Negotiating With Terrorists: What's the Big Deal?

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Over the past few months two high-profile events have raised the thorny question of whether governments should negotiate with terrorists. The first was the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram in April. The abductions spawned outrage around the world and a “Bring Back Our Girls” social media campaign, which prompted the Nigerian government to step up its efforts to rescue the girls—everything short of making a deal with the terrorists, the government made clear.

A “New York Times” article noted last week that “With reports swirling in the Nigerian media of a possible negotiation to free hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist extremists, and the country’s top armed forces commander ruling out force to do so, the government’s chief spokesman again denied Tuesday that any ‘formal, official’ talks were underway with the extremist group Boko Haram.”

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Thus ‘formal, official’ negotiations are off the table, as they were in the United States last week when captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl was swapped for five members of the Taliban who had been held at Guantanamo Bay and released in a prisoner exchange. The Obama administration also denied any “formal, official” negotiations with the terrorist organization, noting that the deal was arranged through officials in the government of Qatar.

Negotiating with Terrorists

Among the many critics of the swap was Republican senator Ted Cruz, who in an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” stated, “U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists… The reason why the U.S. has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers.”

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Cruz is correct about the rationale of the argument against negotiating with kidnappers, but he seems unaware that practice has been the de facto policy in America and around the world for decades. Ronald Reagan infamously traded arms for hostages in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, and it still goes on today.

President George W. Bush, for example, made his position on negotiating with terrorists crystal clear. On April 4, 2002, he said, “No nation can negotiate with terrorists. For there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” Bush said that the United States would work for the return of kidnapped American military personnel and civilians, but will not pay any ransom: “We, of course, don’t pay ransom for any hostages,” he stated firmly.

In fact, a month earlier in March 2002, the Bush White House had helped arrange a ransom payment to the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf. ABC News reported that the U.S. government helped pay $300,000 in cash to the group, known to be part of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. The ransom was arranged to secure the release of two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, taken hostage at a resort in the Philippines on May 27, 2001. The Burnhams were Protestant missionaries who traveled widely handing out Bibles and spreading the gospel. The ransom was paid, but the hostages were not released; one was later killed.

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Not only did George W. Bush knowingly fund and negotiate with bin Laden’s terrorist group a year after the September 11 attacks, but his administration even changed its official policy on ransom to accommodate the payments. In February 2002 the policy changed from stating that the U.S. Government “will not pay ransom” to a more flexible policy allowing payments to kidnappers and terrorists.

Why Negotiate With Terrorists?

Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including — and especially — an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

It’s a no-win situation, and the U.S. government, like all governments, often tries to resolve the situation as quickly and quietly as possible, which usually involves giving terror groups what they want—and perhaps killing them at a later time. One can agree or disagree with the policy of negotiating with terrorists, and there are valid arguments on both sides of the debate. But suggesting that the practice is unprecedented and anything other than routine in international affairs is misleading.

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