Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Negotiating with IS?

Most states have an official policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups. In January 2015 Jordanian representatives apparently negotiated with the Islamic State (IS) to try and free a captured fighter pilot. The deal would have included the release of the pilot in exchange for a Jordan-held female Iraqi suicide terrorist. At the end of January, it became clear that the negotiations had taken place in vain. IS had already killed the fighter pilot early January.

The failure of the negotiations fits in the strategy of IS. That strategy appears to be a heritage from the founder of the organization that would eventually become IS. This founder was Abu Musa al-Zarqawi.  During the 1990s he was held in a Jordanian prison for five years, accused of being a member of a militant organization. After his release, Zarqawi founded a new group with the help of Al-Qaeda. This group intended to bomb tourist hubs in Jordan. The plots were foiled and several group members managed to flee from Jordan. Via Afghanistan and Iran the group ended up in northern Iraq, where it eventually evolved into IS.

Even after his death in 2006, Zarqawi’s hatred of his home country still resonates in IS. IS has three ‘traditional’ strategic enemies: 1) Jordan; 2) the United States /International Community; and 3) the Muslim Shia community. As Charles Lister points out in his Profiling the Islamic State these targets already became clear in August 2003. That month bombs exploded in Iraq at the Jordanian embassy, a United Nations mission and a Shia mosque. These were symbolic for the organization’s targets.

The lesson learned of the failed negotiations between IS and Jordan – with the advantage of hindsight bias – is that countries that can be regarded as the (‘traditional’) enemies of IS will have little chance of freeing their IS-held hostages. It was the United Arab Emirates that applied that lesson and suspended air attacks on IS until the rescue plans for downed aircrews were fully implemented. By now, the Emirates have joined the air attacks again.

Still, some IS-held hostages were freed. These hostages were mainly European and they were freed before the coalition against IS started (when IS had fewer enemies, so to speak). It raises the question for countries whether they should negotiate? Apart from the chance for success, it might buy time and might provide new intelligence. At least, it’s worth a try.

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