The Surprising Link between Terrorism and Civil War

Where you were on September 11, 2001? (I bet you remember the day as vividly as I do.) I slept late that morning, having been up on and off all night with my then-six-week-old baby. The first weird thing I encountered was a voice mail from my father assuring me that my brother, who worked in Washington, DC, was OK, though he’d begun a long walk home from the office (?!?). Then my husband called from work and said, “Do you know what just happened?!” and proceeded to describe the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was in a daze, but I turned on the TV and saw the images that we’ve all seen hundreds of times since. It was surreal — it seemed like a movie. It took me some time to absorb that this had really happened and to feel all those things one feels after a terrorist attack: shock, pain, sadness, anger, rage, fear, helplessness, hopelessness. We feel them all over again, especially when another attack happens in the US, or in Europe — the kinds of places many of us might visit on business or vacation.

It’s not your imagination: terrorism is up in recent years. Check out this graph from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) — it shows the number of terrorist incidents worldwide 1970-2015. Notice, in particular, the dramatic rise from 2004 to 2014 (and let’s hope the decrease of 2014-2015 continues).

Now for what might be a surprise. Even with this steep increase, terrorism is not replacing war as the major form of political violence: In 2015, about 80% of fatalities from organized violence were in “state-based conflicts” meaning where at least one party to the conflict was a national government (see Melander, Petterson & Themner 2016, “Organized Violence 1989-2015,” Journal of Peace Research and this graph) — so basically war.

And terrorism is most certainly not concentrated in places like France, Belgium, the UK or the US. In 2015, “More than 55% of all [terrorist] attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria), and 74% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan)” according to the State Department and START. Notice those lists of countries. What do they have in common? While some have raging civil wars, ALL of them have internal armed conflict between one or more rebel groups and the state, producing at least 25 battle-related deaths per year.

So let’s put this together: Terrorism is up, but most most deaths from organized violence come from bad, old-fashioned war (or the lower-intensity versions thereof). And most terrorism comes from the very countries experiencing that kind of violent conflict. It may seem to us like terrorism is random, or “they hate our freedom” or whatever, but for the most part, terrorists are fighting for the same kinds of causes that rebel groups are — and/or they’re exploiting the chaos and power vacuums created by armed conflicts.

My point is this: While counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism are important fields, they shouldn’t take the place of efforts to prevent and end civil wars. In fact, ending civil wars will probably help end terrorism. The need for peacemaking has not gone away.


Should Extremists Be Included in Peace Negotiations?

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of including all major armed rebel groups in peace negotiations. Conveniently, my self-imposed 600(ish)-word limit gave me an excuse to avoid a very difficult question: what if one of those rebel groups (or the only rebel group) is extremist? By that I mean a group that either holds an extremist ideology or uses extreme tactics, including terrorism. The two often go together. This is not an idle question: the Afghan government and its US backers are attempting to negotiate with the Taliban; the Peruvian government declined several offers to negotiate with the Sendero Luminoso; the Philippine government has consistently chosen not to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf Group; the government of Nepal reached a peace accord with Maoist rebels; the Syrian peace talks have been dogged by questions of which rebel groups are “terrorists.”

I don’t have an easy answer here, but I have identified a small number of key considerations. First, let me back up. There are those who argue one should never negotiate with terrorists, on the grounds that governments should not reward extremists by granting them a seat at the negotiating table. But we all know it happens anyway, sometimes in secret back channels, sometimes openly. Jonathan Powell argues that a government will inevitably end up negotiating with an extremist group if that group has a significant political following. Bill Zartman argues that negotiating with terrorists won’t encourage further terrorism as long as the government makes no substantive concessions. Blum and Heymann caution against negotiating (ransoms etc.) to end terrorist incidents but are more amenable to negotiations to change “the larger political relationship” with the terrorist group.

One case I have studied in detail is that of the Philippine government and the Abu Sayyaf Group. This group has used beheadings, kidnappings, and other delightful tactics to advance its Islamist and secessionist cause. However, the group doesn’t have a huge political following or popular appeal–fighters are sheltered mainly by fellow clan members. The Philippine government has managed to minimize, though not eliminate, the group through military and police measures. My tentative conclusion is a corollary to Powell’s: if a group has minimal public support, it can be safely left out of a peace process and instead managed through security measures.

