Negotiating extremism – How to talk with terrorists…

Now that I got your attention…

Obviously, there are no easy answers to what is increasingly a necessity in peace processes – ways through which one can engage with terrorists with a view to bringing them into dialogues and locking them into a peace process that ultimately leads to justice and sustainable socio-political transformation.

That’s the hope.

Reality, as with the case of Sri Lanka in particular, is that negotiations with terrorism are fraught with uncertainty. Transcending cycles of violence is an incredibly complex problem. A while ago, I’ve written in support of an overarching strategic framework that needs to accompany such a process of engagement with the voices of extremism in (A Long Term View for Peace):

The key emphasis of mapping a peace process is on ascertaining the progress in the process itself – for instance, qualitatively determining the public confidence in a set of options for an interim agreement or various manifestations of the federal idea, a qualitative audit of initiatives that build grassroots capacities for non-violent conflict transformation, patterns of information consumption on politics through media etc. For those involved in peacebuilding, reconciliation and governance, such a process ensures windows through which snapshots of public opinion regarding peace and the general health of the peace process is ascertained. Monitoring and evaluation of projects needs to include the public – the ultimate recipients of all projects and initiatives. Encouraging public participation from the community level monitoring of projects to national report card surveys on the delivery of goods and services is an essential component of any initiative that seeks to build ownership amongst the masses for peace initiatives. Finally, frameworks for communication between various actors in a peace process need to be designed so as to mitigate the impact of localised violence or low intensity conflict on the larger peace process. Such frameworks can be based on a combination of physical meetings and virtual interactions through the increasing prevalence of the web and internet in Sri Lanka to promote cohesive dialogues in support of peace.

How can ICT help in the creation of such frameworks?

One possibility is through the creation of virtual ‘safe-spaces’ – virtual collaborative workspaces that help ameliorate extremist demands in light of what’s possible over a period of time. The idea is that over time, maximalist demands give way to ideas that help each side attain their aspirations. This symbiosis is what is the hardest to create – for instance, that an official apology and a process of laying down arms may well contribute strongly to a process of reconciliation and power sharing that is beneficial to all sides.

However, the groundwork for such concessions may well be laid with the aid of technology. In the real world, the intractable nature of ethno-political conflict, coupled with the communal hagiography, party positions and respective ideologies of the stakeholders, make creative ideas extremely difficult to explore, discuss and navigate in the public gaze. Virtual processes can allow a ‘safe space’ for parties to discuss these issues in an environment removed from the pressures of constituency politics or zero-sum power games. The underlying premise of the usefulness of virtual processes is that the virtual domain, while not divorced totally from the emotions of physical and real world problems and processes, nevertheless allows participants to express their interests without having to justify them to hostile audiences. Without the burden of justifying their every word to a battle-hardened constituency, parties in a virtual collaborative negotiations process can talk about many issues, and discuss innovative ideas and solutions to seemingly intractable problems, that would not otherwise have been possible.

I’ve written briefly about some of these ideas in a paper titled Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding but I also found tremendously interesting the comments of Dr. Josh Weiss in his podcast here, titled Negotiating with Extremists.

In a larger sense, while the use of technology by terrorist groups is a well researched area (see How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet) much less work is done in the area of how to use technology to help us explore ways through which we can address extremism and terrorism. I really could not find any resources on pure research or empirical studies on how ICT could be used to design frameworks of engagement with extremism & terrorism.

Peace Tools which I talked about earlier in this blog is one such attempt to create a set of tools and frameworks that using ICT is robust enough to withstand the unique pressures of negotiating terrorism and terrorist demands. This, I fear, is far more than a case of BATNA vs. BATNA (the HNP collapses in the face of complex ethnic conflict) but is more a case of simplifying complexity – so that participants are helped in their negotiations by expert systems that are able to point out flaws in reasoning based on previous statements, or point to possible opportunities for mutual gain.

The computing power required for this coupled with the systems frameworks, which Peace Tools aspires to be, is well beyond what is currently envisaged in even the most complex ODR system.

But I’d argue that we need to start today to create the systems of tomorrow that will help us address the challenges of terrorism.

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