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Terrorists: From Pariah to Partners

Prepared by: Michael Moran
March 17, 2006

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On the guest list for President Bush's annual St. Patrick's Day celebration last week was Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of a group—the Irish Republican Army—which less than a decade ago was a perennial shoe-in for the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The IRA's removal from that list after it foreswore violence and sanctioned peace talks with the British government in the late 1990s is a startling example of how diplomacy can affect dramatic changes in seemingly hopeless situations. Yet the IRA's case is not an isolated one. As this CFR Background Q&A relates, a number of terrorist groups have trod the path from pariah to partner during the past decade. Are similar changes possible in the Middle East?

In the past several months, free and fair elections have brought to power Hamas in the Palestinian territories and put Hezbollah—the group that destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks and 241 American lives in Beirut in 1983—into the government of Lebanon. In addition, elections have led to major gains by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a previously banned organization with murky links to radical Islamic terror groups.

Whether the venue is Iraq or Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Sri Lanka or Spain, (where on-again, off-again efforts to draw the Basque terrorists of ETA into talks continue), a black and white approach to the question of dealing with terrorists often gives way to practical considerations when protracted military stalemate is the other option.

So far, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah is about to cross this Rubicon. Hezbollah this week refused demands from other Lebanese parties to disarm. Pressure on Hamas, meanwhile, to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist as it works to form a Palestinian government so far has been rebuffed (al-Jazeera). Iran has strongly supported both decisions, and Arab governments have told Washington to expect no economic boycott of either group, which they view as resistance movements, not terrorists.

Still, some analysts believe the pressures of winning electoral power may force a compromise from both groups, whose popularity these days is believed to stem more from their social and religious leadership than their violent confrontation with Israel.

"The main problem is not U.S. policy but the underlying conditions in the last few months that have led to the victory of Hamas in Palestine and to the impressive showing by both Shia and Sunni religious parties in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Moslem [sic] Brotherhood in Egypt," writes Marina Ottaway, an expert in democracy-promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Instead, these groups "have crafted a message about morality and socioeconomic justice that resonates readily with the public."

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