Meanwhile, it should be noted, other extremist groups in other places have moderated their tactics and/or ideologies through the process of negotiation (and maybe through the maturing of their leaders and the fatigue of their fighters). For example, both the IRA in Northern Ireland and the PLO in the Middle East renounced terrorism as initial back-channel contacts moved into front-channel negotiations. Both evolved through negotiations into political movements, as have Colombia’s FARC, Nepal’s Maoists, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and many other erstwhile extremists.

Here, then, are what I see as key considerations in determining whether extremists should be invited to the negotiating table:

  • What is the group’s following? Are they the widely accepted face of a large political movement, or are they viewed within their own community as fringe?
  • If the group does represent a large political movement, are there other groups that represent the same movement?
  • Has the group indicated any interest in engaging in the peace process? This would most likely come through quiet back channels.
  • If so, might the group be open to renouncing its extreme tactics in exchange for a place at the table?

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to negotiate an end to civil wars or violent uprisings without talking with those who are carrying the weapons. While this may to some extent reward violence, it has the potential to create a stable peace.

How to Ruin a Peace Process: Exclude a Rebel Group

A friend of mine belongs to a dinner club. You know the kind: there are maybe 8-10 members, and they take turns hosting a fancy, home-cooked dinner. My friend travels often, and she’s recently gotten frustrated because the decision making–on who’s hosting when, on what the rules are–always seem to be made without her. (She returns messages quickly so her dinner club friends could easily consult her, she argues, but this doesn’t happen.) She was particularly annoyed when the December dinner included a “secret Santa” exchange in which the expected gift expenditure was, in her opinion, way too high. She enjoys the social aspect of her dinner club (and who doesn’t love a good meal?!), but she feels like kind of an outsider to it, so she’s thinking of withdrawing and doing her socializing (and dining and gift giving) elsewhere.

It’s not all that different with armed rebel groups. It is well established that armed groups that are excluded from peace negotiations are far more likely to be “spoilers”–to continue fighting undeterred or even escalating their military activity while the negotiating parties go about trying to make peace. The principle is similar: if you’re left out of a decision making process, you don’t have the opportunity to influence the decisions made, and you don’t feel the process is yours anyway, so you look for other ways to meet your goals. Rebel groups, by definition, have political goals. If they’re not inside the peace negotiations, they don’t have the opportunity to advance those goals, and they lack any buy-in to the peace process, so they seek to achieve their goals in some other way–that is, continuing to fight.

One example took place in the Philippines in the 1990s. Then-president Fidel Ramos was wise enough to create a National Unification Commission (NUC) to manage the peace process with the Moro (Muslim) independence movement. At that time, there were two major Moro rebel groups: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The NUC held exploratory talks with both groups and recommended that the government negotiate with both. The government decided to start negotiations with only the MNLF at first, and the MILF later. This was despite the fact that it was all about the same issue–the political status of the majority-Muslim part of the Philippines. The MNLF and the government concluded a peace agreement in 1996. Negotiations between the government and the excluded group, the MILF, began nearly as soon as the ink was dry, and it took nearly two more decades for that process to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.

Both the MNLF and the MILF originally wanted independence from the Philippines. In the 1996 peace agreement, the MNLF agreed to autonomy instead. The excluded MILF, however, announced its rejection of the peace deal, recommitted to independence, and fought on, even gaining military strength while the government was busy with the MNLF. During their own negotiations with the government, the MILF, too, eventually agreed to autonomy. But the government’s approach of dealing with just one rebel group at a time, far from making the process more simple and tractable, seems to have only prolonged and complicated this long-running armed conflict.

It may seem easier to have only two parties in a negotiation (and perhaps, to a government leader, less threatening), but the approach of negotiating with only one rebel group at a time does not make settlement of a civil war easier or more successful. Better to enlarge the table and bring all the armed groups together.

Civil Society in Peace Negotiations? Let’s Get Practical.

Do you like to cook? I do, when I have the time and energy (which seems to be less and less often lately). I enjoy getting new recipes and giving them a try. But I have developed a healthy skepticism about recipes. A recipe is just one of many ways to accomplish more or less the same thing.

Let’s take mashed potatoes, for example. I have a recipe that says to use five russet potatoes, two tablespoons of butter, a cup of milk, and salt and pepper. Fine–delicious. Last weekend, though, my daughters and I had fun putting cream cheese in our mashed potatoes. I never saw that in a recipe (frankly I was just trying to get rid of some cream cheese), but it was great. Watching your weight? Substitute chicken stock for milk. Got some cheese in the fridge? Grate it and throw it in. Some chives in your garden? Nice. You get the idea: many ways to come up with a creamy, yummy version of potatoes. Be creative and adapt to your tastes and needs.

