Negotiating with terrorists

We always need to avoid the peril of negotiating in terror rather than in a disciplined manner.

The bogus claim in mid September that Islamist terrorists in Iraq had taken two Australians hostage naturally focused attention on Australia’s policy of never negotiating with terrorists on substantive issues.

It is easy to declare a strict policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists when the discussion is theoretical.

It is much harder to do so when it becomes personal and indeed pressing.

There is also a fine line to be walked between declaring the policy and daring its potential opponents.

Too strident a declaration may indeed invite tests of a Government’s resolve.

Recent Australian criticism of the Philippines Government for choosing to negotiate over Filipino hostages in Iraq also failed to account for differences of situation and nuance.

A fragile democracy greatly dependent on remittances from a large number of expatriates is obviously more vulnerable than most countries to hostage taking dilemmas, especially when its small military commitment to Iraq was leaving six weeks later anyway.

The bottom line, however, is that negotiations with terrorists to free hostages invariably leads to such hostage taking becoming increasingly attractive to the terrorists.

 Even if we were to withdraw our forces from Iraq in exchange for the release of Australian hostages it is almost certain that this would lead to further hostage taking on other issues in other places.

The nature of Islamist terrorism in particular makes this inevitable.

The “no negotiations” policy resulted from experiences in the early 1970s when there was a world-wide upsurge in siege-hostage incidents.

Similar policies are maintained by virtually all Western democracies.

The "no negotiations" policy was originally firmly based in the rational actor paradigm.

It is generally assumed that terrorists want to maximise their own self-interest (as they see it), that they generally want to live rather than die, and that they also want to eventually escape their predicament.

In such “traditional siege-hostage” cases the terrorists usually barter the well-being and lives of their hostages to achieve their own survival and the intermediate or overall political objectives they seek.

The negotiation problem is therefore generally a matter of lowering their expectations logically by a judicious mix of physical containment, time, rapport and resolve.

Traditional siege-hostage situations are essentially contests of governmental resolve versus terrorist ruthlessness with both spiced by bluff.

Any killing of hostages, especially vulnerable ones, is generally counterproductive as this tends to invite forcible intervention in order to save at least some of the remainder.

The nature of traditional terrorist actions, while still contrary to the laws of war, are also usually based on some shared cultural understandings and accepted prohibitions.

Women and children, for example, are often the first to be released during negotiations.

In the past, traditional terrorist groups such as the IRA or ETA tended to acknowledge that open killing of the innocent and vulnerable reflected badly on their professed cause and on them personally as fighters in that cause.

In contrast, hostage taking by Islamist terrorists over the last half decade has introduced several new complications.

First, hostage taking in the lawless and amoral badlands where Islamist terrorism thrives, more often than not does not involve a siege — where well-trained security forces can contain the incident in order to negotiate from a position of relative strength

Second, this relative impunity, exacerbated by religious fanaticism, racism and perverted scriptural rulings from bigoted clergy, encourages not just the taking of hostages and their killing, but also callous and inhumane acts such as torture, beheading and mutilation as acts of terrorist theatre.

Third, the act of terrorism is often the Islamist’s religious or quasi-political objective in itself — at least for its direct perpetrators.

Negotiations are often not possible because they are not intended or sought by the terrorists.

Fourth, even where purported terrorist objectives are cited they are often so unrealistic that no meaningful negotiation is possible.

This is compounded by cross-cultural awareness gaps between terrorists and negotiators becoming chasms of mutual incomprehension, ignorance and rage.

Finally, the nature of Islamist terrorism often means the terrorists involved welcome death and, at least ostensibly, cannot be drawn into negotiations to escape the situation.

Kidnapping for ransom is endemic in Iraq and not all the abductors are terrorists.

However, if Australians in Iraq, or indeed elsewhere, are taken hostage by Islamist terrorists (as opposed to ordinary criminals) there is little we can do for them except hope and pray they can negotiate their own release, escape or be rescued by military intervention.

In Iraq, all three options are rarely successful and Australians working there, and their families in Australia, should not harbour any false hopes otherwise.

To raise false hopes in such situations, especially by advocating simplistic or unrealistic "solutions" that are contrary to broader public safety and the wider national interest, would be particularly cruel.