By Lori Yeni-Komshian
Staff Writer

Terrorism can be considered a systematic use of terror as a means of coercion. “Americans too readily assume that others agree that at least certain aspects of international terror are unacceptable. While many fanatics obviously approve of terror, less recognized and more significant is the fact that the acceptance of terror is far more widespread. Indeed, many nations regard terrorism as a legitimate means of warfare” (Sofaer 196). Thus, creating an effective strategy to defeat terrorism is essential for any government that wants to delegitimize terrorist tactics. However because defeat is not always an option, negotiations must be considered as an alternative. Typically the situation pertaining to terrorist activity is evaluated without adequate information and consequently an ineffective strategy is created, only making terrorism more prevalent. By examining three cases where terrorist actions are seen as legitimate: the Basque in Spain, the Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland, and the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, I will create a manual of suggestions for governments who may face the need to negotiate with “terrorists” who desire independence for their political community.

Negotiations should be considered when all the government’s strategies in combating terrorism have failed and the constituency is convinced of the necessity of negotiation. What this means is that the public – consisting of constituents – has to voice concern about the number of deaths occurring from terrorist attacks in order for the government to take action. If the government and the majority of constituents are unwilling to negotiate with terrorists who have certain grievances in the first place, they should not easily give in to the terrorists after they cause minimal damage; rather they should first use other strategies. Initially, the autonomy or independence of the group represented by the terrorists is out of the question, and the constituency is opposed to such secession. When the constituency observes that the government’s tactics are ineffective, the terrorist successfully instill so much fear into the general population that negotiation becomes necessary. There is no set point at which the death toll is so high that negotiation is necessary, rather, it is the fear of potential targets who are concerned that the terrorist actions cannot be successfully suppressed.

There are cases where the constituency wants the government to negotiate with the terrorists because they have successfully instilled fear in the population. But if the constituency does not support negotiations with these radicals, the government should explain to them the need to negotiate by delegitimizing terrorist activities. The government can do this by first making sure the constituency understands the conflict at hand, and then by convincing the constituency that every other alternative strategy has been attempted. After the historical context of the conflict is understood, the constituency will better understand why it is not worth the damage that is inflicted to fight the terrorists. And after the constituents feel that they have no other choice but to negotiate because every other method of combating terrorism has been tried, they will support negotiations. Negotiation should not necessarily be seen as giving in to the terrorists, but it should be seen as a peaceful solution to a conflict that has grown out of proportion. The constituency needs to accept the need to negotiate otherwise a negotiated outcome is unlikely to be substantiated by political reality.

To convince the constituency that negotiation is necessary, they must first be educated about the issue in schools and through the news and then convinced that every other possible strategy against the terrorists has already been tried. In the case of ETA, the Basque separatist movement within Spain known as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Spanish constituency did not support negotiation. Although they knew the context of the issue, Spain opted for other strategies that seemed to be more successful in deterring ETA’s terrorist actions. As for Hamas, it seems as though all strategies to combat terrorism have been unsuccessful so far; regrettably attempted negotiations have not even been successful.

Governments should certainly offer some concessions to the political community that terrorists depend on because the terrorists must clearly have legitimate grievances if they have a support group. The concessions offered by governments should offer a certain degree of autonomy. In all three cases with ETA, the IRA, and Hamas, the support groups for the terrorists have been granted some sort of autonomy. The government should understand that “…the campaigns of political terrorists in democratic societies almost invariably emerge out of larger conflicts, and. . . they reflect, in however distorted a form, the political beliefs and aspirations of a larger segment of society” (Gurr 91), Consequently, they must offer some sort of concession to the political community who has voiced certain grievances. Support of terrorist groups is important in democratic societies if the political community wants some sort of concession, in this case autonomy or independence.