So it is with peace processes. Lately, many people are calling for including civil society in peace negotiations. There are good reasons for this–there’s a lot of research showing that when civil society is included, there is more likely to be a comprehensive, lasting peace. I suspect, though, that this inclusivity terrifies mediators and angers governments and rebel leaders, who probably imagine activists and advocates of one or another cause sitting at the negotiating table as equal parties, each with equal power to block consensus on the terms of an agreement.

It needn’t be so. You don’t have to follow that recipe. As with mashed potatoes, you can figure out other ways to accomplish the same goals.

What would those goals be? My own research identified two key ways the inclusion of civil society helped advance the cause of peace. First, civil society participants help steer the negotiations away from private goodies for armed actors (such as amnesties for war crimes and high-level government posts for rebel leaders) and towards addressing underlying sources of conflict such as economic inequalities, corruption, human rights failures, and discrimination against minority groups. Second, civil society groups promote and support the peace process through educating the public, assisting in implementation tasks, and generally advocating for peace and for the peace settlement once reached.

There are lots of ways to get to those goals. For example, there are some successful examples of a separate civil society consultation process set up to inform the peace negotiations. In Guatemala in the early ’90s, the parties to the peace talks agreed to form a Civil Society Assembly which included representatives from across civil society as well as political parties. This Assembly developed a consensus on recommendations for the negotiations, most of which were adopted in the terms of the peace accord. In the Philippines, the government set up a National Unification Commission that undertook a massive consultation effort starting at the provincial level, with results from that level feeding into the regional level and then the national level. These consultations produced a set of recommendations called the Six Paths to Peace, which influenced not only the peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front in the ’90s but even the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front a decade later. I was surprised to see how much influence these consultations had in both countries. I’m not saying separate consultation processes are the only way to go, but rather this is one variation on how to get the voices of civil society into the mix.

There’s not a set recipe for peace processes. On the contrary, making peace (like making anything else) requires creativity and adaptability.

Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program 10th anniversary


Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program 10th anniversary symposium I was invited to the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program for its 10th anniversary symposium. I spoke on a panel titled “Political Dialogue: The Promises and Perils of Facilitation.” Pictured here are (from left to right in the first photo) Toby Berkman, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, Bob Bordone, me, Fr. Josh Thomas, and Liz Joyner. The theme of the panel was how facilitated dialogue or consensus building could help overcome political divides. The event was held before the US elections; the theme seems even more fitting now. Thank you HNMCP and my co-panelists for a stimulating and inspiring discussion.
"Political Dialogue: The Promises and Perils of Facilitation."
Also great to see my old Brown classmate James Kerwin of the Harvard Program on Negotiation.
Photos by Tom Fitzsimmons, copyright HNMCP/Tom FitzsimmonsSuzanne Ghais PhD

What Corporations Neglect in Conflicts with Communities

Did you ever see the movie Erin Brockovich? I LOVE that movie. In it, Julia Roberts plays a single mom who works for a law firm and discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric has been covering up its contamination of nearby residential properties. In my favorite scene, her boss, lawyer Ed Masri, is trying to persuade an affected family to let him represent them. They seem skeptical, and only after Brockovich’s words of empathy for the family do they agree. Then, with the papers signed, the mom of the family offers Bundt cake and some coffee. Masri starts to explain he doesn’t have time, but Brockovich leans over to him and whispers, “Have a f**king cup of coffee, Ed!”

It’s not only in the movies that lawyers and many others underestimate the importance of empathy, trust building, and relationships. And it’s certainly not only in the movies that companies, especially in the extractive sector, find themselves accused of harming neighboring communities–whether they’re guilty or innocent of the charges. I spoke recently with an employee of one company that was being dragged through the mud for allegedly displacing an indigenous community in another country. He earnestly explained why the claims were false and the company had acted properly… but he also acknowledged that the community’s opposition could quite possibly halt the company’s huge project. You can be right, I told him, but still be screwed.

His company is not alone. Conflict between corporations and communities is pervasive, especially in certain critical areas such as the Niger Delta. In fact, it can turn violent and even, as in the case of a copper mine in Papua New Guinea, contribute to civil war. (This war eventually ended with a peace process culminating in 2001.)

