Why Jonathan Powell thinks we'll have to negotiate with al-Qa’eda

A review of Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, by Jonathan Powell. He makes much of Blair’s success in Northern Ireland – but not all disputes are so soluble

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts Jonathan Powell

The Bodley Head, pp.407, £20, ISBN: 9781847922298

Jonathan Powell is best known as Tony Blair’s fixer. He was intimately involved with the Northern Ireland peace process, about which he has written authoritatively, and since leaving office has set up his own NGO which advises on negotiations with terrorists worldwide. This book, subtitled ‘How to End Armed Conflicts’, is offered as a guide to negotiators.

They should find it very useful, packed with quotes and anecdotes from negotiations with, amongst others, the Tamils, ETA, the IRA, the ANC, Columbia’s FARC and, of course, that hardiest of all perennials, Israel-Palestine. It is liberally sprinkled with good advice and wise observations — that terrorist groups often start with unrealisable demands but change their aims over time, that in negotiations process begets progress and, most fundamentally, that if a political issue lies at the root of the conflict, and if the armed group enjoys significant political support, then there will in the end have to be a political solution and that will involve talking.

Powell stresses the need to take risks in starting negotiations (well illustrated by his own early contacts with the IRA), the importance of the personal in establishing trust, how the hardest negotiations are often with your own side, and the need to establish, face to face, absolute dependability — never promising what you can’t deliver. He quotes that supreme negotiator Henry Kissinger on denying your negotiating team any knowledge of a formulated Plan B in the event of failure, since if they know it they will nearly always tack in that direction from the start.

All this is good, but it is underpinned by some wobbly assumptions. Predominantly, Powell asserts that we (governments) always end up talking to terrorists, no matter how often we say we won’t. Up to a point: it’s been calculated that only about a fifth of terrorist groups negotiate strategically with governments and, when they do, it generally benefits the government. Powell makes much of the fact that British governments talked intermittently to the IRA over many years while denying that they did so. But he doesn’t sufficiently allow for the fact that in disputes over sovereignty or territory there is always something to talk about.

These are the — relatively — easy cases which he probably has in mind when he asserts that there is no such thing as an insoluble conflict. However, if a group is motivated by religious, class or caste hatred, or a simple desire for conquest, there’s really nothing to talk about. Which demands of the Red Brigades in Italy or the Bader Meinhoff group in Germany could conceivably have been met in negotiation?

Powell believes that al-Qa’eda is a group we shall eventually have to negotiate with (his book was written before the advent of the so-called Islamic State), treating it almost as a rival state with claims on us. But it doesn’t exist in that sense at all. It is more an insurrectionist social movement whose stated aims have varied over time and which survives only in ungoverned spaces as a rallying point for the gullible and embittered in search of an identity and cause; there’s nothing to negotiate about.

Nor are territorial disputes always soluble. Given the attitudes of their respective populations and of peoples around them, it is hard to see how the Israel-Palestine problem can be solved in our lifetime. It can be contained, perhaps, but not resolved until the conditions that gave rise to it have themselves changed or become irrelevant.

Powell stresses that factors other than negotiation incline groups to make peace, but — understandably, perhaps — doesn’t always give them sufficient weight. Negotiations with the IRA wouldn’t have worked had the IRA not suffered dwindling political support, internal decay, problems of generational transfer, penetration by MI5 and increasing security pressure north and south of the border. Its cause was crumbling and its campaign had lost momentum; in the eyes of Powell’s political opponents, negotiations rescued it and gave it a political role it would never have achieved.

It is hard, too, to accept Powell’s contention that there is no moral or tactical difference between negotiating with a group that kills one or a group that kills thousands. Negotiations matter, of course, but they’re not always the answer and not always necessary — most terrorist groups collapse in less than a decade, without negotiations and without achieving their aims. It should also be acknowledged that ruthless and determined states generally win — witness the Russian suppression of Chechyna.

All that said, it’s hard to argue with Powell’s contention that terrorism is here to stay: developments in explosives and weaponry, improvements in travel and communication have greatly empowered the individual and armed the disaffected. His book is a useful compendium for anyone involved in the subject but it’s perhaps best read in conjunction with Audrey Cronin’s more analytical and deeply researched How Terrorism Ends, a book Powell draws on without addressing its challenge to some of his assumptions.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Andrew Smith

    The best time to start talking to terrorists is when just after you have thumped them very hard several times. That’s the lesson to learn from Northern Ireland.

