April 2019: CEIA Director, Matt Waldman, was honored to be invited to speak for the second time at the prestigious Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where he addressed academics and experts about the process of engaging enemies in the context of the ‘War on Terror.’   

Waldman shared reflections and observations about engaging with Islamist armed groups: the wider context and conditions, the leaders of such groups, and the process of engagement.

He argued that an empathic approach is essential for understanding Islamist groups, and observed that many who fight in such groups believe that they have been subjected to violent aggression and feel an acute sense of injustice.

Waldman argued that understanding these factors does not, in any way, imply approval of the groups or their conduct. The best strategists, above all, seek to ‘know their enemy.’ Rather, acquiring such understanding can help diplomats and decision makers make informed decisions about the viability, advisability and potential means of engagement. 

Waldman concluded that engagement with Islamist armed groups is often challenging with little prospect of success, especially due to the drivers of conflict, deep mistrust and powerful spoilers on all sides. Yet, that mistrust can in some cases be overcome by effective engagement and a sense of human connection. Spoilers can be managed. Moreover, purely military responses are often inadequate. Engagement enables states to test their assumptions and to explore opportunities to resolve or mitigate conflict that are in all sides’ interests.