“Whatever they do, you’re going to have to talk to them”

Loyd initiated the discussion by highlighting the current severity of the issue of ‘terrorism’.  He asked, “What do we do about terrorists? Do we kill them, cage them, or do we speak to them as a way to get ourselves out of this mess?”

The discussion delved into issues which Powell covers in his book, ranging from how to define what a ‘terrorist’ is, to whether ‘talking to’ or negotiating with groups who use terror against civilians is the best ‘political strategy’ for a government.

“Mainly people use the word terrorist as a pejorative term, to try and make the people unacceptable . . . to talk to,” Powell said. He highlighted that many individuals that we now regard as ‘statesmen’, such as Nelson Mandela, were once labelled ‘terrorists’.

Loyd asked about the purpose in talking to terrorists, as there have been plenty of examples in recent history “where terrorist campaigns have been ended, decapitated, annihilated, without any recourse to talks”.

Powell pointed out that ‘decapitating’ terrorists groups, as occurred with Gonzalez of Shining Path in Peru, has only worked in a small handful of cases. Equally, heavy-handed annihilation tactics which have been used by dictatorships (such as the Soviet Union against insurgents in Chechnya) are unfeasible because “they do it in a way that we could never manage in a Western democracy”.

Loyd asked about the legitimacy of a democratic government negotiating with terrorists who pose a threat to its civilians. Powell responded that “it is certainly true that terrorists crave legitimacy”, but argued “you’re giving them a fairly temporary legitimacy and that is a price worth paying for negotiation”.

On the issue of who should be negotiated with, Powell said that “Sinn Fein had genuine political support, . . . that’s the distinction I draw”. He disputed the academic idea of the ‘ripeness’ of a situation for negotiation, arguing “it’s obviously tautological; you can’t tell if a situation is ripe for success until it’s actually happened”.

His suggestion, then, is “to keep trying until you’ve reached the right moment”. In his experience, negotiation usually only works when there exists a “mutually hurting stalemate”. After the initiation of talks, “there’s a long educative process for both sides, for governments as well as for the armed groups . . . governments need to understand what these grievances are”.

When asked specifically about dealing with IS, Powell argued that there are legitimate grievances, not least sectarian issues, which could be discussed with members of IS. “You wouldn’t talk to ISIS and give them an Islamic caliphate”, he explained.

During questions from the audience, BBC Correspondent David Loyn asked: “You talk about the need for an open strategy with ISIS, but . . . maybe an open strategy is the worst thing. . . . Actually, the secret channels need to happen at the same time?”

Powell clarified by saying, “What I would really like is governments to have a coherent strategy privately”. He reiterated that terrorists groups are “not nihilistic” or “psychopaths” and concluded by saying: “Whatever they do, you’re going to have to talk to them.”


Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb tweeted:

You can watch the event online here: