The Complex Effects of Counterterrorism Policies on Mediation Efforts

The Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. in February 2019. (Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP)

Bringing together non-state armed groups and governments to participate in peace processes has become a familiar characteristic of 21st-century mediation. However, after 9/11, several countries adopted strict counterterrorism policies. As a result, many non-state armed groups were given the label “terrorist group” by the same governments they were meant to negotiate with. The complex effects of this have impeded mediation efforts, impacted conflict dynamics, and created challenges to forging peace.

Afghanistan is a prime example. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, the American intervention there was in large part premised on the assumption that the Taliban, then rulers of the country, played an important role in the attacks. The group was proscribed by the United States and became a legitimate target for military operations. Under American influence, even the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expressed its support, in resolution 1378 of 14 November 2001, for “the efforts of the Afghan people to replace the Taliban regime.”

They were soon toppled from Kabul and chased into their mountain hideouts. Even though continued military operations produced limited results, it took several years before the Americans and the Afghan government decided to engage the group in negotiations. Even then, negotiations began very discreetly and were only made public in 2019 in Qatar, culminating in the February 2020 peace deal in Doha.

Mali is also challenged with the question of non-state armed groups in peace processes. There, the two peace processes launched with non-state armed groups since 2012 (the Ouagadougou and Algiers processes) have had a normative principle of excluding groups proscribed as terrorists from the talks. Since the Algiers process of 2015, two groups—one led by Iyad Ag Ghaly in the north, and the other led by Amadou Diallo (aka Amadou Koufa) in the country’s center—continue to launch attacks against both civilians and Malian state symbols. They are not restrained by the provisions of the peace accords, since they were not part of the process. This has produced a heated debate in Mali about initiating talks with these groups, though as of this writing, Malian authorities have shied away from doing so.

In these two examples, counterterrorism policies have affected mediation initiatives that in turn shape the conflicts themselves. In Afghanistan, there was a delay in the launch of the negotiations, and secrecy was imposed as the modus operandi for the better part of the process. While secrecy or discretion can be necessary during the early stages or for some part of a mediation process, in this case, public knowledge about the process was not allowed, even when it could have potentially helped the process. In Mali, some prominent political and social actors have publicly called for the launch of talks with Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa. However, the resistance to this approach—not always based on teleological considerations—has limited the options aimed at ending the unbearable insecurity in that country. Some argue that this stance is influenced by the counterterrorism policies of some of Mali’s important foreign partners.

Proscribing a group as “terrorist” can allow some countries to justify their lack of engagement in negotiations with them and can even prevent potential entry points to a peace process from being explored. A strict application of counterterrorism policies is also likely to hamper the ability of any actor, including mediators and humanitarian organizations, to engage with members of proscribed groups—even in peace processes—without exposing themselves to harsh sanctions.

It has been two decades since stringent counterterrorism policies were rolled out by various countries in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Over the same period, heavy military operations dubbed a “war on terror” have been launched in various corners of the world. Experience from these operations shows that dialogue and mediation can provide better alternatives and more sustainable results.

In October 2015, the African Union (AU) held its sixth High-Level Retreat of Special Envoys and Mediators working on Africa under the theme “Terrorism, Mediation and Armed Groups.” The mediators and envoys from the AU, the UN, and regional organizations gathered in Namibia for this retreat recognized a simple historical fact: that almost no terrorist-designated organization with a popular constituency has ever been defeated by military means alone. In other words, political problems require political solutions. After all, some acts of proscription are very subjective and even questionable. In any case, engaging politically with armed groups does not exclude military means, but the latter alone seldom prospers.

The question is therefore not whether or not to negotiate with such groups, but how counterterrorism policies should be flexible enough to allow the exploration of negotiation and mediation opportunities and the ability to seize them. Even in UN sanctions regimes, there are exceptions allowed for peacemakers to contact sanctioned individuals if it is necessary for their peacemaking efforts, though such peacemakers are enjoined to inform the relevant UN entities of such contacts.

In the UN General Assembly’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, initially adopted in September 2006, one of the “measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism” identified in this strategy is “to continue to strengthen and make best possible use of the capacities of the United Nations in areas such as conflict prevention, negotiation, mediation, conciliation, judicial settlement, rule of law, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, in order to contribute to the successful prevention and peaceful resolution of prolonged unresolved conflicts.” The strategy recognizes “that the peaceful resolution of such conflicts would contribute to strengthening the global fight against terrorism.”

On June 26, 2018, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 72/284 on the sixth review of the strategy. The 9th operational paragraph of this resolution underscores that “terrorism will not be defeated by military force, law enforcement measures, and intelligence operations alone.” In its 79th paragraph, the resolution urges UN member states to ensure “that counter-terrorism legislation and measures do not impede humanitarian and medical activities or engagement with all relevant actors.”

Countries involved in counterterrorism operations through military means ought to recognize the need to pay attention to the grievances of the populations sympathetic to the armed groups proscribed as terrorists. This recognition might involve negotiations with such groups in order to deal with the underlying social-political considerations of the “terror campaign.” Such negotiations need not be unconditional. But the interplay between mediation and counterterrorism policies should not be viewed as an either/or. The work is in how to make them complementary. Such an approach is likely to facilitate the work of mediators, for it would give them the space necessary to do their job without being constrained by limitations of secrecy or concerns of clashing with some countries. Most importantly, it would mean that they can engage with all conflict actors, proscribed or not.

This article is part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism (PVE/CT), done in collaboration with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations.

Issaka K. Souaré is a Senior Mediation Advisor and co-editor of La lutte contre le terrorisme en Afrique : Acte de bienveillance ou prétexte géostratégique ? (University of Montreal Press, 2019).