Professor discusses differences between the U.S. and other countries in negotiating with terror groups

Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, researches terrorism, negotiating with terrorists, terrorist cooperation and radicalization.  

She recently discussed the differences in strategy between the United States and other countries in negotiating with terror groups to save the lives of kidnap victims. Her remarks followed the recent killing of American journalist James Foley by members of the Islamic State.

Why do the U.S. and Britain not pay the ransoms demanded by terror groups while other countries, particularly those in Western Europe, do?

The United States has followed the so-called no-concessions policy which consists of three no's: no negotiations with terrorists, no deals with them and no concessions to them. However, the no-concessions doctrine is not applied consistently internationally as other countries do pay ransoms. As a consequence, terrorists might export kidnappings to countries with the "comparative advantage" of concessions. However, not paying ransom will not stop the kidnapping of Americans. Instead, terrorist groups like ISIS will escalate their demands and will ask for political demands or look for other benefits of kidnappings such as media attention and publicity.

What is the value to terror groups of kidnapping aid workers and journalists in response to military attacks?

Kidnappings are not only a lucrative way to collect high ransom payments, they also convey publicity and media attention. Whether the government pays or not, the terrorists benefit from the conduct of kidnappings. Indeed, it can be argued that paying ransom has certain advantages. First of all, the government that decides to embark on ransom negotiations buys time to free the hostages. Furthermore, ransom negotiations can be used to gather intelligence about the terrorist group. Moreover, a government that engages in negotiations also has a certain leverage over the terrorist group and potentially more impact than through military operations. Finally, if a government engages in negotiations in combination with military measures it can use a carrot and stick approach and develop more effective strategies than approaching the problem by military means alone.

How did the philosophy of never negotiating with terrorists develop in the U.S.? Has it always been that way? How does that perspective stand alongside "leave no man behind?"

The US has not always been so rigid. The beginnings of the no-concessions doctrine can be connected to the capture and killing of Israeli athletes by Black September during the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. The Israelis refused to negotiate and Richard Nixon admired the toughness of the Israelis.

[Henry] Kissinger [Secretary of State In the Nixon and Ford administrations] brought forward the main argument in favor of the no-concessions policy: "Making concessions may save lives in one place but at the risk of hundreds of lives everywhere else."

While the U.S. doesn't pay ransoms, doesn't the government negotiate with terrorists in other ways by releasing detainees? What is the difference?

The U.S. does not want to contribute to the financing of these groups. However, paying ransom would be an easier option than giving in to other more political demands.

Wouldn't hostage-taking end if all nations agreed not to pay the ransom?  Why is there no unified approach?

I do not think hostage-taking would end if all countries would agree on a no ransom policy. It would simply imply that terrorists shift their demands to political issue or they would continue to kidnap for publicity reasons. In fact, no ransom policies could even escalate kidnappings.

Aren't the European governments that pay ransoms funding terror groups and undermining the Western response to terrorism?

I do not think that European countries undermine counterterrorism policies by paying ransom.  It has been argued by some scholars that a "flexible policy to which a government adheres to consistently would make it look stronger than a consistent policy to which a government adheres to flexibly."

I think that it is important how negotiations are politically signaled. Giving concessions to terrorist groups, such as ransoms, should be signaled as a reward for the renunciation of violence rather than violence itself.


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Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D.
Carolin Goerzig, Ph.D.