    • Terry Field

      I seem to recall that Bishopsgate was where they thumped ‘us’ very hard.

      • Andrew Smith

        Yes, you are right. There was much death, waste and suffering on both sides. It was all very bad. But I seem to remember that a concerted campaign by the British Army in Northern Ireland forced the IRA to see that they couldn’t win. Their campaign on mainland UK was a sign of desperation and when that didn’t work, they decided to negotiate. And now we have a wary peace.

        • Mike

          I think it was a combination of they couldn’t win but also both Protestatnts and Catholics had enough of it as well.

        • Roger Hudson

          The British Army was only one part of the anti-terrorist fight, the most effective parts weren’t uniformed soldiers. Using spearhead infantry troops like the Paras was the really stupid tactic.

          • Andrew Smith

            The role of the 14 intellegence is well known – do you mean them or are you referring to something else? I still don’t know to this day why anyone thought the paras would be suited to NI. You are quite right.

    • Bonkim

      Not that they will stay down long – as soon as strength return the dance will continue. The only solution is extermination to the last evil.

  • Mike

    Whilst it was possible to negotiate with the IRA you can forget it with any group that is inspired by Islam.

    Lets get real here, the IRA wasn’t driven by religious inspired hat, they were driven by greed, control and in the very early days by a real injustice against a Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. It took some time but once those injustices were removed, the hearts and minds of the majority of Catholics became disenchanted with the terror elements and a negotiated peace however distasteful it seemed at the time was achievable.

    Lets consider the sectarian genocide in the Middle east, the majority of terrorist actions around the globe and the hate propaganda we hear from certain Muslims on a daily basis.

    Islam was founded by a pedophile control freak 1400 years ago and used all manner of brutal methods to maintain allegiance to his cause. The scriptures then and still today have no empathy towards human beings and are littered with dire consequences if you stray from its strictures. Now its true that the old testament has some pretty unpleasant elements in it BUT (a) In Judaism these have been discarded in todays world and (b) In Christianity the new testament removes all of those unpleasant elements to make it a religion of peace. I’m not suggesting this has always worked as 500 years ago the Catholics and Protestants were at each others throats for quite some while BUT once secularism came to the fore, religion was controlled and emasculated as far as controlling peoples lives.

    Islam today is Islam 1400 years ago and it hasn’t changed one iota. The on going genocide between Sunni and Shite is just one example and ISIS, ISIL or whatever they are being called today, are nothing but a bunch of savage mental retards recruited by elements inside of Islam to control the masses by force.

    Quite why Jonathan Powell comes to believe that you can talk to these Islamic psychos beggars belief as they are seriously retarded and do not want to negotiate. The west cannot discuss rationally with these sorts of people as they hold no values of human life when they will behead even aid workers as has happened today.

    The examples of mass genocide, the extermination of other religious groups, the subjugation of women, stoning and beheading in the middle east should demonstrate exactly where these animals are coming from. But you only have to look at the UK & Sweden to see the barbaric customs being enacted right in front of us to judge that negotiation isn’t possible. Malmo in Sweden is the rape capital of Europe thanks to Islam, and we’re very familiar about the UK being the capital for grooming underage girls for gang rape inspired by Islam.

    Islam is a religion, a culture and a governance and you can’t separate out those elements as we have done in the west. As a consequence, Islam is preached to infants at a very early time in their development and all the unsavory & immoral practices we have banished in the west like ‘owning’ women or killing gay people are embedded in their thinking for 5 years and upwards. Labour tried social engineering and partially succeeded, Islam succeeds in its brain washing to a level Labour could only dream of.

    The end product in the UK is mentally disturbed young men disillusioned with life, being promised the earth by their religion who treat their own females like chattels, non Muslim girls as easy meat and some of them going off to be a Jihadist having been promised riches like some timeshare salesmen would sell to us. As for the middle east, there is no law and order and Islam due to its rigid strictures has created a multitude of factions all out for control. A bit like the IRA and the Real IRA but much, much worse.

