Could you negotiate with al Qaeda?

 The latest statement from Ayman al-Zawahri, broadcast by al-Jazeera on 4 August, does not support the claims by President Bush that they want to "impose their dark vision on the world".  As I noted here after the London bombings, there is no suggestion that the muslim extremists want to change the way western countries are governed (or as George Bush put it, that "they hate our freedoms"); rather, if the statement is to be believed, the fundamentalists have a much more limited goal of encouraging western countries to stop interfering in the Middle East.  al-Zawahri says:    

Your salvation will only come in your withdrawal from our land, in stopping the robbing of our oil and resources, and in stopping your support for the corrupt and corrupting leaders.

Tony Blair has claimed that there is distinction between terrorists with, and those without, rational and achievable aims.  He said:

And the reason for negotiating with the IRA is nothing to do with terrorism, the reason for being prepared to enter into a dialogue with Republicanism is because you do have a demand that is, I may agree or disagree with it, but you can hardly say it is a demand that no sensible person can negotiate on, it is a demand that is shared by many of our citizens in the north.

This is a rather important, and potentially dangerous, distinction for Blair to have drawn.  Because if the agenda of muslim extremists is to cause western powers to stop supporting Israel and to withdraw their armies from the Middle East: well, you might not agree, but you can hardly say that it is a demand that no sensible person can negotiate on.

8 comments on “Could you negotiate with al Qaeda?”

  1. Tony Blair has claimed that there is distinction between terrorists with, and those without, rational and achievable aims.

    I guess you know that Brian BYour dad has said something similar, in comments on this post. (For what it’s worth, I’m halfway through a reply to him myself).

  2. Phil

    Yes, I see my Dad has said:

    There’s often an unanswerable case for negotiating with terrorists, where their basic aims (as with the IRA) are negotiable or capable of discussion and compromise.

    Well I actually agree with that. What I think I disagree with him about is whether the al Qaeda objectives fall in to that category.

    I have no doubt that there are some al Qaeda supporters who have objectives that we could not negotiate about – for example, advocating a world-wide caliphate. But they are likely to be a small minority of al Qaeda supporters. By contrast, the objectives as stated by bin Laden and by al-Zawahri enjoy support across much of the muslim world, even though the vast majority of muslims abhor the methods that al Qaeda advocates.

    The objective of removing western interference in middle east countries, an end of western support for oppressive regimes, and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question in a way which provides security and sovereignty for both people, do not seem to me to be aims on which there is no prospect of discussion and compromise.

    None of this should be taken as an attempt to justify or rationalise terrorism. I just think that if we want to rid the world of this evil, we need to ensure that we really understand the reasons for it, and do not deceive ourselves with political slogans.

  3. I think the aims or lack thereof are a mute point, now. Does anybody really believe that we could sit down with the terrorists and negotiate? Even if we could and did, it would be seen as weakness, and open up the floodgates for everybody with a perceived grievance to bomb their way to a resolution. I think we should never have been there in the first place, but we are and must now deal with the situation as it is. As I see it, extreme religious fundamentalists have chosen to kill and maim innocent people in the name of Allah or freedom or however you wish to phrase it, and I believe the answer is to fight fire with fire. (I do not mean kill innocent people) Bring back the death penalty. Dead people do not plant bombs. And make the death penalty applicable to terrorists who fail in their activities and are subsequently caught.

  4. Bring back the death penalty

    For suicide bombers? How will that help? That’s made me chuckle.

    More seriously, my real point is that if you think that there are ever circumstances in which you might negotiate with terrorists, as Mr Blair apparently does, then it is hard to see why the demands of these particular terrorists are so wild that they are not even worth discussing.

    If you take the view that you should never negotiate with terrorists (not the IRA, not the ANC, not the MKO, not the Contras) then of course you’ll take the view that you should not negotiate with these ones either. But that does not seem to be what either Mr Blair or Mr Bush believes.

