top of page

Negotiating with the ‘Enemy’ - How Constructive Dialogue Procures Peace

N&A Articles Thumbnails (2).jpg


The demonization of armed non-state actors is common in public discourse, mainstream media, and Hollywood cinema. Popular representations of militants and insurgents as violent and irrational political actors line the front pages of newspapers and fill the screens of televisions. But not all insurgents resort to violence. Some insurgents employ constructive dialogue or political mobilization to pursue their objectives. This article examines the stance of sovereign nations like the United States or the United Kingdom to label political groups striving for self-determination with rhetorical labels such as ‘terrorist’ to rob them of any sense of legitimacy. It is argued that simplifying armed non-state actors solely as violent criminals impedes peace. The primary critique deconstructs conventional military force solutions by sovereign states that result in violence, jeopardize civilians’ lives, and more importantly, impede the possibilities for effective peaceful resolutions. It is also proposed that policymakers and sovereign states instead adopt a more pragmatic understanding of insurgents’ political desires while remaining prudent and vigilant. Such methods aim to build constructive dialogue between sovereign states and armed non-state actors to reduce or diminish the chances of violence.

The 'Enemy'

Thomas Hobbes once argued that the notion of the state is the sole authority to wage violence. States’ monopoly on violence remains vital in contemporary governance and society. Hobbes’ statement means that any person or group that is not the state, using violence, goes beyond the norms of the internal workings of the sovereign state. Thus, the use of violence by armed non-state actors is traditionally seen as illegitimate and a violation of societal order. However, insurgents often resort to violence because established state actors ignore or delegitimize their desires. (1) Contrary to popular belief, militants are not always crazed, blood-thirsty fanatics looking for violence. (2) Not only do they often belong to groups/populations who have been marginalized or isolated, these groups have legitimate political claims. (3) While the ethics of non-state actors’ use of violence is subject to constant debate, it is essential to recount their motivations that stem from deep societal dissatisfaction and unaddressed problems. 


Traditionally, terrorism is an act of intimidation through violence, targeting non-combatants to advance its politically motivated agenda. However, the word ‘terrorist’ is, first and foremost, a political designation subject to constant re-interpretation due to the lack of any fixed international agreement on the term. (4) As such, the term ‘militant’ or ‘insurgent’ is used here rather than the nebulous and vague assignation of the word ‘terrorist’ for insurgent groups who resort to violence to achieve political recognition.


Furthermore, a growing bias in state-friendly corporate media has amplified the stereotype of insurgents and militants. (5) Moreover, mainstream media and pop culture often depict insurgents as a common enemy and enforce politics of fear. (6) International terrorism has broadened the parameters of terror attacks, making it even harder to distinguish between insurgents and national adversaries. For example, European and American media are particularly prone to exploit the stereotypes of Arab and Muslim culture and incite perceptions of fear that ultimately degrade their value. (7) Western MSM has also reported far more on Muslim acts of terrorism than, for example, on white supremacists or right-wing terror incidents. Through normative international relations discourse and depictions through mediums of film, television, and video games, insurgents signify blood-thirsty fanatics with masks and conventional weapons. 


Video games like Counter-Strike or films such as The Hurt Locker reinforce the stigmatization of insurgents and militants as irrationally motivated political actors linked to international terrorism. Such mediums often create generic, faceless versions of insurgents that rob them of political identity. For example, Western video games construct images and representations of Arabs and Muslims, often as hostile terrorists. (8) Although video games are often descriptive of technical information and weaponry technology, they overlook the background and understanding of the nature of conflicts. (9) Popular media tends to reinforce the delegitimization of armed non-state actors by depicting them as irrational criminals. (10) In turn, perceiving armed non-state actors as irrational entities undermines the chances of negotiation and inclines more toward military intervention. Arguably, the policy of ‘non-negotiation’ with militants by recognized state actors like the United States or the United Kingdom has not achieved favorable results. Since 9/11 – Islamic extremism, for example, has not disappeared but instead spread through the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In such cases, there is a significant limitation regarding the efficacy of the ‘non-negotiation’ policy against insurgents.