    All I would say to Jonathan Powell is you can NOT negotiate with these animals and the only solution for the west is to leave them to kill each other whilst cracking down hard on our own Islamic nut jobs who refuse to behave in a civilized manner. Trouble is, whilst LibLabCon are in charge, nothing will change.

    • Andrew Smith

      Just as the crusades was not only about religion, many of the Islamic terrorist movements are not exclusively religious movements. IS would never have got off the ground if it weren’t for all the disaffected Ba’athists. Similarly the Taliban rely on a lot of villagers in Afghanistan who are not really in it for the fundamentalism.

      • Mike

        Most crusades, wars or conflicts are usually about controlling the masses through one of many excuses given at the time.

        WWII was about this and expanding territory previously lost was one reason used by both Germany & Japan to control more and more people for economic exploitation. A similar case of control was the Falklands war, where Argentina needed a distraction (and still does) due to failed internal politics and it was thought that it would take the peoples mind off the parlous state of the country by promoting nationalism to fight for those islands.

        Occasionally it might be about access to food and water supplies but it still comes back to controlling the masses and giving a reason for waging war. The Christian crusades were about pushing back Islamification of areas that had been conquered by Muslims in their quest to have a global caliphate, and control of a geographic area was the key.

        As for the middle east, it most definitely is still about control as Islam was and is founded on the control of the masses far more so than any other culture. The reason that many people look at Islam as the cause of war and atrocities at this point in our history, is that the Islam (the religion) is at the top of the tree with Islamic culture and Islamic control (or governance) beneath it.

        Whilst Argentina used the Falklands as an excuse for control (or war) , Muslim groups who want control such as ISIS/ISIL use religion as their justification for barbaric behaviour. However, the big difference between Islamic control and other forms of control is Islam can legitimize theirs (in their view) because it based on their faith and is very clearly spelled out in the Koran & Hadith.

        Land, water, food supplies or any tangible objective you can negotiate on, but how do you negotiate over religious beliefs by zealots that have been indoctrinated into these people from infants.

        Jonathan Powell is extremely naive if he believes negotiation is possible against religious terrorists and equally Cameron & May are in denial that Islam promotes evil by still sticking to this absurd line that it is the religion of peace. Does that statement mean they think all others religions are not religions of peace ?

    • Wee Scitter

      “the very early days” of IRA terrorism were before any Northern Ireland government even existed. Any “injustice” was self-inflicted, and not delt severely enough.

  • lookout

    The people who you negotiate with have first got to recognize your right to life and liberty, after reading a report on Walid of the brutality of the Muslim terrorist groups operating in syria I don’t think there is any chance of them agreeing terms.

  • Mike

    Trying to negotiate with Islamic terror groups is no different to that game “Whack a Mole”, no sooner have you dealt with one of them another one pops up elsewhere. In fact its no different in the UK when banning one Islamic extremist group, they disband and reform elsewhere under a different name.

    The only way to permanently deal with it is to use extreme prejudice and forget about any negotiation.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Agree. People who believe it is divinely ordained for them to kill unbelievers and that if they themselves die in the process they will go to Paradise are too far off the wall to be reasoned with. Kill them all if they threaten us directly.

  • cartimandua

    The latest bit of gossip is that ISIS with Russian help planned to pinch Iranian nuclear “stuff” and arm themselves. In the same document they laid out their plans for genocides and ethnic cleansing.

    • Kennie

      That is rubbish. The Russians are good friends with the Iranians. The Russians knew about IS in Syria which is why they helped stop the US and UK from arming them to fight Assad.

      • cartimandua

        It was in some IS papers. As I said Russia has often thought it could buy off the crocodile. On the radio this AM a reporter talking to Peshmerga about how a lot of the dead bodies they passed were Chechen.

  • cartimandua

    The whole Muslim kick off is about Muslim overpopulation and youth unemployment.
    We need to dump multiculti here and pull up the drawbridge in every possible way.

    • Bonkim

      the earth is overpopulated – not just Muslims – many fleeing African countries are not Muslims – many Christians and other religions.

      • waiting to inhale

        yes but only muslims display such a great love for starting wars and killing

        • Bonkim

          They must have adopted Darwin – survival of the fittest I suppose.

