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The Tangible Role of Negotiations with Terrorist Organizations

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April saw the murder of Canadian hostage, John Ridsdel; June sees the murder of second Canadian hostage, Robert Hall, and an increased uncertainty of the future of the remaining Abu Sayyaf hostages: Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and Filipino Marites Flor. Abu Sayyaf is a small and extremely violent jihadist group whose insurgency was instigated by a conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Southern Philippines. It follows separatist ideologies, and some have even commented that continued inequality and oppression of Muslims in the country will ensure that Abu Sayyaf endures.

In the aftermath of Justin Trudeau’s condemnation of Abu Sayyaf’s acts, and his announcement that Canada will not pay ransom to terrorist organizations, the media has published a frenzy of articles drawing to light the potential consequences associated both with negotiating and refusing to negotiate with terrorist organizations.

The National Post published a full comment questioning the whole matter, where Terry Glavin asked “[w]as Trudeau saying what he’s supposed to say in these situations, so as to not give terrorist kidnappers any bright ideas? Was he keeping up appearances, or was he perhaps announcing a whole new policy?” He continues to highlight that more than $200 million in ransom payments has ended up in the hands of Al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and subsidiary terrorist organizations in recent years- mostly coming from Western nations.

Needless to say, it’s clear that terrorist organizations are obtaining some funds from ransom payments. The conversation has yet to move away from whether governments pay or don’t pay a ransom, and towards the consequences associated with the payments that terrorist organizations already receive, but it is a missing piece of the public debate. We have yet to ask: what are the current conditions in which terrorist organizations operate, and what are the different roles that negotiations can play in mitigating risks, costs, and tragedies associated with terrorist activities?

In 2013, the Canadian Centre of Science and Education published a work in the Journal of Politics and Law highlighting the relationship between terrorist negotiations and risk-seeking behaviour. It explains that terrorist organizations always confront an expected payoffs schedule, and usually, there are payoffs outside of the government’s control. As such, “a government’s concessions schedule [in a bargaining scenario] may alter or add to the existing expected payoffs schedule but it is not synonymous with it and does not replace it”. What this means is that for a terrorist organization seeking a high level of reward, such as a significant ransom, they will have to use an equally high level of risk, such as holding hostages. Because of the level of risk involved, there is also a higher probability that the outcome, both the reward and concession (the ransom payment and the release of hostages), will be very different than the initial expectation. In many cases, this may equate the expected payoffs of less and more risky actions. As a result, the expected payoffs may increase with a high-risk action, such as hostage-taking, but it does not equally represent an increase to the terrorist organization’s overall wealth. The exact outcome depends on how risk-averse a terrorist organization proves to be.

A 2004 article by William Zartman opens his work by stating “[O]fficially, the subject does not exist: we do not negotiate with terrorists. Practically, however, there are negotiations and negotiations, and terrorists and terrorists”. He continues with an in-depth explanation of the different types of terrorists, and how negotiations are reasonable with some, and a lost cause with others. Specifically, there are total absolute terrorists, whereby “their purpose is so broad that it is unlikely to lead itself to negotiation”; there is nothing to gain from negotiations with this type of terrorist organization, and negotiations might actually provide encouragement. On the other hand, there are contingent terrorists, who are actively seeking to negotiate; they “try to overcome their essentially weak position by appropriating a part of the other side”, and use hostages, preferably alive, as capital to bargain. Zartman continues to explain how terrorists can exist on a spectrum between total absolute terrorists and contingent terrorists. For our purposes, we will focus on the problem with contingent terrorists, which Zartman frankly explains that “[it] is not that they are not interested in negotiating, but that the world does not accept their deal”.

The current conditions and strategies in which contingent terrorist organizations operate are in contradiction to governmental negotiation practices. That being said, Zartman explains that “as in any negotiations, when the two parties become convinced that a search for a solution is legitimate and acceptable to both sides, they become joint searchers for a solution to a problem rather than adversaries”. Not only does he suggest that terrorists and governments can work together, he also expresses that to reach the point where governmental organizations and terrorist organizations negotiate, terrorist organizations have to be convinced that their interests are being considered. This often means the release of hostages in return for fulfillment of their demands, often without any reductions or alternatives to the original demands.

Zartman doesn’t think that terrorists’ demands should be considered legitimate — all he is arguing is that once relations with terrorist organizations enter the bargaining sphere, are susceptible to the same changes, strategies, and tactics in any negotiations.

It does seem unlikely that given the spectrum of types of terrorists and the broad range of expected payoffs schedules of various terrorist organizations, the Canadian government and other governments officially opposed to negotiating with terrorists would refuse negotiations in all circumstances. There are political scientists, economists, risk consultants, and a wide range of experts who are able to look objectively at each individual situation of terrorist activity and consider the possibilities for conflict resolution.


Denea Bascombe
Denea Bascombe is pursuing a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Her primary interests surround resource governance and security, and topics in political economy.

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