Does ISIL’s Brand of Extremism Render Negotiation Irrelevant?

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
This undated file image, posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows Islamic State fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. Raqqa is the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic caliphate declared a year ago by Islamic State in territories it controls in Iraq and Syria.

In terms of size and sophistication, the US armed forces are generally considered to be without equal. This assessment includes ISIL, the militant group of Islamic extremists that now controls an area of Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Yet the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley last week is but the latest reminder that US military might, in the abstract, is no guarantor of safety for journalists and other US passport-holders in the region. Hostage-taking has grown in popularity precisely because it affects a dramatic swing in leverage (i.e. suddenly, if the US refuses to engage with ISIL on its terms, it may forfeit an American life).  In this light, the demands of a relatively small group command the attention of the world.

ISIL’s capture and subsequent beheading of Mr. Foley was intended to force a stop to American airstrikes currently impeding the progress of ISIL in Iraq. Given that this is an unacceptable demand, at least two approaches remain: one is the military approach, e.g. further escalating the bombing campaign; another is to seek to change the course of the conflict through the soft power of negotiation.

The US government is famously ambivalent about negotiation with extremist groups (see the second Bush administration’s oft-repeated pledge that the US does not negotiate with terrorists). However, the negotiated release of army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in May suggests the policy is less cut-and-dried. So, might negotiating with ISIL be appropriate, either: 1) to end the fighting or 2) to secure the release of journalists and other captured non-combatants?

An analysis of recent developments reveals the challenges inherent to this approach. In their seminal Difficult Conversations, conflict resolution experts Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen observe that conflict often arises when people hold divergent views of world.  They explain this divergence using a version of the “Ladder of Inference” model, in which the first rung represents available information; the second represents observations; the third represents interpretations; and the fourth represents conclusions. Divergence of views can occur at any stage of the “ascent.”  Thus, even when two people have access to the same information (first rung), noticing different things (second rung) may lead them to completely different interpretations and eventually conclusions about the world (third and fourth rungs, respectively).  There is a strong case to be made that many American Middle East analysts and ISIL fighters diverge immediately—the former sees a drone strike disrupt a terrorist cell, the latter sees the seemingly-arbitrary murder of a family member—and only grow farther apart as they ascend the ladder.  The result?  A group with such extreme views that al-Qaeda cut formal ties in February of this year.  If the world’s most infamous Islamic terrorist organization could not find common ground with ISIL, what hope do US negotiators have little hope of establishing any shared affiliation (another key to successful negotiation)?  

Nor can the US necessarily leverage its superior firepower to steer negotiations toward its preferred outcome.  In most negotiations, a simple question makes plain which side has leverage:  which side has most to lose from no deal?  With Secretary of State John Kerry tweeting last week “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed,” it appears that ISIL may soon sustain very large losses indeed.  However, as self-described jihadists, many ISIL fighters view death not as something to be feared and avoided, but as glorious martyrdom.  Their religious zeal renders the traditional calculus problematic. (It is worth noting that some jihadists may not be so devout, but merely coopting Islamic ideology to justify their heinous deeds.)

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to negotiating with ISIL, however, stems from what President Obama has called the group’s “nihilistic ideology.”  Generally, it is a mistake to think of negotiation as a zero-sum game.  Parties engaged in negotiation typically care about multiple issues, and thinking creatively about what each side has to offer can yield a win-win outcome.  ISIL, however, is bent on wiping out secularism—represented in the West by the US and its allies—en route to creating a global Islamic caliphate.  When one side’s aims include the destruction of the other, “zero-sum” seems like the appropriate term.

Although prospects are not good, then, for a negotiated peace with ISIL, this does not mean America could not negotiate the release of individuals like James Foley.  Indeed, negotiating ransoms has become the dominant strategy in Europe.  France has spent an estimated £75 million over the last five years to secure the release of its citizens.  Many observers have argued, however, that paying ransom encourages kidnapping.  While the evidence seems to support this claim, the damage goes far beyond simply perpetuating the practice.  According to the above analysis of US-ISIL relations as zero-sum, ISIL will surrender a prisoner only when doing so advances their ambition to establish a caliphate in the Middle East and beyond.  There are no secondary issues to justify such an exchange.  Therefore, negotiating with ISIL is a foolhardy strategy—even when civilian lives are at stake. 

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