The Decision to Begin Talks with Terrorists: Lessons for Policymakers

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

July 1, 2006


The author contends that talks with Hezbollah are more likely to produce favorable outcomes than talks with Hamas, yet the chances of success with Hezbollah are still low. As such, the American Government is cautioned to approach these terrorist groups through the relatively low risk route of the declaration diplomacy method or through a third party communication. Reaching out through more direct methods is discouraged because it would lend too much legitimacy to the two groups. Overall, the author illustrates how the conditions for successful talks with terrorist groups are elusive. Most talks with terrorists are politically costly and usually end in failure, yet they are also often necessary for ending conflicts. The article begins with a discussion of how talks with terrorists may be initiated, such as through diplomatic declarations that offer the promise of talks subject to certain concessions or through the encouragement of media reports that convey their conditions for negotiations. The potential benefits of negotiating with terrorists are analyzed, such as their potential to end violence and change the opinion of constituents. The risks of engaging terrorists in negotiations are also reviewed and include the significant risk of failure, which could cause both political embarrassment and an escalation in terrorist violence. Before attempting to engage terrorist groups in talks, U.S. policymakers and analysts are encouraged to consider several key questions including considerations of what the United States can offer the terrorist group and whether the terrorist group has the potential to win outright. The author next considers negotiations with Hezbollah and Hamas, which are complicated by the fact that members of these terrorist organizations are also possibly members of the governments of Lebanon and Palestine. These terrorist organizations can no longer be shunned because they are too heavily involved in legitimate political systems.

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