Terrorist campaigns in authoritarian societies also require supportive climates of opinion, but police-state tactics ordinarily preclude any organized expression of oppositional opinion, especially its violent manifestations….they are less concerned than democratic leaders with maintaining a politically acceptable balance between suppressing violence and accommodating or deterring those who support the purposes but not the tactics of terrorists. (Gurr 91)

This means that democratic governments should want to accommodate or deter the supporters of terrorist organizations to the best of their ability by offering autonomy if they cannot discourage the terrorist by any other strategy. The government should seek to negotiate with the supporters of the terrorist organization first. “The support group is any social segment – a communal group, faction, political tendency, or class – whose members seek a particular kind of political change” (Gurr 91). These groups have come to accept extreme means of the terrorist group through radicalization and reaction. If the government can negotiate with the supporters and delegitimize the terrorist group’s actions, then the terrorist group itself will be wholly weakened. Gurr lends further credence to this assertion my positing:

The erosion of political support is not an immediate cause of decline in terrorist campaigns but an underlying one, and conditions the effects of almost all public policies directed at terrorism. Three general kinds of processes contribute to the erosion of support: backlash, reform, and deterrence. (Gurr 95)

The government can use these three methods to negotiate with terrorists. Backlash, meaning a violent act that is intended to get public support has the opposite effect, reform, meaning the government makes some concessions, and deterrence, meaning there is the fear of retaliation. If all else fails and none of these methods demise the support the terrorist group, then the next group that the government should negotiate with is the terrorists themselves, although this is a last resort. Negotiating with the support group has been effective because “most of the major terrorist campaigns that began in Western societies in the 1960s and 1970s have ended or are in the last stages of decline” including ETA and the IRA (Gurr 94).

In the negotiations, the government should seek to pursue justice because in actuality the point of a democratic state should be to pursue justice. Justice in this case should be defined as trying to resolve the terrorist groups grievances, whatever that may be, through some type of concession such as granting autonomy. Justice means that “citizens have a right to protect themselves and their property, even when their enemy is an established government” (Kelsay 151). The government should pursue ‘justice’ not only to appease the terrorists, in turn deterring terrorist activity, but also because it is the moral obligation of a democratic state to be just.

Another possible goal that the government should have for the negotiations is to better understand the logic of the terrorist. For example “terrorism should be seen as a strategic reaction to American power in the context of globalized civil war” (Crenshaw 167). If we examine the logic of terrorists we will observe that “the United States has been susceptible to international terrorism primarily because of its engagement on the world scene and its choice of allies…the United States military presence, whether in assisting local regimes or in peacemaking exercises attracted terrorism, but so too did diplomatic and cultural institutions” (Crenshaw174). If the United States took into consideration this type of logic, they would be less susceptible to terrorist attacks. Mid-level leaders should be targeted, top leaders should be delegitimized rather than just arrested or killed, financial support of the group should be stopped, and a strong counterintelligence should be instituted. There are plenty of international intelligence agencies around the world but none share crucial information with each other, and if they worked together it would facilitate combating terrorism. “By relying on intricate networks and concentrating vital assets in small geographic clusters, advanced Western nations only amplify the destructive power of terrorists- and the psychological and financial damage they can inflict” (Homer-Dixon175).

Now these ideas can be implemented in three case studies, the first being Spain’s ETA. In 2005 after ETA had carried out over 1,600 attacks and killed over 800 people the Spanish Parliament was willing to restart talks with ETA but unfortunately ETA would not agree to disarmament before negotiations. Surprisingly the Spanish public was so outraged that the government would negotiate that 250,000 people went to demonstrate the decision. President Zapatero agreed to begin negotiations with ETA even without the support of Spain’s Popular Party. ETA announced a “permanent cease-fire” in 2006, which it later broke with a car bomb and then reestablished in 2010. ETA itself is affiliated with the Basque Nationalist Political Party, known as Herri Batasuna, which today condones ETA terrorist actions. Although ETA typically phones in a warning before an attack, the Spanish government must have felt the damage caused was too great to be ignored. This case is unusual because the government called for peace talks before the constituents called for it. ETA was unsuccessful in instilling fear in the public since ordinary citizens did not necessarily see themselves as targets and government officials were generally targeted.

