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Robert Axelrod Headshot

Talking to Terrorists

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The following is an extended version of an op-ed that originally appeared in the June 30, 2010 edition of The New York Times.

Not all groups that the United States government has officially classified as terrorists are equally bad or dangerous. In fact, some have become our partners in democracy or in peace processes we pursue. Today, the African National Congress democratically governs with Whites and Blacks in South Africa, and its historical leader, Nelson Mandela, is widely considered the greatest man of peace in the world today. Martin McGuinness and the Provisional Irish Republican Army he spearheaded now preach nonviolence as the way to solve political differences between Protestants and Catholics, as well as between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq. And Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization he leads have become privileged allies in US plans for peace in the Middle East.

The ANC, IRA, PLO and their leaders were all once classified as terrorists by the US government. In each case, there are examples of knowledgeable private citizens -- clergy, academics, scientists and others -- who worked behind the scenes with these official terror groups to end the violence. It's not that religious, academic or scientific credentials automatically convey trust, but when joined with personal commitment to peace they often carry weight beyond mere opinion or desire.

The Supreme Court ruling in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project ruled that any "material support" of a foreign terrorist organization helps lend legitimacy to the organization. This ruling highlights the need to be clear about the distinction between illegal "material support" of a terrorist organization and legal activities that involve talking with terrorists privately and that potentially could reduce terrorism. While direct material support can clearly do us harm, some approaches to interacting with terror groups need not lend them legitimacy, and can actually promote US security.

To be sure there are groups like Al Qaeda that will probably have to be fought to the end, and the majority opinion of the Supreme Court reasonably conjectures that any help given them, even in instruction about how to enhance their human rights profile, could free up time and effort in pursuit of extremist violence. (But even in such cases the risk to our national security may be less than the Court's broad interpretation of "material support" suggests, because die-hard groups like Al Qaeda would likely hand back the head of any would-be American do-gooder before he could do any harm.)

Today, as in the entire history of our species, war and group violence are ever present or threatening, and their reduction requires constant effort, innovation and adaptability. This means listening and talking to enemies, probing gray areas for ways forward in order to find out who is truly a mortal foe and who just might become a friend.

It is important to realize that in a political struggle, leaders often wish they could communicate something to the other side before they are able to acknowledge to their own supporters having done so. The doctrine of "open negotiations" is simply not very practical. When direct communication is not feasible, and when suitable official intermediaries are not available, private citizens can fill the gap. However, conditions should be stringent. There must be trust on all sides that information is accurately conveyed, and that it will be kept in confidence as long as necessary.

Accuracy requires both skill in listening and exploring, some degree of cultural understanding and, wherever possible, the intellectual distance that scientific data and research afford. Field-based scientific research also can provide surprising and promising avenues for innovation and breakthrough. For example, in our own work, we sometimes elicit from governments questions they wish to ask of their adversaries but cannot. We then test out answers both with leaders and their populations. Among the surprising things we find is that for the most militant elements on either side of a political divide, sacred values and symbolic gestures, such as sincere shows of respect and recognition by the other side, trump material values and "carrot and stick" approaches to lessening conflict and violence. This seems to be as true of Palestinians who reject Israel as of Iranians who support nuclear development.

We also find significant differences and variation in the attitudes and actions of groups categorized as terror organizations. For example, in recent interactions with Ramadan Shallah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (duly reported to US authorities because he is on the FBI's "most wanted" list, see interview here) we found adamant refusal to ever recognize Israel or move towards a two-state solution, whereas Hamas politburo chairman Khaled Meshaal said that his movement could imagine a two-state peace ("salaam," and not just the usual armistice or "hudna"). Further inquiry also confirmed what Saudi intelligence told us and Israeli officials acknowledged, that Hamas has fought to keep Al Qaeda out of its field of play and has no demonstrated interest in global jihad. Whether or not the differences between Al Qaeda, PIJ and Hamas are fundamental, rather than temporary or tactical, only further exploration will reveal. But to assume at the outset that such differences are practically meaningless, and that is invariably wrong to engage any of these groups to explore potential implications for reducing violence, is a grave mistake.

In fieldwork with jihadi leaders, foot soldiers and their friends across Eurasia and North Africa, we find huge variation in the political aspirations, desired actions, and commitment to violence of militant groups and their supporters. And as one of us testified at a March 10 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, these differences can and must be leveraged to win the cooperation of the next generation of those who otherwise risk becoming our enemies. Field-based scientific understanding of these groups, sometimes in direct interaction with them, is indispensable. Even for the most implacable of them, talking and listening can help us better understand why they want to fight us, so that we may better fight them. The Congress should clarify it's counterterroism laws and see to it that the recent Supreme Court Decision would not hinder such efforts by outlawing all informed interaction with terrorist groups and so harm our national security and prospects for peace around the world.

Scott Atran is an anthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, The University of Michigan, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of the forthcoming book "Talking to the Enemy." Robert Axelrod is professor of political science, public policy and human understanding at the the University of Michigan, and author of "The Evolution of Cooperation."