Time for Peace Talks With ISIS and Al Qaeda?
With options limited for fighting terrorists, negotiations may be the best remaining alternative.
After almost 17 years of focusing on the threat from terrorists, the U.S. defense community has, under President Donald Trump, set its sights back on powerful states. But that might be myopic; terrorism committed by jihadi groups or inspired by jihadi propaganda remains a potent threat. If anything, the future is likely to bring more conflicts that combine transnational terrorism and civil war, more collaboration between jihadis and local non-jihadi rebels, and more splintering and diffusion within the jihadi universe—not less. It will be impossible to eradicate terrorism through military force, as the United States should have already learned all too well, but feasible alternatives for the management or containment of the threat are in short supply. It might therefore be timely to consider negotiations. The United States is prepared to back talks with the Afghan Taliban. It is worth considering whether the same spirit of accommodation—or, more accurately, resignation—could be extended to other groups associated with al Qaeda or even the Islamic State.
The number of conflicts involving jihadi rebel groups fighting to overthrow incumbent regimes has grown steadily over the past several decades. Military intervention in majority-Muslim countries, dating back to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the post-2001 Afghanistan War, and then the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, first created opportunities for jihadis to battle infidel foreign occupiers and their local clients. It’s worth remembering that al Qaeda got its start as a movement to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and gained momentum by objecting to Saudi Arabia’s invitation to the United States to send troops to protect the kingdom from Iraq in the 1990s.
After al Qaeda brought the fight to the West on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States and its allies struck back through what they referred to as the “global war on terror.” But that conflict mobilized jihadi supporters as much as it punished or discouraged them. In fact, it helped stimulate al Qaeda’s growth into a transnational franchise operation. And ironically, one of the first branches, formed in Iraq after 2003 was the precursor to the Islamic State, which eventually swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014. Another branch, established in 2007, was al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is composed of Algerian jihadis and is now a source of disruption through North Africa and the Sahel region.
Beyond Western interventions in the Middle East, domestic political breakdowns have also been a gold mine for terrorist groups. In the 1990s, civil wars in Algeria and in the Balkans were incubators of extremism. The Arab Spring gave terrorist groups more opportunities to wage their war. The turmoil in Syria that started in 2011, for example, allowed the Islamic State to establish a territorial caliphate in stretches of Iraq and Syria. Its lightning-speed military march on an Iraqi army trained and equipped by Americans was stunning. And even though the group’s territorial ambitions may have been thwarted—major combat operations ended in 2018, and the U.S. military says that the Islamic State campaign is in its final phase—its audacity showed that jihadi victory was possible.
The Islamic State still has something like 30,000 fighters in Iraq. But its most enduring contribution to the jihadi cause may well be its declaration of the caliphate, however ill-fated, because it inspired terrorism and drew in foreign fighters around the globe. Now, although the rebel cause is in sharp decline in Syria, jihadis are still major players. Affiliated groups have strong presences in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tunisia, Somalia, and Yemen, among others. Whether inspired or directed, attackers have also struck Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and other targets.
In short, the jihadi movement has proved remarkably resilient throughout the twists and turns of the last two decades. Part of the reason is that jihadi groups have been able to take advantage of deeply rooted grievances in civil conflicts by allying themselves with local rebels who may be attracted as much to the terrorists’ resources as they are to their religious principles (although local groups tend to radicalize when jihadis enter the scene). For example, after losing ground in Algeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb managed to co-opt or join forces with Mali’s Tuareg rebels, ethnic separatists with a long history of resisting the authority of the weak Malian government. The coalition was on the brink of bringing down the regime when French forces came to the rescue. They saved the Malian state but pushed violence over its borders. Now, the conflict has spread across the Sahel to Chad, the Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
In hybrid conflicts like these, where transnational terrorists have embedded among local rebels with legitimate grievances, it is impossible to distinguish counterterrorism from counterinsurgency—or to separate either strategy from the formidable task of state-building. Major intervening powers such as the United States and France must depend on their own local allies, who are in many cases reluctant partners in the war on terrorism and whose interests do not necessarily align with those of their patrons. More often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.