Some historical context that the Spanish constituency should know is that ETA was founded in 1959 by a youth group that had split from Basque Nationalist party, and its “primary aims from the beginning have been Basque independence and recuperation of Basque culture and language.” The demands of ETA are the “right to self determination…assertion of territorial integrity…demand for institutional predominance of Euskera (language)… unconditional amnesty for all political prisoners…[and lastly] solidarity with working class”. ETA was founded during the authoritarian rule of Franco, but for some reason “after Franco’s death in 1975 ETA violence increased dramatically, particularly during the transition to democracy and the granting of regional autonomy to the three Basque provinces (Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya) in 1979-80” (Shabad 102). This increase of violence started with “ETA’s assassination of Franco’s heir apparent, Carrero Blanco, in 1973 [which] showed the regime to be vulnerable and contributed to the demise of authoritarian rule” (Shabad119). The constituents also want to know what the sources of ETA violence are. Yet, they must realize that the sources are multifaceted pertaining to socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts. They must understand that geographically, since the early 1960s France has been a refuge for ETA members.

But even with such background on the conflict at hand, the Spanish constituency did not support negotiations. “..Basques were also more likely in 1979 than were Spaniards as a whole to opt for negotiations as the preferred means of ending violence. Clearly, no consensus existed among Basques during the transition period over either the issue of autonomy or the question of political violence” (Shabad 121). This means that not all of the Basque population supported the use of terrorist tactics as a means of reaching the goal of Basque independence. Not all Basque even wanted independence, or autonomy for that matter. Evidently there has always been disagreement within the community.

Even when the Basque did attain autonomy in the 1978 Spanish Constitution the Basque public, like the Spaniards became more hostile towards ETA. “In March 1985 the Basque government for the first time explicitly and publicly condemned ETA. This was precipitated by the assassination of the chief of the Autonomous Basque Police (Ertzantza)” (Shabad 127). But regardless of the rise of ETA’s violence, the Spanish constituency was opposed to negotiating with the terrorist group because “…the multipronged strategy of the Socialist government in Madrid to combat ETA violence proved increasingly successful” (Shabad 128). Obviously, if other tactics successfully bring the demise of ETA, the public would much rather support those strategies than giving in to negotiating with terrorists. But the anomaly of rising terrorism with the rise of democracy is puzzling. Regimes like Franco’s authoritarian regime are “less inhibited by legal and normative constraints from countering the violence directed against” it while democratic regimes can “lay claims to legitimacy and loyalty” (Shabad 130).

In the case with the IRA in Northern Ireland “…some 3,600 people would die before a peace accord was signed in the late 1990s” (Gregory). The conflict today has died down in Northern Ireland as Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, is involved in the provincial Northern Irish government and “most British troops have left the province” (Gregory). The IRA opened talks with the government of British Prime Minister in the mid-1990s leading to the announcement of cease-fire in 1997 and finally to a peace pact called the Good Friday Accord. In 2001 the IRA started to disarm, although there was a brief disarmament in 2005. As of July 2005 the IRA declared that it has “ended its armed campaign to reunify Ireland” (Gregory). The terrorist’s goal is always to instill fear, and the IRA was more successful in this domain. Although events such as Bloody Friday did not take a huge death toll they instilled fear in a population that felt that it could be targeted at any time. Today there are still two splinter groups that practice terrorist tactics, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, however the IRA is no longer a threat.

The case of Hamas in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is different than that of ETA and the IRA because the Palestinians make up such a huge portion of the population. There are over a million and a half Palestinian Arabs in Israel, two and a half million in Gaza Strip/West Bank, not to mention that the Palestinian refugees make up the majority of the population of Jordan and a significant portion in Lebanon as well. As a result, the issue of Palestinian independence is something that Israeli Jews face every day, whereas the British and Spanish do not necessarily encounter Basque or Irish Catholics with grievances regularly. Although ETA and the IRA are both affiliated with political wings, Hamas itself is a political wing that does work in social welfare, which gains the organization a lot of support. Another difference is that ETA and the IRA are losing support today, Hamas is only becoming stronger as it is slowly taking over Fatah as the strongest political party. Even though the Palestinian Authority has rule over the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas really has control over the Gaza Strip. Lastly the methods used by ETA and the IRA were different since Hamas resorts to suicide terrorism. This means that they can kill more people than either ETA or the IRA. So since the establishment of the PLO in 1962 with Yasir Arafat, there have always been attempts at negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians but neither wanted to recognize the legitimacy of the other. In 1993 with the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians were recognized as a people with a right to autonomy and became the Palestinian Authority in West Bank and Gaza. Israelis still have settlements in Palestinian territories today, and the Arab-Israeli issue is still at large. So in this case, the issue is so pertinent to the daily lives of both Palestinians and Israelis who live in fear, and the death tolls were so high, that negotiation between the two has always been necessary. Unfortunately negotiations have been unsuccessful, unlike negotiations with ETA and the IRA.

