Terrorism has erupted as a predominant destructive conflict element; and in turn, a compulsory factor to address in peacebuilding. States operate within divergent paradigms on including terrorist organizations in peace negotiations, agreements, and post-conflict governance. On one hand terrorism is regarded as illegitimate means to air legitimate grievances within an asymmetrical power structure, and democracy is enhanced by integrating the demands. On the other hand, some extremist platforms are completely incongruent with human rights and democracy. In both cases, peacebuilding should cope with terrorists as part of post-agreement society, irrespective of whether the platform is politically legitimate or a threat to stable peace. As endorsed by Wils and Dudouet (2010):

“Peacebuilding needs the engagement of main conflict stakeholders; in particular, armed groups representing large social or ethnic constituencies with legitimate collective grievances who possess the capacity to either impede or facilitate constructive social change must be involved in conflict settlements.” (p. 1)

 Terrorists may be considered irrational actors, but it is important to consider the “experiential and subjective realities” (Lederach, 1997, p. 23) that solicit such severe tactics. Terrorism is typically employed in asymmetrical disputes where relative deprivation is experienced, perceived, or threatened. Terrorists, and the constituencies they claim to represent, may have attempted to engage in a political solution, but were repudiated. For example, in Malaya, left-winged terrorism resulted in independence and a fairly peaceful transition of power. Malayans deemed their liberators “freedom fighters” yet the British referred to their opposition as communist terrorism (In the Name, 2002). Intervenors must be cognizant of the discrepancies in historical accounts and perception, recognizing that not all combatants, sympathizers, and allies are ideologically aligned with the terror organization; opportunistic alliances of convenience or security are common where terrorism is gaining leverage (Cosgrove, 2014, p. 94).

Terrorism poses complex theoretical and practical considerations for peacebuilders. Where a state prohibits terrorists from peace agreements, it may be illegal for intervenors to engage such groups according to national law. Where extremist groups have entered peace agreements, the accord represents as Lederach (2005) points out, a demarcation of time (p. 43), but not the guarantee or establishment of peaceful relations. Peacebuilding supplements accords as the launch of relationship-building processes across all societal levels (Lederach, 2005, p. 47-48). Reconciliation entails rapport-building since relationship “is the basis of both the conflict and its long-term solution” (Lederach, 1997, p. 26). It requires moving beyond mechanical fixes in resolution, into the convergence of “realism and emotionalism” (ibid., p. 24).

This paper seeks to illuminate the importance of relationship-building with terrorist organizations in post-conflict peacebuilding, and offer examples of structural changes which aid in reconciliation where terrorism is a conflict dynamic. Examples of reconciliation activities between the state, society, and former terrorists are examined within Burgess and Burgess’s (2017) peacebuilding stages of 1) peacemaking/peacekeeping, 2) retrospective reconciliation, 3) prospective positive vision, 4) prospective governance, and 5) prospective private sector interactions.

Operational Definitions

Terrorism. According to terrorism expert and scholar A.K. Cronin (2009), terrorism is difficult to define because actors’ perceptions and historical backdrop lend different contexts (p. 7). Nelson Mandela’s characterization as terrorist or freedom fighter depended on the party’s allegiance; the ethics of his cause was vindicated by the moral ascension of time. A consensus definition of terrorism as offered by Cronin (2009) includes:

“The commission of outrageous acts designed to precipitate political change. At its root, is about justice, or at least someone’s perception of it, whether man-made or divine…Distinguished by its nonstate character…Do[es] not abide by international laws or norms and, to maximize the psychological effect of an attack, their activities have a deliberately random quality that plays to an audience, either to intimidate or inspire. Finally, terrorism has at its purpose the deliberate killing of civilians or noncombatants. It is violence intentionally directed at people who are generally considered to be defenseless, illegitimate targets. (p. 7)

Peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is a broad term. The definition for this analysis is:

“A process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation. This consists of a set of physical, social, and structural initiatives that are often an integral part of postconflict reconstruction and rehabilitation.” (Alliance for Peacebuilding, 2013)

Relationship as the Beginning and End of Conflict

The prevalence of terrorism in conflict throughout the world lends it a false sense of invincibility. The fact is, terrorism campaigns end. An analysis by Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MPIT), a terrorism knowledge database, concluded that the average lifespan of a terrorist group was eight years (Cronin, 2009, p. 75). Those on the selective U.S. Foreign Terror Organizations list survived longer at nineteen years (ibid.). Ethno-nationalist groups have the greatest degree of durability; cessation generally results from goal achievement such as independence or political representation (ibid., p. 76).

