Spotlight: Talking with terrorists


Military campaigns against Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia have not ended the terror threat. Instead they risk alienating communities and breeding a new generation of radicalised youth. As a result, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Senior Researcher Akinola Olojo explored the idea of dialogue with violent extremists as part of a more sustainable peacebuilding strategy.

His ISS policy brief was seen online by the foreign policy advisor to progressive United States (US) Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born American politician. In recent months she has visited African countries including Ghana and Djibouti where she met with the presidents of both states.

Olojo travelled to Washington in October at Omar’s personal invitation, and found a recognition of the need to explore non-military options in the fight against terror. ‘Dr Olojo’s brief on the viability of dialogue with al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has been essential to our work on the Africa subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,’ said Omar’s advisor Ryan Morgan. ‘It is a creative, thoroughly documented brief that correctly puts the focus on locally-driven peaceful ways forward in Somalia and the Sahel.’

ISS discussions in Washington acknowledged the counter-productive aspects of bombing violent extremists, noting that terror attacks persisted in Somalia despite more than 120 US airstrikes in two years.

‘We’ve not seen results after more than ten years of multinational task forces taking a military approach to violent extremism in the Horn of Africa, Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel,’ Olojo says. ‘The current strategy isn’t working, so maybe it’s time for a new approach. We don’t have to entirely discard a military response, but it does make sense to explore dialogue more deeply.’

Talking to terrorists is counter-intuitive to some people, who fear it creates the impression of state weakness, or that it may lead to unreasonable demands by radical groups. ‘The opposite is true,’ says Olojo. ‘By demonstrating a willingness to explore talks, governments show that they are prioritising human security and willing to look at all options in the search for lasting peace.’

ISS’ analysis was essential to the work on the Africa subcommittee of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee

He turned to data to prove his argument. The African Union’s Mission in Somalia had up to 22 000 uniformed personnel in the Horn of Africa, with an annual investment of more than a billion US dollars, but little to show for it. More than 70 000 people have died in terror attacks in the past decade in the Lake Chad Basin, despite extensive military campaigns against violent extremists.

‘It makes sense to rethink the strategy,’ Olojo says. He urges governments not to be put off by past failures, such as Nigeria’s flawed attempts at dialogue with Boko Haram in 2011. The reason it didn’t work wasn’t because the idea was wrong, but because the execution was flawed. There was a lack of political will, an absence of discretion, leaking of information and limited cohesion in the expectations of the process and its outcomes.

The most challenging category of violent extremists is those who have been ideologically indoctrinated and believe they are fighting for a just cause. But Olojo suggests that even hardened fighters can be engaged.

Lessons from other conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Colombia, show it takes years for dialogue to be effective, and that negotiation is a complex process, not an event. Talks need to start at the grassroots, with women, young people, the families of militants, and civil society organisations. Engaging with religious leaders can help deconstruct the false doctrine underpinning the narrative of violent extremist groups.

‘Sometimes what is at stake is the interpretation of Islamic law, and that can’t be resolved through force, but by understanding the complex issues and developing a common vision for the future.’

In his policy brief Olojo recommended that global actors such as the US could play a more constructive role in countering violent extremism, so getting the attention of a US Congresswoman was a real demonstration of impact.

Olojo agreed with Omar’s team that the next steps are to survey local perceptions of dialogue, as community support is a necessary precursor to talks. This aligns with his own recommendations that a dedicated commission be tasked with developing a communication strategy for regions affected by terrorism.

‘The kind of battle we are fighting cannot be won with guns and bombs. Part of what we are dealing with is ideology and a war over ideas, so it makes sense to explore talks as part of our arsenal,’ he says.

For more information contact:

Akinola Olojo, ISS: +27 12 346 9500;

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