          • waiting to inhale

            yes, as we can see they are such an evolved species…
            wiping their ar$es with their bare hands, cutting off human heads and giving them to an 8-year old to hold while snapping away – such enlightenment ..

          • Bonkim

            Don’t wait too long to inhale – you may die.

            Meaningless – survival of the fittest – enlightenment is not an abstract idea and its definition changes with time/place. dhimmi? lost you there.

          • Tom M

            Don’t be too sure they haven’t already. Think of Pakistan the nuclear jewel in the Muslim crown.

          • waiting to inhale

            India will turn them into dust before they can decide which terrorist group will press the button

  • Bonkim

    ISIS is not the IRA – religious/bigoted brotherhood quite different from territorial nationalism, different reasons for their evil madness.

  • Terence Hale

    A neglected approach is to make an employment bureau for terrorists with two adjacent bomb proof rooms. By the interview the candidate is asked to go to one of the adjacent room to demonstrate his credentials and asked in the case of being unsuccessful to return for a new interview.

  • Read some history

    Thank you Mr Judd. Powell’s world consists of large doses of make-believe. Whether or not a country negotiates with terrorists is dependent on the extent of the latter’s territorial demands.
    1. The IRA had a limited demand — the unification of Ireland. At no point did the group demand the whole of Britain or the destruction of Britain. It was thus possible to negotiate with them, but only once they were irreversibly weakened.
    2. Qaeda, in contrast, wants the destruction of western states, in addition to their islamisation. The West is not about to negotiate its own demise.

    And yes, you are absolutely correct in saying the Islamic-Israeli conflict can only be contained and not resolved. Like Qaeda, Hamas has maximalist territorial demands which Israel cannot entertain. But Hamas goes further. In September 2010, the senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar said: “Our enterprise extends far beyond Palestine: Palestine in its entirety, the Arab nation in its entirety, the Islamic nation in its entirety, and the entire world.”

    This should come as no surprise. Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood organisation — the same ideology from which Qaeda and ISIS have emerged. The difference between the aims of Hamas, and the aims of Qaeda or ISIS, is merely one of priorities. Hamas wants to conquer Israel before moving onto its other targets.

    • anotherjoeblogs

      It would be interesting to have Mr. Powell’s response to your post, which I agree with in its entirety.

    • wycombewanderer

      You have more faith than i do in the actions and words of our liberal elites.

  • Blindsideflanker

    Powell confirms my view of the decadence of the British establishment, for there are no principles or values they won’t compromise on.

  • Augustus

    Kobane’s Kurds are fighting for their existence, but the world just watches.Turkish tanks are on the border and President Erdogan got the parliament’s permission to enter Syria with military force, but does nothing. European leaders seek a mandate under international law, which they already have, but don’t want to use it. Genocide is about to be committed in Kobane. Kurdish minorities depend on politics made in other parts of the world and in which the Kurds themselves have little influence. That is exactly the situation in which the Jews didn’t want to be any more after WW2, and that is why they were determined to have their own state. If the Jews in the Middle East didn’t have a strong state they would constantly be threatened with annihilation, just as the Kurds are being threatened now. Perhaps world leaders will now at last realize why the State of Israel exists, and why the State of Israel acts ruthlessly in defense of its own people. The Middle East is not the place to compare international relations to the Northern Ireland situation because their wars are not only on a number of fronts, but also because protection of minorities is of no concern to them.

  • will91

    There is of course a fundamental failure with the IRA comparison.

    The IRA were never committed to the destruction of the British mainland and the subjugation of the population. They had a very attainable objective which we could have conceivably given them.

    How do we begin to contend with groups that wants to create an indeterminate caliphate?

    • Peter Stroud

      I agree. Furthermore the IRA were never keen to commit suicide. Though the hunger strikes led to rare exceptions.

  • MikeinSpain

    Neither IS nor Al Quaeda nor their offshoots or affiliates are about territory or sovereignty. They have one aim: the supremacy of Islam throughout the world. No one can negotiate with them because they view it as their religious duty to subjugate the entire world to their creed. There is no scope for a different view, and until Western politicians understand that and adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly, fundamental Islam will continue to spread.