In the case of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, most people do not realize how complicated the historical context of the conflict is. In simplified terms, the conflict started over who has right to the land. The Zionist movement emerged in the late 1800s as a movement for the establishment of a Jewish homeland since the Jews were being persecuted in Europe. The Jews had not been in Israel since biblical times, but they claim they have the right to the land. This region had been inhabited by Arabs ever since the Jews had left. And so in 1948 when the state of Israel was established as a Jewish homeland, the Palestinians no longer had their own land and there became a Palestinian refugee problem. First the PLO, Palestinian Liberation Organization, was established as a group whose goal was to reclaim Palestine. Under the PLO, the nationalist political party, Fatah, became powerful. Fatah has always been more open to negotiations in comparison to Hamas, and they have considered several options such as having a two state solution.

Hamas was established as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and was an Islamist focused group that was willing to use terrorist tactics to achieve independence. As part of the Hamas charter, it is explained that “the necessity to struggle against injustice is an obligation that Muslims cannot ignore…Ultimately, even the established authority’s right to conduct war comes from God. In an extreme situation, God assigns this right to ordinary Muslims” (Kelsay 164). This means that religion plays a huge role in legitimizing terrorist actions. Likewise “for Hamas, Muslim governments who cooperate with the West either do not understand the true intentions of the non-Muslim nations or are corrupt” (Kelsay 159). Since Hamas only needs the support of God to legitimize its actions “in their struggle to recover Islamic territory, then, organizations like Hamas cannot look to establish governments for authorization” (Kelsay 159). Understanding the role of religion is crucial to understanding the actions of Hamas and their rising support due to their seemingly unarguable legitimacy.

In conclusion, we must realize that terrorist activities need to be delegitimized in order for negotiations to take place, since terrorist acts are sometimes seen as legitimate in other nations. As a guide to combating terrorism, a government should refrain from negotiating with terrorists until all other strategies have failed and the constituency expresses fear. For the government to have the constituency’s support in negotiations the constituency must understand the context of the crisis and they must feel that the government has used every strategy in its capability to combat terrorism. The government should first negotiate with the support group of the terrorists in an effort to delegitimize the group, and if all else fails, they should negotiate directly with the terrorists. The government should give concessions in the form of autonomy to the political community, and should pursue ‘justice’ in negotiating. Lastly the government should better understand the logic of the terrorists and their mindset in order to better understand why they’re being targeted. In this way, negotiations can lead to a peaceful solution in the midst of a seemingly irremediable conflict.

Explore another perspective on negotiating with terrorists.

Abraham D. Sofaer, “Terrorism and the Law,” in The Terrorism Reader: 369-78

“Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA)”Updated: November 17, 2008http://www.cfr.org/publication/9271/

Council on Foreign Relations, “Provisional Irish Republican Army (U.K., separatists) http://www.cfr.org/publication/9240/

Goldie Shabad and Francisco Llera, “Political Violence in a Democratic State: Basque Separatism in Spain,”

John Kelsay, Islam and War Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993 pp. 77-110

Hoffman, Bruce, and Kim Cragin. “Fathom :: The Source for Online Learning.” Fathom. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. http://www.fathom.com/feature/190155/ .

Martha Crenshaw, “Why America? The Globalization of Civil War,” Current History, 100 (December 2001), pp. 425-32

Raphael Perl, “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism: Background and Issues for Congress” Congressional Research Service, November 1, 2007 http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RL34230.pdf

Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Rise of Complex Terrorism,” Foreign Policy 128 52-62

Ted Robert Gurr, “Terrorism in democracies: Its social and political bases,” in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism.

Image by The U.S. Army


  1. Interesting essay and great citations. Was this your final paper for my class, Insurgency and Terrorism?


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