Rubin and Rubin (2008) explain the zero-sum strategy of terrorism is to “sabotage any possibility of a negotiated agreement to end the conflict” (p. 176-77). However, when negotiations can transpire, Cronin’s (2009) analysis of the demise of terror campaigns concluded that negotiations yield split outcomes whereby “neither a clear resolution nor a cessation of the conflict” is predictable, but the intensity of violence intermittently ceases or decreases in intensity (ibid., p. 36). States must balance the reward of negotiations tapering violence and permitting a legitimate political engagement process, with risk of the motive to spoil. Intervenors have an opportunity to mitigate default by forging a relationship between parties that leads to trust and cooperation – key for a durable agreement. The comparative cases of Pakistan-Taliban and Philippine-Moro Islamic Liberation Front negotiations exemplify the mixed bag of negotiations, and how outcomes correlate with relationship-building.

The Pakistan-Taliban agreements typify failed accords between a state and terrorists. The Taliban gained leverage for additional concessions by playing the Machiavellian spoiler. Violence escalated post-agreement, further undermining the government’s integrity and ability to protect citizens, and deals swiftly faltered. Each iteration, the government negotiated from a point of weakness (Khattak, 2012). Like a simulated game theory scenario, the state’s opposition was operating in a zero-sum environment, not making collaborative or sustainable decisions.

In Pakistan, post-agreement peacebuilding never had footing since negotiated agreements instantly buckled. Agreements were signed without trust, goals, or means to repair the destructive relationship between insurgents and the state. Ongoing peacebuilding efforts will improve the likelihood for future integrative agreements in Pakistan, negotiated from positions of opportunity rather than desperation.

The Framework Peace Agreement (FPA) between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) sought to improve the odds of an enduring peace agreement. The precipitating conflict lasted decades and tallied over 120,000 deaths (Orendain, 2014). The FPA committee authored an integrative peace accord, and outlined capacity needs to realize agreement terms. Measures included (1) establish an autonomous Muslim region (expansion of semi-autonomous Bangsamoro territory from 1989 MILF agreement); (2) increase economic and political powers of Bangsamoro people, and; (3) disarm 12,000 MILF fighters. The disarmament plan mirrored the Northern Ireland – Irish Republican Army agreement, but was complicated by the prevalence of Philippine armed militias. Criminal organizations such as the National People’s Army, Abu Sayyaf, and Bangsmoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) benefited from regional instability (Guth, 2012), escalating the risk for spoilers. Furthermore, an economic or natural disaster could sabotage all efforts.

The FPA proved fruitful since the peace agreement was signed March 2014. Post cease-fire peace work primed parties to approach agreement execution with “trust and earnestness” (Orendain, 2014). President Benigno Aquino acknowledged that Bangsmoro required additional investments for economic equality, but emphasized a shared, cooperative future. Both Aquino and Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chairman, praised peace over self-interest. Ebrahim said “identity, power and resources have been restored” to his people (ibid.). Capacity efforts are ongoing to address splinter militias and improve the justice system.

With relationship as the beginning and end of conflict, it is essential that initial intervention transform party leadership relations from destructive to constructive in early negotiation stages. When viewing the conflict cycle as a “breaking wave” (Burgess, 2017), terrorism is a strong undertow forming the next swell of violence. Because terrorism is a “constructionist approach to social problems” (Jenkins, 2003, p. 189) it is a dangerously effective tool in recruiting and mobilizing individuals who are frightened, disempowered, and excluded. Any vestige of the motives, narratives, effectiveness, or wounds of terrorism pose a threat to enduring peace in post-agreement societies. Effective peacebuilding enables parties to escape the current of conflict and build a new shared future on solid ground. As seen with the opposing outcomes in Pakistan and the Philippines, reconciling the relationship, rather than compromising positions, is paramount to enduring post-agreement peacebuilding.

From Reconciled Relationship to Structural Change: Implications in Peacebuilding Stages

In “Conflict Transformation,” Lederach (2003) viewed transformation as a paradigm and resolution as a technique. Transformation from violence to peace requires “multiple lenses” including short-sighted to address the immediate situation, mid-range to address relationships, and long-distance to devise the framework for context and structure (ibid.). Similarly, in Richardson’s (2007) analogy, terrorism is a cancer where treatment requires a “combination of alleviating the risk factors, blocking the interactions between them, and building the body’s resilience to exposure” (p. 1-2). Specialists in psychology, sociology, economics, public policy, and political science are required to eradicate the cancer and prevent recurrence (Cronin, p. 4-13). All the while, simultaneous efforts need be coordinated as to avoid the “blind men and the elephant” analogy, where each person describes the same thing different ways because they mistake their part as the whole (Burgess, 2017). Peacebuilding is a multidisciplinary, coordinated effort requiring transformations at context, structure, actor, issue, and personal/elite levels (Miall, 2004, p. 10). Particularly where terrorism is present, synchronization of specialists throughout the peacebuilding stages is essential to “seeing the elephant” and scaling impact to all levels. Ample capacity and synchronization to simultaneously protect, prevent, and cure societies impacted by terrorism is a necessity to disrupt the “breaking wave” (Burgess, 2017) cycle characteristic of such conflicts.

Stage 1: Peacemaking/peacekeeping

In Making Peace Last, Ricigliano (2012) adapts Lederach's and Jones's call for systems thinking to develop his three-domain SAT model (Structural, Attitudinal, and Transactional). The statistic of twenty-five percent relapse of conflict settlements within five years indicates that peace is not solely the absence of violence, but rather entails a more just, equal and thriving society (ibid., p. 5-6) To achieve the systems change, reconciliation efforts must surmount the micro-macro paradox where good work is being done, but not yielding collective results due to lack of coordination (ibid., p. 7).

One example of the coordination challenge within the peacemaking stage of terrorism-laden conflicts in the spotty record for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs. In a critique of the UN’s Congo and Liberia DDR programs, the Council on Foreign Relations faulted linear administration for program erosion, both in funding and impact. DDR was administered sequentially, with weapons seized and destroyed, combatants detained for processing and transitional benefit payments, retributive justice administered, then assimilation of vetted former fighters. This time-consuming linear process instigated high attrition because as explained by a former fighter, “we risked our lives to hand in our weapons. We are incapable of feeding our families and cannot even pay the rent. The solution is for these people to give us our weapons back” (Hanson, 2007). DDR should be viewed as part of a broader security, stabilization, transition and reconstruction (SSTR) strategy with concurrent, rather than linear peacemaking activities.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan coined a “5D” counterterrorism strategy summarized as (1) Dissuade from choosing terrorism, (2) Deny means to conduct attacks, (3) Deter state sponsored terrorism, (4) Develop state capacity to prevent, and (5) Defend human rights in conflict with terrorism (Cortright and Lopez, 2007, p. 238). Annan’s approach requires simultaneous systems of protection, prevention, containment, and cure. Peacemaking in hand with this counterterrorism strategy permits security, and in turn the physical and emotional space for reconciliation.

Stage 2: Retrospective reconciliation

Terrorism employs deplorable tactics violating human rights and undermining security. It becomes difficult in the wake of such ‘unrightable wrongs” (Burgess, 2017) to construct Lederach’s (1997) “encounter” where peace, justice, truth, and mercy converge for reconciliation (p. 28-29). Lederach (2005) defines “constructive social change” as moving away from fear and toward love”: fear characterized as “recrimination and blame, self-justification and protection, violence and the desire for victory over the other”; love as “openness and accountability, self-reflection and vulnerability, mutual respect, dignity, and the proactive engagement of the other” (p. 42). Within this frame, a peace accord represents a point in time launching relationship-building processes across all societal levels, and giving the space for treatment (not the treatment itself) (ibid., p. 47-48). What is justice, truth, mercy and peace for a post-agreement society dealing with terrorism? The difference between the Pakistan and Philippine agreement outcomes indicate the need for mutual reflections and realizations. Justice aimed at “rectifying the wrong” (ibid., p. 28) includes both trials for former combatants, as well as economic and political corrections to repair inequities which prompted a disenfranchised group to resort to terror.

The Philippine government established a counter-radicalization and reintegration program called Resilient Communities in Conflict Affected Communities (translated) (State, 2014). The program seeks to illuminate “best practices” for rehabilitation and reintegration of former terrorists. The Philippine model integrates Lederach’s (1997) reconciliation “encounter” by preparing formerly oppositional rehabilitated terrorists and civil society for a constructive and peaceful relationship. The model incorporates justice by attempting to rectify the conflict issues, truth in acknowledging the interests and transgressions of parties, mercy through inclusion, and peace by fostering harmonious relationships.

Mercy with terrorists seems counterproductive to justice, but a case in India illuminates how the concern for peace prompted mercy for a convicted terrorist. Groups protested the death sentence for Yakub Memon, convicted of the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Arguments against execution were based on its inhumanity, breach of trust since Memon cooperated with authorities, and concern for inciting violence given the attack was retaliation for Hindu protests that killed over 900 people (Lakshmi, 2015). The mercy plea was heavily opposed, but tweets compiled by Lakshmi (2015) captured the concerns:

  • “We are as a nation, murdering Yakub Memon because we hold him responsible for other deaths. What does this make us?” (Lindsay Pereira)
  • “Pak army must be celebrating news of Yakub hanging. Recruits can be told again India is unjust.” (Deep Halder)

The pleas for mercy were not successful and highly unpopular. The sentiment of the tweets expressed concern shared by conflict resolution professionals working in counterterrorism. Cortright and Lopez (1997) in “Strategies and Policy Challenges for Winning the Fight Against Terrorism” advocate for human rights and political participation of terrorists and sympathizers in order to prevent isolation and repression as fuel to terrorism. In democratic settings, “the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism” (ibid., p. 259). The convergence of free speech and jihad is evident in the documentary Targeting Terror which features footage of jihad rallies in London and Berlin. The film asserts the practice of protected free speech has limited retaliation, particularly for Germany since it also declined invading Iraq. However, recent events challenge the efficacy of counternarratives and tolerance/mercy given the domestic and foreign attacks in western democracies. The takeaway remains no one strategy or specialty is ample; several concurrent approaches must be carefully deployed.