Stance of 'No-negotiation'

The United States and the United Kingdom are prime examples of the standard policy of sovereign states in refusing to negotiate with militants to avoid giving them legitimacy. They believe dialogue  adds a false sense of legitimacy to insurgents, and it simply increases their chances of strengthening their militia through funding as well as encouraging them to continue illegal actions such as taking hostages. (11) Negotiating with insurgents would weaken the international order and undermine traditional notions of sovereignty. (12) Likewise, countries like Italy and Colombia have banned ransom negotiations, for example, to discourage insurgents or bandits from committing criminal conduct. Similar to the non-negotiation policy, the prohibition of ransom deals attempts to prevent funding non-state actors like insurgents and bandits.  

Consequences of Undermining Dialogue

Yet adopting an aggressive ‘no-negotiation’/zero tolerance stance, banning ransom deals, or simply having weak negotiation skills could backfire when dealing with insurgents, ultimately provoking violence. For example, in 2014, the Islamic State captured an American journalist, James Foley. The United States government refused to negotiate with the insurgents. The Islamic State demanded an end to U.S. airstrikes and for ransom in exchange for Foley’s life. In a private note from Foley’s family, he had believed strongly that the United States would rescue him. (13) Foley’s last words from his execution video expressed disappointment in being an American. Whether Foley did say such a thing under his will or not, it nonetheless brings an uncomfortable truth of the flaws made by America’s policy makers failing to rescue him. The Obama administration even threatened to prosecute Foley’s parents for private fund-raising attempts to pay the Islamic State’s ransom demands. (14)


On the other hand, the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002 demonstrated inefficient use of negotiations against armed non-state actors. Chechen militants initiated the three-day hostage crisis, holding over 800 hostages at Moscow’s famed Dubrovka theatre and demanding the Russian Federation withdraw its troops from Chechnya and end the second Chechen war. The negotiations between Russian authorities and the Chechen insurgents were ineffective. (15)

Instead, the Russian Federation used excessive force to handle the crisis. Eventually, the Russian state killed around 120 hostages at the theatre due to their mishandled use of toxic gas. (16) No doubt, the Russian special forces could have rescued many hostages at the theatre. (17) However, it is crucial to be critical of the Russian government’s preparedness for such a situation and the controversial methods of the rescue operation at the end.


Similarly, the 1993 Waco siege by the US federal government and Texas state law enforcement officials on the Branch Davidian compound resulted in many deaths and casualties of law enforcement and cult members. The Waco siege incident started at the Mount Carmel Centre, where the Branch Davidians, an unconventional religious group, resided near Waco, Texas. The ATF issued a search warrant claiming the religious group was in possession of illegal firearms. The investigation led to a stand-off between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. The initial raid by the ATF failed. Soon after, the FBI also intervened and became concerned about the limitations of negotiations with the cult group. After 51 days of a stand-off, Attorney General Janet Reno, who served under President Bill Clinton, allowed the FBI to raid Mount Carmel Centre. The FBI’s final assault included many differing methods, including the overuse of tear gas. About an hour later, a turbulent fire broke out in the building, killing over 76 people, including women and children, and the cult leader, David Koresh - a self-proclaimed prophet. (18) Though the debate is still ongoing regarding who started the fire, federal law enforcement received scrutiny of their actions by the public concerning the siege. 


Interestingly, the controversial methods used by federal law enforcement would impact the motivations of decorated Gulf War hero Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh committed the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, on the second anniversary of the Waco Siege. (19) McVeigh was a staunch critic of the federal government, accusing them of tyranny and his hatred grew over time. (20) Not only was he radicalized by the events at Waco, but he was personally at the incident supporting the Branch Davidians. He had come to Waco and sold bumper stickers with slogans attributing to pro-gun and anti-government slogans. 


