AS the nature and goals of terrorism change, dialogue or negotiation with terror groups such as the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ (IS) have been argued as futile. Since the demands of such groups are unrealistic and unnegotiable, it has been concluded that talks may not work. However, Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair, has always said that governments must talk to insurgent organisations to persuade them to accept difficult compromises.

As the chief negotiator on Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, Powell draws on his experience as an international mediator, pointing out that talking to terrorists may be morally repugnant but politically necessary, and that the same principles apply in most cases.

In his latest book, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, Powell argues that ideological opposition to talking to terrorists makes sense for governments. They often start a secret backchannel because of negative public opinion and fear of undermining moderate constituencies. And while they often fight such groups militarily, in the end dialogue is the only way to stop the violence.

Most terror groups crave legitimacy and do not have constituents. Any support for their ideologies may be because of fear among the civilian population living under their authority (often violently controlled) or religious motivations. A RAND Corporation study in 2008, How Terrorist Groups End, examines 684 terrorist groups since 1968. It concluded that 43 per cent of them ended in a transition to a political process and only seven per cent as a result of military success. Militarily defeating terror groups is rare.

No conflict, however bloody, ancient or difficult is insoluble, notes Powell, and he publicly suggested in 2008 that Western governments should open talks with the Taliban, Hamas and Al Qaeda. This is the essential argument he brings to this book where most of his proposals are based on his experience as chief negotiator for the Northern Ireland conflict. He examines the objectives of armed groups and ways to negotiate with those who have significant political support.

Partly historical recollection and partly drawing on the experiences of key international mediators engaged with multiple governments and insurgent groups — including the Basque separatist group ETA, the IRA, the African National Congress, the Mozambique Liberation Front, Hamas, the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — Powell notes that the only way to reach a lasting end to conflict is to reach an agreement and implement it in ways acceptable to both sides. He notes that “in order to make the men with the guns, the IEDs and the chemical weapons stop, we will need to talk to them in the end.” The book looks at how and when best to make contact with terrorists, how to build trust, how to combine force and talk, how to use third parties, how and when to turn contacts into negotiations and then how to ensure that talks turn into a resulting agreement that is implemented. Interestingly, though, there is little mention of how the process could be adapted for negotiations with the IS.

When Powell published Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland after leaving government, he said that Western governments should talk to the Taliban. This was unheard of at the time, and when Ambassador Richard Holbrooke also came up with a similar solution to the Afghan war while serving as Obama’s Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he was ridiculed by the White House. But talking to the Taliban through intermediaries is now an open secret (authorised negotiations secured the release of American prisoner Bowe Bergdahl who was held by the Taliban).

Although there is talk of a continued NATO-led presence in Afghanistan at the end of this year, the US insists the combat mission will end and so one could ask why the Taliban would be interested in talking when Western forces are withdrawing and when they could wait a while longer to take greater control of the country. After all, the 2009 US-led troop surge in Afghanistan did not bring the Taliban to their knees or to the negotiating table. However, they realise that they may not be able to take control of the entire country as they had before, and also understand the importance of political legitimacy and recognition.

So far, the prospect of engaging the Taliban has not been fully exploited because both sides are of the view that their interests are not being considered. Powell notes that the Taliban will engage in talks at some point, this being a rational move for them given that many fighters will be tired of war; that significant Western assets, including drones and special forces, will remain in the country to fight in pockets and the Tajiks, Hazaras and many of the Pakhtuns will not let the Taliban regain hold. He also questions if their Pakistani backers will support their activities indefinitely. Again echoing the Holbrooke school of thought, Powell notes that it was a mistake to have kept them out of the original Bonn talks in 2001-2. “The problem with the West is that we have left engaging with the Taliban terribly late.”

Al Qaeda central, meanwhile, is somewhat different in their global ambitions and unlikely to disappear and therefore somewhat hard to pin down for negotiations. It has been argued that although on a back foot in the Pakistan-Afghan border region, their extremist ideology and franchised groups will ensure survival as a resilient and formidable terror organization. On the subject of Al Qaeda as a long-established militant group capable of adapting to all countermeasures against it, Powell notes it survived for nearly a quarter of a century despite the greatest onslaught directed against a terror organisation. Never a centralised terror organisation, it is now further defined as a loose “federation, designed to avoid detection by Western intelligence agencies.” Nevertheless, Powell notes that while its franchised structure may be complex, it is not a barrier to negotiation when looking at options that could be explored when trying to find ways to talk to various affiliates interested in righting grievances in their region of operation.