Stage 3: Prospective positive vision

In Elise Boulding’s (1999) peacebuilding exercise, “Imagining a Nonviolent World,” peacebuilders struggled to describe their vision of a world without armies. In the simulation participants transport into a future world at peace, describe how things work, construct the history that produced this nonviolent world, and pledge their personal commitments to realize this future. An approach like Bouldings, or similar positive-oriented method such as Appreciative Inquiry, should be employed to unite formerly conflicting parties in a harmonious future. Taking personal responsibility for achieving the future vision is crucial to maintain local, sustainable, accountable programs and initiatives to prevent terrorism. Further, constructive visioning activities establishes a “positive social contract” (Burgess, 2017), builds trust, and engrains integrative, problem-solving approaches of conflict resolution (rather than zero-sum of terrorism). Again, this step of peacebuilding is non-linear as peacemaking, retrospective reconciliation, and future planning interdependently build and mutually reinforce trust.

Stage 4: Prospective governance

As with the Philippine-MILF’s FPA and Comprehensive Agreement, an agreement conducive to peacebuilding takes time. Negotiations can be a peacebuilding activity, and show good faith effort in government reform. Meaningful political participation thwarts the narrative of terrorism; failure to establish inclusive governance reignites destructive conflict.

Berghof Conflict Research and Berghof Peace Support conducted post-conflict peacebuilding with terrorist organizations Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Nepali Maoists, and Communist Party of the Philippines. Their three-prong strategy included self-reflection and learning, peer advice, and policy advice (Wils and Dudouet, 2010, p. 4). The first prong, self-reflection, connects the prospective positive vision to governance with the visualization of transitioning armed conflict to peaceful political participation. This includes “domains of political security and negotiations, party formation, international standards and status/legitimacy, demobilization, [and] security sector reform (ibid.). Peer-advice sessions from outside movement leaders transitioning to political solutions permitted armed groups to learn best practices for principled negotiations. Outcomes from successful interventions produced policy advice for government and peacebuilders on shaping intervention and legislation procedure.

Stage 5: Prospective private sector interactions/building economies that meet human needs

In their report on peacebuilding challenges with terrorist organizations, Wils and Dudouet (2010) cite capacity, rule of law, and impartiality as interconnected challenges to peacebuilders. Capacity is stagnated where anti-terrorism laws prevent “material support or resources” which can be broadly interpreted and applied as prohibition of making first point of contact, preparing parties for negotiations, conducting mediation, and serving as a mediator (ibid., p. 1-2). Since “equitable peace agreements” are achieved when parties are “more informed about peaceful strategies, negotiation options and skills” (ibid.), access is crucial. In many conflicts with terrorism, mediators are constricted in their ability to intervene and recruit third-sector support in funding interventions.

One example of private-public partnership in peacebuilding is Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts which focus heavily on preventing radicalization as a conduit to violence. State capacity is limited due to constrained financial resources and expansive territory. Government capacity is enhanced by third-sector contributions offering “positive alternatives – such as sports, film-making, camps, and rallies” (State, 2014). In contrast, China has no official counter-radicalism strategy, instead enforcing a law-and-order approach that targets populations who have sourced terror, constricts civil liberties, and charges the public with reporting religious extremists (ibid.). Counterterrorism experts fear that China’s oppressive methods will incite further violence as a response to suspicion and oppression (ibid.).

Analyses by Cortright and Lopez (2007) found that “the relationship between socioeconomic conditions and the rise of terrorism is complex and indirect” (p. 253). Still, lack of economic development can be a root cause for conflict (ibid., p. 255); poverty combined with poor governance, relative deprivation, and other elements can lead to terrorism as a means in conflict. As such, a private sector which meets human needs, without discrimination, is a crucial element of peacebuilding.

Economies cannot transform overnight, but government reform and private sector commitment can amend disparate impact over time. During the change process, NGOs are necessary to fill voids that would otherwise be manipulated by insurgents. Businesses which reap the dividends of a viable economy should invest in risk mitigation and stability by funding peace work, reforming employment practices (for example, affirmative action programs which employ previously underrepresented groups), convening business associations for community engagement, and sponsoring activities which benefit the host communities.


Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).