  5. Me again.

    I believe that your (Owen’s) interpretation of al-Qaida’s ultimate aims is too optimistic. The goal as expressed in the al-Qaida scripture(Osama bin Laden’s and his lieutenants’ occasional pronouncements plus some of the extreme Islamicist websites) seems to me to be the extinction from the Muslim lands comprising the Caliphate, and especially from the countries hosting the holiest Muslim shrines, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, of the entire western presence and all cultural influence — not just ‘armies’. I take the western presence and cultural influence to include the presence of all businessmen and other western citizens, western investments, the availability of western products (especially such iconic products as Coca-Cola, mini-skirts, pop music and Macdonalds) together with western magazines, newspapers and websites, non-Muslim places of worship and clergy, and freedom to advocate such western heresies as the emancipation of women, separation of church and state, exclusion of religious leaders from political roles [something we could usefully introduce in the UK!], abortion rights, secular education, interest-bearing loans, and so forth, ad infinitum. In short, they want the core Muslim countries to become a chasse gardée under a Shari’a law régime broadly akin to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan (first major host to al-Qaida, not by chance). And once that is established, they want to extend it bit by bit to other countries with a significant Muslim population (including millions in Africa) — and after that to yet more countries on an opportunistic basis, although I don’t think that’s a really serious aspiration.

    If that’s right, and there’s plenty of evidence for it, then it doesn’t seem to me that there is any scope for negotiating or compromising with the sponsors of this programme, still less for making concessions to them. It also follows that immediately withdrawing our forces from Iraq (which I strongly favour on quite different grounds) won’t even begin to meet al-Qaida demands, although it should have the limited and incidental effect of reducing the scope for the issue to be exploited by Muslim radicals in order to aggravate ‘anger’ and promote further terrorism.

    But even on your much more limited interpretation of basic al-Qaida goals, they certainly include the extinction of the state of Israel and the occupation of its present territory, including that internationally recognised as lawful Israeli land, by the Palestinians. I recognise that there are a few people in the west who would favour this (and that not all of them are motivated largely by good old-fashioned anti-semitism, although most certainly are), but I hope most of us realise that it’s completely off the map — and, again, non-negotiable. Even Bush is committed to a two-state solution, which would never be acceptable to the al-Qaida camp. (And any further ‘concessions’ would have to include the removal of the Indian presence from Kashmir, secession and independence for Kosovo and Chechnya, installation of Muslim Shari’a law in southern as well as northern Sudan, etc., etc. Negotiable? I think not.)

    This is a gloomy reading, but I’m afraid it’s all too plausible. Hence my assertion that it’s necessary to distinguish between terrorists with inherently negotiable aims, or at any rate aims that are capable of rational political discussion, and those whose aims simply can’t be reconciled with the real world of varying cultures and interests.

    PS: In all this I haven’t mentioned oil. It’s legitimate, and quite possibly right, to see the current issues as part of the early stages of a huge international conflict over control of access to oil, on which no western country, however high-minded, is going to have any room for compromise for as long as our economies and way of life remains dependent on the precious black stuff. And it needs to be said that secure access to oil is an entirely legitimate and fundamental western interest which it is wholly proper to defend, indeed which it would be a criminal betrayal not to defend, and not a secret and reprehensible goal that dare not speak its name. Again, a gloomy view. But the old are entitled to be gloomy.

    Brian

  6. I have posted a small piece on bombers’ motivations, strategies and options for dealing them on my blog (I can’t seem to get trackbacks working). If you have a minute you may wish to read it.

  7. I seem to remember a time when it was politically unacceptable to negotiate with the IRA, when actors spoke the words of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

    Why did this change to the extent that they became ministers in a devolved government, albeit briefly? I don’t think there’s any magic bullet (sic), but some of the factors were:

    – secret negotiations by various governments (Heath, Lynch, Thatcher, Haughey);

    – better British & Irish intelligence, leading to a realisation that the “armed struggle” would not achieve the IRA’s political goals;

    – a realisation by the republican movement that their aims could be achieved by political action.

    I don’t think the IRA’s aims were that much more “sensible” than Al-Qaeda’s: the IRA stated in the 1970s that their ultimate aim was a Marxist All-Ireland State. Probably not an aspiration shared by many on the island of Ireland.

    The change in Ireland took nearly 4 decades, and involved acts of shameless brutality (La Mon, Glenanne, Shankill, Omagh) and political errors (internment, Bloody Sunday) as well as patient and subtle negotiation. Terrorists cannot be “defeated”, but over time mindsets can be challenged and support taken away.

    Al-Qaeda may hold views repugnant to most people, but unless we dialogue, how else can they be changed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Published by

Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and