There is also no such thing as a “traditional” and a “new” terrorist, Powell notes, although he does make the lengthy distinction explaining that new groups have tried to attract the attention of governments and the public to accept their demands. It is apparent that in recent years they have appeared out of nowhere to fill political vacuums. New groups are different from previous ‘terrorist’ organisations like the IRA and the PLO because they are (IS in Syria and Iraq) religiously motivated, mutate rapidly, attract the youth globally using the internet and technology, and are manifestations of long-held grievances in the region.

Hamas, Powell writes, is religiously based and falls into the “new terrorist” category, and does not adapt to rational approaches as easily. He talks of a “fourth wave of terrorism” that is arguably different from the “third wave” of nationalist and ideological ‘terrorists’ including the FARC and the ELN in Colombia, the Maoists in the Philippines and the Naxalites in India. All terrorism is political and new issues, such as resources, religious ideologies and a disgruntled younger generation have inspired groups towards violence, turning weaker states into militant safe havens. Removing these fundamental grievances requires political leadership.

With Al Qaeda and even the Pakistani Taliban, talking has not been an easy option. Moreover, trying to talk to them has arguably granted their narrative greater legitimacy than it deserves and has thus been counterproductive. Powell would disagree, but then there are conditions that have to be met for successful negotiations to begin. The publicised wave of negotiations between the Pakistan Taliban and the Nawaz Sharif government was short-lived, ending in a stalemate. Would a third-party mediator have helped both parties to work on ending the situation? Ideally, as Powell has noted, a “mutually hurting stalemate” will drive talks with both sides knowing that their interest will be served through a compromise. He writes, “However fed up you get, you have the keep the process going if there is to be an agreement. The truth is that peace processes are unending.” Building trust and persisting with talking brought the Northern Ireland peace process to a successful ending. “Hot housing” — taking all negotiators away from home and not letting them out until they have an agreement — was also described by Holbrooke as the “Big Bang approach to negotiations,” during the conflict in Bosnia when he took all parties to a US Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995.

Refusing to enter talks because it is a political risk is not what governments must do, but there is the risk of harming relations with international allies in the war on terror — especially when past leaders have signed peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban that have collapsed. Also, governments must negotiate with terror groups from a position of strength with terrorist organisations fearing that the end of a ceasefire would dent their morale and ability to restart the fight. This has not happened with the Pakistani Taliban. Negotiations for them meant a way of manipulating the situation to play for time or score propaganda points.

Powell might write persuasively about the lessons learned in dealing with militant groups in Sri Lanka, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Colombia, etc., but the question one puts forth here is whether these scenarios — starting negotiations, accepting a third-party mediator and working towards an agreement — would necessarily work for modern jihadi militancy. Even if the current leader of the Pakistani Taliban or Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda decided to sit across a table or send their closest emissaries for talks with regional / government negotiators, this would have little effect on the larger terror networks forming a nexus under the central group. The ideology that remains at loggerheads with the West long predates Al Qaeda and has historical roots in social, political and religious issues.

State authoritarianism fuels insurgencies, and terrorism and the “propaganda of the deed” draws attention to grievances. Take the example of IS with a plethora of angry Sunni groups, unified by a hatred of Shia rule in Damascus and Baghdad. It has now become difficult to unravel their different motivations which could be key to containing and suppressing IS.

Powell objects to demonising opponents as “terrorists,” arguing that it becomes impossible to talk to them when needed. Talking to Terrorists comes with this advice at the right time, when the US is cobbling together a regional coalition to fight the IS in Iraq and Syria, but finds itself constrained by having designated Hezbollah and the Kurdish militia as terrorist groups, despite the fact that they are battling militants and protecting thousands of lives in the region.

Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflict


By Jonathan Powell

The Bodley Head, UK

ISBN 978-1847922295