Also making jihadi terrorism difficult to wipe out is the diffuse and shifting character of the movement. There is no single monolithic entity that can be decisively defeated. For now, the major fault line is between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but many other fissures and disagreements divide jihadis. Internal power struggles undermine unity, as do doctrinal and strategic disputes.
Al Qaeda, for example, insisted that the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in 2014 was both presumptuous and premature. Even deeply committed jihadis, who agree that violence is essential to defend Islam against the West and that democracy is inherently un-Islamic, objected to the Islamic State’s barbarousness. The group’s arrogance in declaring fellow Muslims apostate and thus subject to a death sentence was another bone of contention, especially as it extended to assassinating rival leaders.
The al Qaeda-Islamic State quarrel broke into the open after 2014, and Islamic State branches soon sprung up in areas where al Qaeda had been dominant. The Islamic State challenged the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it has distinguished itself by attacking civilians, especially the country’s Shiite minority. A faction from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb split off to become the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, too, and it has attacked U.S. forces and drawn American firepower. In Nigeria, Boko Haram decided to engage in the new competition by defecting to the Islamic State—leading to subsequent splintering.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has gone through its own internal divisions after parting ways with its former Iraqi subordinate. In Syria, the original al Qaeda loyalists who composed the Nusra Front split from al Qaeda central in 2016 over the question of whether the struggle should focus on the “near” enemy or the “far” one. Whereas al Qaeda had always advocated an international jihadi revolutionary effort, its Syrian offshoot preferred to concentrate on Syria. Worryingly for the United States and allies, the collapse of the Syrian resistance surely strengthens al Qaeda central’s position that the West is the primary enemy.
This lack of unity among jihadis might be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and governments do often seek to sow dissension in the ranks of the adversary. “Divide and rule” is a handy slogan, but in fact competition among rival insurgent or terrorist factions often makes conflicts harder to resolve and bloodier. Paradoxically, having multiple component parts may contribute to the overall enterprise’s survival, yet internal quarrels can create openings for political solutions.
Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.
Since the short term is what we have to work with, negotiation might be a viable option under the right circumstances. The traditional view is that jihadis are generally too absolutist to bargain. For instance, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both former government officials and the authors of the 2003 book Sacred Terror, argued that today’s terrorists do not want a seat at the table; they want to destroy the table. And indeed, some are just that obstinate. In Syria, the most extreme jihadi groups rejected any compromise—including cease-fires to allow evacuations that would save civilian lives—even though they faced certain defeat.
Still, some relatively moderate groups within the overall jihadi camp have made deals. In fact, Ahrar al-Sham (a group that is sometimes an ally of the Nusra Front) has joined with Turkey for negotiations with Russia and Iran. And even the hard-line Nusra Front is divided itself over whether to cooperate with Turkey’s efforts to unify the Syrian resistance.
Beyond that, recalcitrant organizations can sometimes be bypassed and undermined if conciliatory offers are extended to individual members. In the civil war in Algeria, the government in Algiers offered amnesty to individual rebels, leading many to defect to the state or abandon the struggle. Facing a strong military offensive, the diminished organization grew even more indiscriminate and brutal until it was displaced from within by leaders who were opposed to harming fellow Muslims. It was then that the new group jumped on the al Qaeda bandwagon.
Admittedly, al Qaeda and certainly the Islamic State are not the Taliban. And the Taliban of today differs from the organization that sheltered Osama bin Laden before 9/11. It has new leadership, it has not sponsored transnational terrorism against the United States, and it generally attacks military targets within Afghanistan. This is not to say that the United States should have any illusions about its ultimate goals, nor should we forget that al Qaeda is a loyal supporter of the Taliban. But there simply seems to be no alternative to some sort of compromise in Afghanistan. The same logic could be applied to more selected groups allied with the jihadi cause. At the very least, the potential costs and benefits of engagement should be evaluated.
The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.
Martha Crenshaw is a senior fellow at Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute and a professor of political science by courtesy at Stanford.