Why Governments Should Negotiate With Terrorists

A new study finds policies that improve quality of life lead to fewer terror attacks.

Anti-Guantanamo Bay protesters don prison garb outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 5, 2007.
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Ronald Reagan may have famously once said "there will be no negotiations with terrorists of any kind," but a new study finds that counterterrorism policies that respond to a group's more legitimate demands are more successful than punishing measures.

Researchers from the University of Denver and the University of Maryland studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between 1987 and 2004 and found that Israeli humanitarian policies that raised the standard of living in Palestine resulted in fewer terrorist attacks from groups, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, in the ensuing months than offensive measures such as bulldozing suspected terrorists' homes and establishing curfews.

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That doesn't mean convicted terrorists should be released from captivity. The study found that policies that were lenient on individual terrorists didn't make Israel any safer, but policies that appeased entire groups of people did.

"Negotiating with individual terrorists isn't the most productive way of reducing attacks, but you need to look at the overall populations the groups are claiming to represent and accommodate their reasonable grievances," says Erica Chenoweth, co-author of the study. "It looks like any type of action meant to improve the quality of life in Palestinian territories led to fewer attacks in the ensuing months."

Chenoweth says that regardless of how some are quick to paint terrorists as lawless madmen, previous research has shown most are considered "rational actors" with a specific set of goals and political beliefs.

"A lot of research has tried to dispel the idea that terrorists are mentally defective or have an unpredictable value system," she says. "They're generally trying to achieve a specific political aim … they're using a terribly flawed method to achieve that aim, but they've come to the calculation that using terrorism is the best way to pursue their political goals."

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By incentivizing peace rather than punishing violence, Chenoweth believes terror attacks can be reduced. Punitive attacks simply reinforce the status quo many terror groups are fighting against and can hammer home the fact that their circumstances won't improve without drastic action, she says.

"What we're arguing is that we should be rewarding people for not using terrorism," she says. "If they are living in a situation they find intolerable, punishment towards them won't dissuade them."

The big question, Chenoweth says, is whether the United States' "War on Terror" is making America any safer. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a logical place to research because of the frequency of terrorist attacks in the area and familiarity with the groups involved. She says the relationship of conciliatory measures to decreases in attacks held up in subsequent studies in Turkey, Lebanon, Algeria, and Egypt, leading her to believe the results would hold in the American War on Terror.

The U.S. effort of drone strikes, prolonged incarceration, and outright war in Afghanistan and Iraq likely isn't helping, she says.

In Afghanistan, "the reason the violence continues is because there's a large contingent of Taliban troops and other insurgencies whose main goal is to get rid of foreign troops, and there's at least some level of local support for that," she says.

Because of the results of her Israel study, Chenoweth believes that as coalition forces exit Afghanistan, the United States isn't going to put itself at great risk.

"A troop drawdown might actually satisfy some of their grievances and shouldn't produce retaliation towards the United States," she says.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.

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