What’s legitimate and what isn’t? Should governments negotiate with terrorist and criminal organizations in the name of reducing violent crime? On the issue of security, there’s a sprawling constellation of government negotiations with insurgencies or their guerrilla forces, yet less precedent with terrorists or drug traffickers.
Since the international crusade against global terror began in September 2001, governments have widely adopted a stance of non-negotiation with terrorists. Their argument, somewhat rusty and anachronistic, flows from the logic of state legitimacy and an aversion to projecting weakness at the helm of democratic institutions. A fairly reductive notion, it even minimizes the role of the state in social relations.
The only viable and legitimate response, then, seemed to be a combination of intelligence reports, military operations, multilateral strategic alliances, and police action designed to anticipate and neutralize threats from terrorists and organized crime—a prescription aimed at the consequences of terrorism rather than its causes. To avert the explosion of a bomb on the subway or in an airport is to attempt to cure cancer with a painkiller.
In fact, as the Irish Republican Army said in 1984 after its attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton, terrorists need only be lucky once, whereas states need luck constantly. Today’s unconventional security challenges are a race to lower margins of error and avoid making the passing of time itself the chief hurdle facing malicious groups.
In February 2020, Donald Trump bucked expectations in establishing negotiations with the Taliban guided by a system of incentives, the core of any negotiation. The Taliban agreed to bar Al Qaeda, ISIS, or any other extremist group from operating in areas it controls in exchange for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.
It’s a straightforward calculation between sides of an aging conflict locked in a stalemate as operational objectives have fallen apart and victory has become impossible. The calculations rest on the conception of victory itself, no longer to be measured by gained territory or fallen enemies, but rather in the shaping of legitimate governance across geographical space and self-determination in the face of social problems—objectives which local terrorist organizations, despite their barbarism, had begun to pursue in Afghan communities.
In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele has spent a year piecing together covert negotiations with MS-13, one of the most dangerous gangs in the world. Through his plan he managed to drastically reduce the peacetime homicide rate to levels unseen in the three decades since the end of the civil war. But why negotiate with terrorists and criminals? The answer is undoubtedly complex yet broadly rooted in strategy.
Whereas classical insurgencies hope to overthrow the state, take power, and govern to their liking, criminal and terrorist groups tend to want to control underground resources and illicit markets or wrest territorial control from the state. Criminals seek to be invisible to the state, whereas terrorist organizations use violence in the pursuit of political ends.
Negotiations with these groups come at a high cost if the groups and their operations are not quickly broken up. As to whether or not to engage with them, the answer rests on the premise that negotiations offer a window of opportunity to dismantle the illicit governance structures running parallel to the state in the groups’ territory.
In the face of military and police action alone, drug trafficking and terrorism have lived on, and criminal groups continue to enrich themselves and operate as parallel states. The prescription to dismantle these scourges is two-fold: method and incentives. In theory, sound method entails a state-mediated cease-fire between cliques, armed groups, and terrorists, as well as a transformation of legitimacy in which the state constructs a counter-legitimacy in the place of these illicit groups.
Incentives should be based on an understanding that negotiations will only be effective if the process centers the interests of the parties instead of the effects of criminal or terrorist activities. In societies where gangs and different sorts of criminal bands drive violence and crime, criminal networks can be so deeply entrenched that negotiation might in fact be the only viable tool to uproot them. Thus, in deciphering the codes, behaviors, and inner workings of organized crime and terror, the state should step in and propose sustainable negotiations. Negotiating with terrorists and criminals could be the future of counterterrorism and criminal justice policy.
*Translated by Roman Gressier