  • waiting to inhale

    the only sentence an islamist terrorist should hear from the west is ‘any last words’?

    anything else would be weak and spineless appeasement of brainless dhimmis

    • Blindsideflanker

      Powell would happily ‘negotiate’ us all the way to Dhimmi status.

  • AJAX

    This strange New Labour character should knock off his ridiculous crowing about the Blair government’s “success” in ending the Ulster conflict, it was Margaret Thatcher releasing the British Army from the leash in the mid-late 1980s that defeated the IRA. The Major/Blair administrations just tidied up the wreckage, & did a pretty incompetent job of it.

  • Carter Lee

    This American thinks that negotiating with the pathetically dim rubbish that composed the IRA is very different matter than negotiating with ISIS or the Taliban or any other Islamic fanatics. That is like comparing your grandmothers knitting club with the Waffen SS. Today’s Islamic killers correctly sense the fear in the west and that feeds their passion. And negotiating from a position of fear is hardly a strong hand to hold.

    • AJAX

      He’s Welsh

  • Common Sense ✟ كافر

    How do you negotiate with Muslim nutjobs? Good luck because words will not get us anywhere.

  • Tom M

    Powell of course is commenting from the position of the aftermath of the Northern Ireland IRA campaign. When the British Government started talking to the IRA they had no idea whatsoever that it would work. It was a commendable line of action that had to be explored.
    Such it was when Blair entered the game and gave them most of what they wanted. The previous years of stalemate made this acceptable to both sides.
    Please note Jonathan Powell that all these “negotiations” work after there has been bloodshed. The biggest examples being WW1 and WW2.
    In most terrorism cases history indicates a certain level of violence is normally expended before negotiations can be fruitful. Terrorism and violence works. It raises the game to a new level and gets the attention of an otherwise indifferent government. The government reacts and after an elapsed time of mutual lying and killing they get round the table.
    To suggest otherwise would imply trying to right all the perceived wrongs around the world before they get out of hand
    As far as that idea goes in the Middle East you could have been “negotiating” since the seventh century and got precisely nowhere.

  • Wee Scitter

    The IRA were already militarily thrashed and demoralised before this scumbag got anywhere near our affairs.

    His pathetic interference has almost resulted in defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. Much of the “peace” is an illusion and it is dubious that the following sell-out, with unnecessary appeasement and potential destruction of the right for a people to self-determination, will result in long-term stability.

  • Terry Field

    The power elite have planted this article, to soften us up. The initial contacts and maybe even opening timetable of talks have been made. This article is the first, in a relatively specialist magazine, to seriously propose such a political change.
    It needs to be done.
    As will be the case with ISIS when they are established.

  • queenofthechocolateteapots

    As others have already mentioned, you can’t negotiate with Islamic terrorists for the simple reason that what they believe in and desire is nothing less than the worldwide subjugation of the infidel. All the strategists, negotiators and ‘fixers’ in the world are of no use whatsoever if there remains the persistent unwillingness (or inability) to recognise what we are dealing with: Islamic – not political – terrorism. In the case of Isis, a slight understanding of Islamic eschatology wouldn’t go amiss either, but as we are repeatedly told by Cameron, Obama and friends that Islamic terrorism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, it doesn’t look as though they’re going to be acquiring any of that any time soon.

    Isis presents a new problem in that the West now has to deal with a group who believes that, with the establishment of the caliphate, it is currently in the process of fulfilling Islamic prophecy. According to prophetic teaching concerning what’s written in the hadith, a global caliphate will supposedly herald the appearance of the Mahdi, the messianic End Times figure in Islam. As far as Isis and its affiliates are concerned this has to happen – and it has to be made to happen at all costs. This attempted realisation of Islamic prophecy is not something the West can simply negotiate its way around. What exactly would Mr Powell propose that Western governments offer Isis as an incentive to wind down their bringing about the end of the world?

  • rtj1211

    How to talk to Terrorists 101:

    1. Who funds you?
    2. This is a red hot poker. If you don’t tell me who is funding you, I’ll shove it where Allah doesn’t want Muslims sticking their penis….
    3. Thank you for telling me who is funding you. Now I can go and kill them…..

    Perhaps the world is a bit more complicated than this?!