All too often, the response of corporate representatives is to explain in rights-based terms why they are right: how they followed all laws and regulations and company policies and human rights standards and Voluntary Principles and so on. Or they might decide negotiation is worthwhile, so they essentially pose the question, “What do you want?” (translation: “How much money do we need to throw at you to make you go away?”) and wonder why the attempt is not well received.

The missing ingredient, friends and upstanding corporate citizens, is relationships.

Of course there are many factors that can make corporate-community relations challenging: cultural and maybe language differences, history, power asymmetries, the roles of national and local governments and laws and law enforcement and private security, etc. But the importance of relationships is pretty much universal. That means you don’t just pull the aggrieved community members into a fancy conference room and try to start trading offers and counteroffers. Instead, you spend time, take a tour, share a meal, listen to their stories, understand why they don’t trust–even if their past bad experiences were not caused by your company!!–and show genuine interest in them as fellow human beings. This is not just once: follow through on your commitments, stay in touch, invest in constructive community engagement, even transformational engagement (read also how corporations can help in conflict transformation). This may be costly, but the costs of conflict are probably higher. It is a worthwhile investment.

In other words, slow down and “Have a f**king cup of coffee”!

Why the Recent UN Resolution on Israeli Settlements Is Good for Peace

I hope you’re enjoying this Christmas/Hannukah/”Festivus” (“for the rest of us”)/New Year’s break. I’ve spent some nice time with family and friends–have you? I love my family, and I love having friends… which makes this blog post pretty risky, because it might make me some enemies.

A few days ago, several members of the UN Security Council introduced a resolution condemning the ongoing building of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the recent past, the US had vetoed all proposed resolutions critical of Israeli actions. This time, it abstained. The resolution passed.

This won’t be another diatribe about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, I want to put this in the context of peace processes, and specifically how an international consensus can help overcome a power imbalance that prevents settlement of a conflict.

Often in a conflict, there is one party that more or less favors the status quo, and another party trying to change the status quo. What I’ve observed is that when the powerful, interested countries are unified in their stance that the status quo has to change, it eventually changes. The end of Apartheid in South Africa is a good example. Another is the Northern Ireland conflict, where once the powerful outside players–Britain, Ireland, and the US–agreed on what needed to change, it did. In tragic contrast, the lack of international consensus has hindered settlement of the Syrian civil war, as I wrote a while back. Less well known, the international community is split on the status of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, which is seeking independence. The deadlock there continues.

The deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues too, of course. There has been a global near-consensus for many years that the status quo should change–that is, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza should become an independent state. This “two-state solution” would mean Israel would give up land it captured in the 1967 war. Although official US policy has supported this consensus, the US has repeatedly vetoed Security Council measures to that effect. The world has therefore been split between the sole superpower and everyone else. For this moment, at least until Trump’s inauguration, the world speaks with one voice about the need for Israel to stop building settlements as a way to further its claim on the West Bank. We now have a glimmer of hope that the world will now be unified on the two-state solution, the only viable model that has been put forward for Israeli/Palestinian peace.

It is hard to get anyone in a position of power to give something up. In a domestic context, this might be accomplished through law enforcement. In the global context, there is no such thing. The closest we have is the consensus of the international community. For peace processes generally, the broader point is that while the detailed settlement of the conflict must be negotiated by the parties themselves, it is important to obtain a consensus of the key international players on the broad contours of a solution (a “formula” as it’s often called), especially if one party is to be persuaded to give up something. This implies the need for an international tier in a peace process in which the powerful, interested countries negotiate a broad formula for settlement before the warring parties themselves negotiate the specifics. Without this, the outside countries tend to support opposite sides in the conflict and drag out the fighting. We’ve seen this all too many times.

Now, if I’ve made you angry–or if you have any other reaction–please comment!

The Hidden Perils of Elections

Were you as shocked as I was about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election the other night? I did not see that coming. We all have our opinions, but I for one was not so happy with the result. At least in the U.S., though, we have Congress, we have the courts, and we have lots of other good, solid institutions in place that will protect us from whatever excesses the next president might have on his mind (like, for example, jailing his political opponents or barring Muslims from entering the country).

There’s a lesson here for peace processes. Folks like Roland Paris have written about the dangers of holding elections too soon after a peace accord intended to end a civil war. He argues that it’s important to build good institutions first. This used to be too abstract for me (like what “institutions”?). Now I get it though, because I am counting on the institutions of our democracy to keep our president-elect from turning into a dictator.