The Waco Siege and Ruby Ridge incident significantly influenced McVeigh’s fundamental worldview: that his government would infringe on his individual freedom and right to possession of firearms. In one of his essays during his imprisonment after the bombing, he would also argue that the Oklahoma City bombing was morally equivalent to his government’s foreign interventions in striking official government buildings, like in Serbia or Iraq, and that they were hypocritical to justify their conduct of violence. He feared his government’s abuse of power and threats to individual liberty were not fundamental to the constitutions of America. McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building was a message of resistance to disavow a country where he believed federal actions became more militaristic and violent, leading to a totalitarian regime. In hindsight, the Waco Siege raised critical issues regarding how federal law enforcement handles problems with armed non-state actors. It also tells us that such events could further radicalize individuals in society, such as the case with McVeigh.  


Another illustration is the kidnapping of Italian entrepreneur Giuseppe Soffiantini in 1997 by Sardinian bandits, which revealed the flaw in Italy’s law concerning ransom negotiations. The strict prohibition against paying Souffiantini’s ransom left the businessman’s family powerless to his rescue. For eight months in captivity, Giuseppe endured having his ears severed and going without medical assistance for his severe heart condition. An attempted police rescue mission ended with the killing of an undercover agent. The futile police searches and frustrating communication process with the bandits due to the ironically slow Italian postal system showed no hope for Giuseppe’s release. Italy had to finally acknowledge its failure in managing the hostage situation, leading to a plea to the Italian magistrate to unfreeze Soffiantini’s family assets and pay the ransom. (21) Fortunately, Giuseppe was released, but it reminds us of the vulnerabilities of Italy’s legal framework. The mishandling of the hostage situation inadvertently incentivized Sardinian bandits to prolong the captivity of their victims, expecting to receive ransom payments in the end. (22)


Still another example is the hostage-taking of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and an aspiring mercenary named Haruna Yukawa by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In response to the Japanese government’s aid to countries fighting the militants, the Islamic extremist group demanded a ransom of 200 million dollars for the two men. When the Japanese authorities refused, the militants made a counter proposal for a prisoner exchange between the captured Jordan pilot and the female Sajida al-Rishawi, a prisoner held on charges of terrorism, in exchange for Goto’s freedom. (23) However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to meet the demands of the armed non-state actors. (24) Unfortunately, Abe’s hardline stance resulted in the beheading of both Goto and Yukawa. 

Negotiating with the 'Enemy'

History teaches us that there have been productive dialogues with non-state actors and non-violent outcomes when states have engaged in dialogues with insurgents. Inclusive methods like negotiations enable insurgents to engage in a democratic political process. A good example is the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and other paramilitary groups involved in the Northern Ireland conflicts who were able to de-escalate their campaign of violence against the British. During the Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that lasted from 1960 to 1998, Northern Ireland existed in a state of perpetual warfare. 


Yet violent paramilitary groups like the PIRA’s actions began to diminish after a pivotal turning point in 1997 when the British and Irish governments advanced towards the Good Friday Agreement. Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) made significant contributions following the Belfast Agreement in reconciling peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast Agreement paved the way for political reconciliation and decommissioned numerous paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, including the UVF and PIRA. The Good Friday Agreement was an important event that improved the coexistence between Irish and British authorities. Essentially, the agreement helped end The Troubles, a three-decade-long conflict in Northern Ireland. However, some critics are skeptical about the deal, arguing that more work needs to be done to reach sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. [25] But it was undeniably a step forward in procuring peace in Northern Ireland. [26] While violence still occasionally erupts in Ireland, for example, with the New IRA, the Good Friday Agreement reminds us that building peace negotiations between sovereign states and armed non-state actors can lead to bettered possibilities of mutual coexistence. (27) The Good Friday Agreement also exemplifies a more practical approach to diplomacy that fosters communication in resolving regional conflicts like those in Northern Ireland. 


