Radical Islamism
Negotiating with jihadists?

In Asia and Africa, Muslim terrorists are regarded as combatants with concerns that should be taken seriously. Experts advise dialogue in lieu of extermination. By Charlotte Wiedemann

To neutralise; to render harmless. When it comes to killing Muslim terrorists, people could just as easily be talking about pest control. The impression is that the perpetrators are beyond all generally prevailing standards and that as a result, international law does not need to be applied in efforts to eradicate them.

The War on Terror, waged in precisely such an unfettered manner on both a psychological and legal level, has failed militarily on most fronts. This also weakens the interpretive power of the Western definition of the absolute enemy. From the point of view of populations in Africa and Asia, jihadists – who frequently present themselves in the garb that their religion demands, but are less motivated by the faith itself – are often not raging fanatics, but combatants with goals and interests. And where these people are to be found, a window opens: to seek dialogue, to negotiate where possible.

The Afghan government recently made the Taliban an offer of far-reaching talks: recognition as a political party, prisoner release. After 17 years of war, a third of Afghans are again living under Taliban rule today. Keeping them at arms' length from the 2001/02 Petersburg talks on the future of the country is now seen as a momentous error.

In the Sahel states, Brussels, Paris and Washington continue to invest in the military option alone.  When France intervened in Mali in 2013, the comparison with Afghanistan ("Sahelistan") still appeared absurd, but after five years of international intervention, Mali is marked by a complex grid of violence. Barely a day goes by without attacks, most of them aimed at foreign troops (12,000 UN soldiers, including 1,000 German and 1,000 French special forces).

Cautiously open to dialogue

The Malian peace process only includes non-Islamist militias, in particular the Tuareg rebels who initially triggered the crisis. The approach to their intermittent jihadist allies is: don't talk to them, just liquidate them. For Mali, this distinction between partner and enemy has always been imposed from outside. Many regard the Tuareg separatists as the greater evil: after all, they caused so much mayhem in northern Mali that successive religious occupiers were initially welcomed as a force for peace and order.

Malian politician Tiebile Drame (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Dialogue, despite everything: "We can't throw these people in the river. We need a political solution," says Malian politician Tiebile Drame

From 2014, a number of key figures in Mali began lobbying for a dialogue with the jihadists. The calls gained more traction as attempts to militarily vanquish jihadism failed. Furthermore, this attitude is today more evidently domestic than in previous years; the Malian people took less umbrage at the Western liquidation strategy, as long as those killed were foreigners.

Now two well-known actors are putting their heads above the parapet: in central Mali the preacher Amadou Koufa and in the north the Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali – the latter the personification of the fluid dividing line between rebellion, terror, the drugs trade and al-Qaida in the Maghreb. Both leaders have indicated a cautious willingness to enter into dialogue. And despite all the crimes that have been committed, many Malians still feel a certain sense of respect. "We can't throw these people in the river. We need a political solution," says the politician Tiebile Drame.

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