Sure, Talk with ISIL. Just Choose the Right Topic

by Charles Mink

In his latest Washington Post column, Fareed Zakariah wrote a glowing review of Terrorists At The Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace – a treatise on the virtues of “talking things out” with the enemy, written by famed British negotiator Jonathan Powell. Zakariah distilled the book’s thesis down to the following: “Terrorism is a reflection of an underlying political problem that almost always needs to be addressed politically.” Zakariah went on to argue that the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a prime candidate for this tactic because it is the “fear and rage of disempowered Sunnis in Iraq and Syria” which empowers the group: a political grievance which warrants a political solution. Insofar as Sunni political discontent is “at the heart” of ISIL’s rise to power, to quote Zakariah verbatim, negotiation seems to hold a great deal of promise–especially in light of the coalition’s perceived inability to rout ISIL on the battlefield.

Powell certainly has the sort of resume to speak authoritatively on the subject. He served as Chief of Staff for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he has years of experience negotiating political solutions to armed conflict, namely through his mediation between the British government and the IRA in the 1990s. Powell is not so naïve as to discount the utility of military action altogether, but as he wrote last December, he believes that “success [against ISIL] depends on combining military force with offering a political way out.” By this account, the purpose of fighting ISIL should be to bring them to the table. And the goal of negotiations should be to offer ISIL’s leaders some political victory which they can, in turn, sell to their fighters and loyalists as representing a fulfillment of their stated aspirations.

To be sure, Powell’s thesis is noble; and his tranquil tone is exceedingly rare in current debates about how to deal with ISIL in the United States. But it is not clear his prescription is viable. In fact, his years of negotiating with the IRA in the 90’s may have left him blind to the deliberate incompatibility of today’s terrorist groups in relation to today’s political systems–particularly in the context of the Middle East, and especially with regards to ISIL.


The late Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden had, at various points in their “careers,” seemed open to some kind of settlement. Even ISIL’s deceased co-founder, Hajj Bakr, seemed to have had more narrow aspirations vis a vis Iraq which could have allowed for some kind of negotiated end to his campaign. However, ISIL’s “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, defines himself in large part through contrast with these. And he is much closer, ideologically, to AQI progenitor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This has important implications for any conceivable “talks” with al-Baghdadi or his successor.

While Powell may have found Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness receptive to a discussions of political reconciliation, al-Baghdadi is unlikely to follow suit: he does not want an extended hand from Shia politicians—he wants to eradicate Shia politicians, to systematically exterminate the constituents they serve, and to topple their foreign patrons and defenders.

Perhaps post-Baghdadi, and under sufficient internal and external pressure, ISIL’s leadership may be willing to consolidate its gains as a new and autonomous (rogue) state. However, beyond the terrible optics of this option, redrawing the map to accommodate ISIL would certainly provoke Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran to demand their own sovereign state. It’s difficult to know where or how this cycle would end, even if Iraq and Syria eventually grew desperate enough to entertain the notion at all. But this is the best that could be expected: ISIL is unlikely to ever negotiate away sovereignty of the former borderlands back to Iraq and Syria, respectively.

Moreover, it is not clear whether ISIL’s soldiers and sympathizers would be content with this outcome. In contrast with the Irish Republican Army, ISIL’s core constituency is not only indifferent to the virtues of representative democracy, they want to tear down and replace the entire system–and not just in Iraq and Syria, but throughout the Muslim world. Acceptance of a bounded state would be to accept, and be integrated into, the very international order their organization exists to overturn.


While it is perhaps tempting to think of ISIL members as “irrational” because of their apathy (or even antipathy) towards a narrow political solution, it would be far more productive to consider what actually does resonate with them instead:
I talked to hundreds of individuals who fought against the US-led Coalition on behalf of ISIL’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – from leaders to foot soldiers, locals to foreign fighters – and I have since dedicated my humble academic career to understanding the sociology of violent extremist groups like ISIL. I have come to believe that ISIL members are driven to join the group by any number of individual motivations, most of which remain unknowable; however, their forces are sustained by the actualization of some fundamentally social need associated with group membership.

The social factors at play in sustaining an ISIL member’s involvement could be divided into both positive and negative sub-categories – from “I finally found camaraderie” (positive) to “My colleagues wouldn’t let me go home” (negative), both of which encompassed the vast majority of accounts I heard from AQI fighters across the ranks. Nobody I met said they had stayed with AQI because they were holding out for some long-awaited political victory. The same is likely true for ISIL:
Recruits may join the Islamic State for religious, economic, or political reasons–but they stay because their newly-acquired comrades become more influential and important than anyone or anything else in their lives. A narrow “political solution” in Iraq and/or Syria would be comically irrelevant to these individuals.


Powell rightly says, “The solution [to terrorism] lies in the tools we already have in our hands – fighting and talking.” The danger lies in Powell’s insistence that our conversation with ISIL should be primarily about political concessions. If policymakers applied this thesis in today’s environment, the results would be disastrous. And Powell’s critics would surely use any failed conversation as evidence that “you just can’t talk sense to those people” – a tenor that has existed in hawkish Washington circles since the beginning of the War on Terror. By placing an otherwise healthy baby into dirty bath water, in other words, Powell would make it even easier for his critics to throw them both out.

However, we need not hinge the credibility of talking (as a tactic) on Powell’s conviction that terrorism is always, first and foremost, the result of political discontent. For instance, even if the climate does not support meaningful negotiations to end ISIL’s campaign, there is still great value in talking to its members wherever and whenever we can. Whether with detainees or defectors, leaders or soldiers, dialogue can produce tactical and strategic intelligence that our leaders sorely need. Talking to terrorists can reveal their motives for staying with the group, which in turn allows us to develop policy to stem recruitment and recidivism on a long-term basis. And having channels of communication can occasionally help with securing the release of hostages or arranging corridors of safe passage for aid or refugees, providing critical relief to vulnerable populations.

Ultimately, I believe deeper exchange will expose the relative unimportance of narrow political grievances with regards to ISIL: those drawn to the group are afflicted by more profound social crises than, for instance, inter-sect power-sharing in Iraq or Syria. Addressing these deeper problems will be a long-term project, requiring the establishment of indigenous social infrastructure that provides young people with a diverse array of non-violent groups to identify with, along with healthy civil societies through which they can pursue more constructive ends. Over the long-run, America’s priorities, policies, posture, and alliances in the region should be restructured to better support these, rather than being narrowly focused on containing ISIL’s operations and preserving the status quo.

In short, Powell is absolutely right with one side of his argument: There can be no purely military solution to terrorism. And although it is never enough in itself, talking (and listening) to terrorists is always a good idea: it allows us to exercise the patience and self-restraint needed to assess the threat accurately and respond to it proportionately. However, if we limit the topic of conversation to something unlikely to resonate with the terrorist rank and file – in this case, political concessions in Iraq and Syria – we are expediting a failed dialogue that could devalue the very act of talking.

Originally posted at SISMEC.