In addition, insurgent groups like Hamas reduced their political violence when they participated in legislative elections in 2006 after Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005. Hamas emerged in 1987 as a militant organization resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. They were initially known as radical armed non-state actors. Hamas began with an aggressive armed struggle against Israel. However, by 2006, winning most of the votes from the legislative election signaled a transition of Hamas from a militant organization to an official governing authority with significant power over Palestinian territories. Some believed Hamas could bring Palestinian democratization, yet much of its efforts were undermined by an EU-backed international boycott of the government. (28)


Importantly, Hamas finally emerged as a legitimate socio-political movement to provide a more humane approach to analyzing the group. The Social Movement Theory (SMT) helps to highlight Hamas’ ability to adapt its rational political conduct to changing circumstances. (29) For instance, the numerous ceasefire agreements, such as Hudna (30) and the proposition of a two-state solution in 2017 (31), emphasize that violence is not the sole ideological motivation of Hamas. Their main objective is to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation and to establish their political state. SMT helps avoid dehumanizing groups like Hamas by offering a comprehensive study of marginalized political movements. Hamas has shown they can have a versatile and pragmatic approach to Israel. (32) Considering that they have demonstrated their potential in constructive dialogue offers a greater possibility of a peaceful compromise between Palestine and Israel. (33)


One might argue that the recent clash between Hamas and Israel, since October 7 this year, can signify the stagnant Palestinian political process. Hamas must reflect on their error involving countless innocent civilian lives in Gaza. With thousands of Palestinian casualties and fatalities, Hamas’ aspiration for liberation and success appears to have become reduced to a tragic state. However, it is crucial to remember that Hamas’ motivation for their attack this year resulted from decades of neglect Palestinians have endured in pursuing political legitimacy. It is safe to say that such negligence contributed immensely to the ongoing conflict. 


On the other hand, Israel’s hardline counter-offensive in response to the recent attack by Hamas has reinforced the complex nature of developing meaningful negotiations. This problematic case illuminates the challenging nature of resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Perhaps for reconciliation to occur, addressing the needs and issues of both sides and taking action to find a state of compromise hints at a bettered possibility for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 


Finally, the Philippine government’s effort to establish laws like the so-called Organic Law that granted more autonomy to Muslims has helped disarm insurgents like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2018. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) sought to establish an independent Muslim nation in the southern Philippines. In the Philippines, a predominantly Christian nation in Asia, conflict arose with Muslims due to the problematic state-creation process affected by postcolonial tensions. (34) One of the significant contributors who fought for independence in the southern Philippines was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. They demanded an autonomous region for the Moro people in Mindanao, claiming they had ancestral roots. (35) The Moro Conflict began during the ’60s and claimed a significant amount of lives in five decades. However, the people of Mindanao had endured even before this conflict. Their suffering spans from Spanish colonial rule in the 17th century to the US occupation in 1898 and eventually integrating into the Republic of the Philippines. 


However, the years-long dialogue between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has lasting effects toward conflict resolution. Inter-religious dialogues have positively impacted social cohesion and transparency in the Moro Conflict. (36) Ethno-religious tensions benefit from inter-religious dialogue because it helps communicate and create harmony and cooperation. As a positive outcome, the dialogues helped soldiers be decommissioned, which allowed them to reintegrate into civilian life. (37) Three decades after the creation of MILF, in 2014, Mindanao achieved significant peace through the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. (38)

By 2018, the Philippine government passed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, fortifying Muslim autonomy. The Organic Law also helped to disarm many of their fighters. (39) A harmonious alliance was established with the Philippine government, creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region and a remarkable advance in conflict resolution. Despite ongoing challenges from other rebel groups and extremist factions, Mindanao has not entirely eradicated violence. However, the example of the efforts of the MILF over the years accentuates the enduring and compelling nature of dialogue between insurgents and sovereign states.