Elections American election campaign fight as Republican Versus Democrat represented by two boxing gloves with the elephant and donkey symbol stitched fighting for the vote of the United states citizens for an election win.are inherently adversarial and competitive. In most places, there is one president (and/or one prime minister). There is a winner and a loser–no win-win, integrative solutions here. That means campaigns tend to drive up competitiveness and divisiveness. (What? Divisiveness? We Americans have no idea what you’re talking about.) And if you’re just coming out of a civil war or an armed insurgency, that’s a real problem. Those other people were just killing your people, and vice versa. If their side gets into office, they’ll have free rein to do more of that, right?

Enter institutions: disciplined, accountable police… an integrated military, not one for each side… an independent judiciary… These need to be built first, so those other people won’t have free reign to fire into crowds of your side’s peaceful protesters. And some power sharing arrangement in the interim–one in which both/all warring parties have some guaranteed role for a while–may be necessary.

Don’t get me wrong: democracy and elections are good. But timing is everything.

Liberia is a good illustration. Liberia suffered a terrible civil war starting in 1989. After a shaky peace agreement, an election was held hurriedly in 1997, less than a year after the 1996 peace accord. The man who started the war, Charles Taylor, won the election. Want to hear the ickiest campaign slogan ever? “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him.” Wow. People were still feeling insecure and were searching, I guess, for a “strong man” (a phenomenon that might help explain Trump’s victory, actually). They were also pretty convinced that if Taylor didn’t win, he’d go back to fighting. There wasn’t much to stop him. Upon taking office, Taylor quickly set about repressing his political opponents and lining his pockets with the people’s money. Not surprisingly, his former enemies went back to war. They felt they had no other options.

The second time around, things were different. The peace talks led to a transitional government with all major warring factions represented. A huge, multidimensional UN peace operation got to work helping (re)build institutions and disarming and reintegrating the rebels, and then the election was held in 2005, over two years after the peace agreement was signed. Things weren’t perfect, and I’m concerned President Sirleaf is getting a little too entrenched, but it’s a lot better than President Taylor and civil war. Liberia has remained at peace.

So if a peace accord is to succeed, elections need to be put off for a little while. There’s work to do first.

The Big Myth about Multiparty Negotiations

Customary conference room: glassy table, chair, large window

Last weekend, a good friend of mine, who moved across the country several months ago, came back to town for a visit. I hosted a dinner that included her and her family along with her closest local friends and their families. Once I realized the number of people involved–10 adults and six children–I panicked. I had never made dinner for that many people before.

By the end of the event, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only had the dinner gone fine, but it was actually a little easier than hosting just one couple or family. Why? Everyone helped. One couple brought a side dish, another brought a salad, and so on. As I was preparing steaks for the grill, one of the men cheerfully took over and cooked them expertly. When it came time to clean up, many hands made light work.

Of course we had some logistical challenges–we couldn’t all sit together (some sat inside, some out on the deck), and I had to borrow some steak knives to supplement my set. And of course there was the ever-present possibility of spoilers–an adult spilling a drink or a kid throwing projectiles off a balcony or sticking gum in the carpet. (We were lucky this time, but these scenarios have happened before.)

This reminded me of my experiences with mediation and facilitation of two-party versus multiparty negotiations. Like a two-couple dinner, a two-party negotiation sounds a lot cleaner, simpler, and easier. Much of the academic as well as practitioner literature takes that as a given. Yet, in my experience, it is no harder to get consensus in a large group of diverse parties than it is with just two parties to a conflict.

During my doctoral research I looked for studies that actually tested (rather than just theorizing) whether multiparty negotiations (a) took longer or (b) were less likely to reach agreement. There weren’t many. One study found that multilateral negotiations took, on average, just a little bit more time to reach agreement. A big study by my friends at the Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative found that inclusive peace talks, with multiple parties present, seemed just as likely to reach agreement than exclusive, two-party processes.

Why would this be? The answer recalls my dinner party. When you have lots of groups represented at a negotiating table, there are some moderates, and they put pressure on the more extreme parties to come closer to the center and join the consensus. Like my dinner guests who brought dessert or grilled steaks, these negotiators help the mediators or facilitators do their job. When you have only two groups represented at the table, most likely they are stark opponents. They represent opposite poles of the conflict.

Of course, there are logistical challenges, and there is the possibility of spoilers. It is also true that the third party (whatever this role is called–mediator, facilitator, host, special envoy, etc…) needs some facilitation skills. Overall though, we can dispense with the myth that keeping the number of players small makes agreement easier. There may be good reasons for keeping certain people away from the table, but the sheer number of parties is not one of them.