Talking with Terrorists: Boko Haram and Peacemaking

by Martin Brooks

Back before ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) seized the headlines, do you remember those 276 girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria? You can bet their families have not forgotten.

What if you had a chance to sit down with one of the Boko Haram guys, before they kidnapped the girls. If you knew of his plan, would you try to talk him out of hurting them? I mean, even if you were not successful, wouldn't you want to try? Unfortunately, if you did that, you would be in violation of U.S. law. When you returned to the United States, our government could prosecute you for giving "material assistance" to terrorists. Your assets could be seized, and you could be imprisoned.

The intent of the law was good; I mean, who wants to give "material assistance" to terrorists? The problem is that the law does not provide space for negotiations and peaceful conflict resolution.

Kay Guinane works with Charity and Security Network. In an article, "U.S. Law Limits options for Non-Violent End to Nigerian Girls Nightmare," Kay writes,

It is clear from press reports that intermediaries are in touch with Boko Haram. Could these or other intermediaries establish dialog with Boko Haram that could end with the girls' return? Given the practical limitations of rescue by force and the political dangers of involving foreign militaries, this looks like the best hope. And given how ineffective the Nigerian government and armed forces response has been to date, there is little to lose.

Non-governmental actors are best placed to carry out any dialog or negotiations with Boko Haram. They are free of political agendas and have the credibility to go back and forth between contacts on both sides. They can be focused solely on the goal of freeing the girls, and not driven by foreign policy, electoral or military objectives.

But contact with Boko Haram is not legal, even for the purpose of freeing the girls or ending Boko Haram's campaign of terror. That is because the U.S. put Boko Haram on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) in November 2013. That means any form of support, including expert advice or assistance, to a group on the list is considered material support of terrorism and is illegal.

This prohibition reflects a strategy of isolation. The theory is that bad actors will wither away over time from lack of resources. But experience shows that this does not work well. Other FTOs, like the FARC in Colombia, the PKK in Turkey and Hamas in Gaza are still operating after years of being on U.S. terrorist lists. In fact, experts say FTO designation can enhance the status of an armed group among its supporters, and Boko Haram is likely to view it as a badge of honor.

A bill pending in Congress - the Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act - would permit speech and communications aimed at "reducing the frequency and severity of armed conflict...and its impact on the civilian population." This is not likely to pass in time to help the schoolgirls in Nigeria but under current law the administration could issue an exemption for talks aimed at freeing them. It should do so immediately.

Kay's article goes on to talk about the history of Boko Haram and the grievances that made them increasingly violent. I encourage you to read the entire article and support the Humanitarian Assistance Facilitation Act. You can even follow links to "Contact Your Member of Congress" with suggested text provided by the Charity and Security Network.

Not talking to terrorists might save face for politicians who do not want to appear to be "soft on terror," but unless people talk, issues cannot be addressed and resolved. I suppose there is still the military option, but if the conflict is ideological or based on some grievance, people must talk. If the government diplomats are concerned that "talking to terrorists" will "send the wrong message," at least allow non-government peacemakers to quietly work in the background without the fear of prosecution. These who "seek peace and pursue it" may very well help our country avoid another costly war.