from all the terrorist groups we have seen before [6]. They acknowledge that negotiation with terrorists has taken place in the past, but refer to the cruelty and inhumanity of the “new” type of terrorism to ensure us that negotiation with these terrorists is no option. In for example the aftermath of another horrific attack by the Islamic State, it is appealing to go along with this reasoning and to consider negotiating with this terrorist group as being impossible.

However, instead of letting ourselves get distracted by our gut feeling, we should keep an eye on the bigger picture, which shows us that negotiation is a very common way to end terrorism. We should therefore stop pretending that negotiation does not and will never take place and start exploring under what circumstances negotiation might me a successful means to end terrorism.

This article is based on Eline Hietbrink’s thesis for the Master’s program Crisis and Security Management of Leiden University.


[1] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=38789

[2] Lapan, H. E., & Sandler, T. (1988). To bargain or not to bargain: That is the question.

[3] Powell, J. (2014). Talking to terrorists: How to end armed conflicts.

[4] Jones, S. G., & Libicki, M. C. (2008). How terrorist groups end: Lessons for countering al Qa’ida.

[5] https://www.mesadeconversaciones.com.co/sites/defa…

[6] Powell, J. (2014). Talking to terrorists: How to end armed conflicts.

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