In reality, most governments negotiate with armed non-state actors, just not officially. However, the logic of ‘no negotiation’ that imbues military means in resolving conflict still accounts for criticisms. This article primarily sought to emphasize that negotiations are possible and should be in the interest of standard practice for policymakers and sovereign states instead of methods employing violence. Reprimanding military logic and instead pursuing constructive dialogues allows sovereign states and their policymakers to minimize harm and aim for strategically peaceful conflict resolution. Suppose insurgents or armed non-state actors would consider playing by democratic principles; in that case, they are both valid and vital parts of participatory politics. (40) Rather than declare a ‘War On Terror’ like the Bush administration, a policy that resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and the marginalization of Muslim people worldwide, dialogue persists as a step towards the foundation of reconciliation. Not all insurgents are irrational, which is a positive factor since it promises constructive dialogue and influence. (41) Rather than fixating on insurgents’ ideology, state negotiators should engage actively and try their best to avoid instances of violence committed by insurgents. 


Countries refusing to negotiate with insurgents potentially imbue more violence. Instead of saving lives, non-negotiation threatens the loss of innocent lives like Foley, the Moscow theatre hostages, and members of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. Moreover, state-force solutions such as these could potentially foment greater anti-government sentiment, radicalize more people, and add to insecurity concerns at home and abroad. Likewise, the prohibition of open and transparent ransom negotiation deals also brings risks, putting captured hostages in danger. Rather than encourage resentment and fuel violence through ineffective negotiations, sovereign states and policymakers should prioritize dialogue and expedite diplomacy with insurgents or armed non-state actors.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

[1] Ukiwo, Ukoha. "From “pirates” to “militants”: A historical perspective on anti-state and anti-oil company mobilization among the Ijaw of Warri, Western Niger Delta." African Affairs 106, no. 425 (2007): 587-610.

[2] Atran, Scott. Talking to the enemy: Violent extremism, sacred values, and what it means to be human. Penguin UK, 2010.

[3] Atran, Scott. "Psychology of transnational terrorism and extreme political conflict." Annual review of psychology 72 (2021): 471-501.

[4] Karmon, Ely. Coalitions between terrorist organizations: Revolutionaries, nationalists and Islamists. Brill, 2005.

[5] Altheide, David L. "The mass media and terrorism." Discourse & Communication 1, no. 3 (2007): 287-308.

[6] Altheide, David L. "Terrorism and the Politics of Fear." Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies 6, no. 4 (2006): 415-439.

[7] Šisler, Vít. "Digital Arabs: Representation in video games." European Journal of Cultural Studies 11, no. 2 (2008): 203-220.

[8] Ibid., 208. 

[9] Ibid., 209-210.

[10] Erjavec, Karmen, and Zala Volčič. "‘War on terrorism’as a discursive battleground: Serbian recontextualization of GW Bush's discourse." Discourse & Society 18, no. 2 (2007): 123-137.

[11] OBE, Rachel Briggs, and Jon Wallace. “‘We Do Not Negotiate with Terrorists’ – but Why? - Chatham House.” CHATHAM HOUSE, January 13, 2022. 

[12] Toros, Harmonie. "We don't negotiate with terrorists!': Legitimacy and complexity in terrorist conflicts." Security Dialogue 39, no. 4 (2008): 407-426.

[13] Rohde, David. “How the US and Europe Failed James Foley.” Quartz, August 20, 2014.

[14] “‘So Little Compassion’: James Foley’s Parents Say Officials Threatened Family Over Ransom.” ABC News, September 13, 2014. 

[15] Abdullaev, Nabi. “Tough Lessons for Putin in Hostage Showdown.” News Article – Center for Security Studies | ETH Zurich, n.d.

[16] Coupland, Robin M. "Incapacitating chemical weapons: a year after the Moscow theatre siege." The Lancet 362, no. 9393 (2003): 1346.

[17] Walsh, Nick Paton. “Siege Rescue Carnage as Gas Kills Hostages.” The Guardian, October 27, 2002.

