Why we should consider negotiating with terrorist organisations

By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst

Over the past 20 years it has become increasingly common for countries to list non-state armed groups (NSAG) as terrorist organisations. The logic behind this move is to make it easier for countries and international bodies to sanction these groups, however this trend is having an adverse effect on the ability to broker peace and create opportunities for mediation, especially for third parties. Third parties that typically interact with NSAGs include non-profit organisations that are involved in peacebuilding and mediation work. When these NSAGs are listed as terrorist organisations it has legal and reputational implications for such non-profits that can have negative consequences for their work on the ground in conflict zones.

The legal implications for non-profits who engage with NSAGs stem mostly from domestic laws in the countries in which the organisations are registered. Domestic laws can criminalise certain forms of engagement with groups, or members of groups, which have been listed as a terrorist organisation. Such forms of engagement can be supplying information, providing material support, or arranging meetings.[i] This directly impacts the functionality of non-profits who are registered domestically in that country as it bars them from being able to partake in activities such as local mediation dialogues which could have a positive impact in bringing warring parties closer to reaching peace or ceasefire agreements.

While not all NSAGs are listed as terrorist organisations, another trend that countries have followed since 9/11 is to automatically designate NSAGs as terrorist groups as soon as they become involved in a conflict.[ii] This premature labelling can not only limit what third party actors can do to try to mitigate conflict in its early stages, but it also ignores how varied the actions and intentions of different armed groups can be. For instance, a rebel group involved in a civil conflict for political or territorial control is not the same as armed groups who are motivated by religious extremism, yet they are categorised as being the same thing which drastically limits how/if non-profits can interact with them.

These legal blockades can also have a negative impact on the reputation of non-profits seeking to engage with NSAGs. While the international reputation of these NGOs is often not severely impacted, the trust between the NGOs and actors within the conflict contexts can unfortunately be hindered, and the confidence of local actors and members of NSAGs in the peace process can also be negatively affected. Building trust between actors in a conflict is one of the most important yet challenging components to getting peacebuilding and mediation talks off the ground. If NGOs are unable to fulfil mandates or respond to needs in the contexts in which they are working because of international and or domestic laws, then the trust and collaboration with the local community can quickly be lost. This can also impact the work of national governments who are trying to reach a negotiated settlement with NSAGs within their own countries. For example, before the May 2021 coup in Mali the interim Prime Minister Moctar Ouane wanted to enter into a dialogue process with the NSAGs operating in the country, which included the Al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.[iii] These efforts were swiftly opposed by the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, stating that the groups mentioned were not signatories to a 2015 peace deal, while Ouane said, “We need to see in that an opportunity to engage in far-reaching discussions with the communities in order to redefine the contours of a new governance of the areas that are concerned”.[iv]

The disagreement in approaches between Le Drian and Ouane highlights how international and domestic laws of Western countries can be misaligned with the goals of the national governments who are directly faced with conflict. It is well established within the networks of NGOs who engage in peacebuilding and conflict mediation that having access and being able to negotiate with NSAGs is beneficial in trying to achieve peace. This is why moving past the hard security approach of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” should be scrapped in favour of more context-specific determinations that can allow experts and practitioners to continue to build trust and connections within conflict contexts that could contribute to peace.[v]


[i] Dr. Asli Ozcelik Olcay, “Negotiating Peace with (Proscribed) Non-State Armed Groups,” Armed Groups and International Law, December 16, 2020.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Mali, France differ over holding talks with armed groups,” Al Jazeera, 26 October, 2020.

[v] “Joint Statement by peace and conflict resolution organisations: A call to rethink Europe’s counter-terrorism strategy and prioritise dialogue,” Conciliation Resources, September 2021.

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