[18] Clifton, Jonathan. "A membership categorization analysis of the Waco Siege: Perpetrator-victim identity as a moral discrepancy device for ‘doing’subversion." Sociological Research Online 14, no. 5 (2009): 38-48.

[19] Barkun, Michael. "Appropriated martyrs: The Branch Davidians and the radical right." Terrorism and Political Violence 19, no. 1 (2007): 117-124.

[20] “Oklahoma City Bombing.” FBI, May 18, 2016.’s%20hatred%20of%20the,handed%20out%20anti%2Dgovernment%20literature

[21] Bohlen, Celestine. “Italian Ban on Paying Kidnappers Stirs Anger.” The New York Times, February 1, 1998.

[22] Gumbel, Andrew. “Kidnap Makes an Ass of Italy’s Ransom Law.” The Independent, February 12, 1998. 

[23] “Japan Outraged at Is ‘beheading’ of Hostage Kenji Goto.” BBC News, February 1, 2015. 

[24] Saito, Mari. “Islamic State Deadline on Japanese Captives Passes with No Word on Fate.” Reuters, January 23, 2015.

[25] Hall, Amanda Lynn. "Incomplete peace and social stagnation: Shortcomings of the Good Friday agreement." Open Library of Humanities (2018). 

[26] Tannam, Etain. "Explaining the Good Friday agreement: A learning process." Government and Opposition 36, no. 4 (2001): 493-518.

[27] Beggan, Dominic, and Rathnam Indurthy. "Explaining why the Good Friday Accord is likely to bring a lasting peace in Northern Ireland." Peace & Change 27, no. 3 (2002): 331-356. 

[28] Hovdenak, Are. "Hamas in transition: the failure of sanctions." In The European Union's Democratization Agenda in the Mediterranean, pp. 59-80. Routledge, 2013. 

[29] Wagemakers, Joas. "Legitimizing Pragmatism: Hamas' Framing Efforts From Militancy to Moderation and Back?." Terrorism and Political Violence 22, no. 3 (2010): 357-377.

[30] Tamimi, Azzam. “Hamas Has Only the Hudna to Offer to Lift the Siege.” Middle East Eye, August 30, 2018.

[31] Al Jazeera. “Hamas Accepts Palestinian State with 1967 Borders.” Hamas News | Al Jazeera, May 2, 2017.

[32] Gunning, Jeroen. "Hamas in Politics: Democracy." Religion, Violence (2007): 144-145.

[33] Bhasin, Tavishi, and Maia Carter Hallward. "Hamas as a political party: democratization in the Palestinian territories." In Violence, Elections, and Party Politics, pp. 75-93. Routledge, 2016.

[34] Franco, J. (2016). The Philippines: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front–A Pragmatic Power Structure?. Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, Center for Complex Operations.

[35] Özerdem, Alpaslan, Sukanya Podder, and Eddie L. Quitoriano. "Identity, ideology and child soldiering: Community and youth participation in civil conflict–A study on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, Philippines." Civil Wars 12, no. 3 (2010): 304-325.

[36] Yunyasit, Suphatmet, and Pablito Baybado. "Interreligious Dialogue in Thailand and the Philippines: Overview, Trends and Trajectories." Journal of Human Rights and Peace Studies 8, no. 1 (2022): 54-85.

[37] Aben, Ellie. “Southern Philippines Peace in Progress as Thousands of Combatants Turn in Arms.” Arab News, August 3, 2023.

[38] Herbolzheimer, Kristian. "The peace process in Mindanao, the Philippines: evolution and lessons learned." The International Relations and Security Network 17 (2015). 

[39] Trajano, Julius Cesar. "Bottom-up peacebuilding: Role of grassroots and local actors in the Mindanao peace process." Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 8, no. 2 (2020): 357-372.

[40] Neumann, Peter R. "Negotiating with terrorists." Foreign Aff. 86 (2007): 128. 

[41] Dolnik, Adam, and Keith M. Fitzgerald. "Negotiating hostage crises with the new terrorists." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 4 (2011): 267-294.

bottom of page