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Dealing with the Terrorism Crisis: Potential Contributions from the Conflict Resolution & Peacemaking Fields
by Gary Burgess, Ph.D., Heidi Burgess, Ph.D.; The Conflict Resolution Information Source

8:00 a.m. January 15, 2003 PDT
The following document is from The Conflict Resolution Information Source's Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project. Funded by the Hewlett Foundation, ICKB is a two-year project which will assemble online a comprehensive and extensively cross-indexed inventory of available strategies for dealing with intractable conflict. For additional information, please visit The Conflict Resolution Information Source.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the e11th hour editorial staff.
Clearly, in a world where the number of threats is almost unlimited, prioritization is vital. One cannot defend perfectly against every possible threat, but it is feasible to strengthen existing defenses and create new ones, thereby making the most deadly type of attacks less likely. Though much more needs to be done, improved homeland security is possible.

AS EVENTS STEMMING from the September 11th attacks clearly demonstrate, intractable conflicts can be extremely painful, costly, and dangerous. While a relatively small group of people may have been responsible for the immediate tragedy of September 11, the danger of continued, wide-ranging, and highly destructive intractable conflict looms large.

In response, the United States is currently engaged in a "War on Terrorism." The goal of this war is said to be the elimination of terror as a viable option for obtaining a group's interests or needs. Many people in the United States and around the world support this military approach, believing it is the best, or even the only possible way to respond to September 11. Terrorists — and the states that support them — need to understand that their approach is not acceptable or effective. If they are allowed to "get away with it," many experts assert, more attacks will likely follow.

Others fear the "war on terrorism" will drive the escalation spiral even higher. It is asserted by many in the dispute resolution field and elsewhere that the U.S. war will create more enemies of America, more hate, more fear, and more violence and terrorism.

To what degree is each view correct? What are the alternatives? Was there an effective non-violent response to the September 11 attack? Is there still a non-violent option (now that the "war" is underway)? Is it possible to pursue war and peace at the same time? How can we bring the current "war" to an end? What is (or should be) our ultimate goal in this struggle?

For the last six weeks we have been talking and corresponding with many of our conflict resolution and peace-building colleagues about these questions. Most have opinions and suggested answers. In some areas there is consensus. In others, great difference. But clearly, the conflict resolution field knows a lot about intractable conflicts and what is likely to work, and not work, in this crisis situation.

Compiling our knowledge is far beyond the scope of one paper; in fact, that is what the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project (ICKB) is all about. (Funded by the Hewlett Foundation, ICKB is a new, two-year project which will assemble, on the World Wide Web, a comprehensive and extensively crossed indexed inventory of available strategies for dealing with intractable conflict.) This essay represents an initial effort, by the project's directors, to identify topics which should be included in the knowledge base, because of their applicability to the terrorism crisis and the broader problem of intractable conflict. We hope readers will look at our list, add to it, suggest changes, and start thinking about the materials we need to collect and distribute to bring outsiders "up to speed" on what we, as a field, know about these topics.


While we can debate what we mean by "intractable" for hours or days, we do know that some conflicts are clearly vastly more difficult to resolve than others. We also have considerable information about why this is true. Among this knowledge is an understanding of:
  • The Causes of Intractability
    Several theories exist about what causes some conflicts to be resolvable, while other conflicts apparently are not. We need to identify each of those theories and develop materials that people can use to understand the problems that need to be overcome before the terrorism crisis can be resolved successfully. These theories will apply to other intractable conflicts as well.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Framing
    The way conflicts are defined or framed contributes greatly to the way in which they are approached. To some extent, framing is a self-fulfilling prophesy — if a conflict is framed as intractable, it will become so. But framing is also a much more complex process than that. In the context of September 11, it was significant that the U.S. framed this conflict as a "war," as opposed to a "criminal act." It also matters whether the attack is framed as "terrorism," or as others have seen it, as "freedom fighting." The field has a great deal of useful information about framing and reframing-how it is done, why it is important, and how destructive frames can be transformed (sometimes) into more constructive frames.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Conflict Assessment
    Intractable conflicts are often extremely complex. They involve many parties and issues, and usually have long histories of multiple disputes and overlapping problems. As one investigates the September 11 attacks, for example, it quickly becomes evident that the issues involve all of the religious, political, economic, and social differences between the United States and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and to some extent the broader Islamic world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of the story, as are intergroup relations within the United States. By presenting a variety of conflict assessment tools, and applying to the "terrorism crisis" (as well as other intractable conflicts) people should be able to gain a further understanding of the complexity of this problem and why simple "solutions" won't work.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Conflict Stages
    Conflicts tend to move through stages, each with their own special problems and opportunities. Some interventions are most appropriate and effective during early conflict definition and escalation stages, while others are more appropriate during later stages of stalemate or de-escalation. An understanding of typical stages and "what works best/when" is important for effective conflict de-escalation and transformation.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Conflict Dynamics
    Many of us have been studying particular conflict dynamics for years. An improved understanding of dynamics such as issue emergence, transformation, proliferation, polarization, stereotyping, and runaway escalation can leave disputants, bystanders and third parties in a better position to anticipate and avoid potential problems, while also identifying and pursuing opportunities to reverse destructive dynamics.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Future Imaging
    One of the major barriers to effective conflict resolution is the fact that parties to intractable conflict seldom have a realistic image of what peace would look like or how it would be structured. The assumption is simply that the "bad guys" will disappear, or somehow stop being "bad." But successful peacebuilding requires a much clearer and more realistic image of what end results are both achievable and desirable.

    It is much easier to get the parties to abandon destructive and counter-productive conflict processes if they have a clear and realistic image of a more desirable future that they would like to pursue. Visualization processes and related interventions can facilitate development of such images.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Coalition Building
    In military confrontations, such as the one we are now facing, there is a tendency to conclude that the only conflict which matters is the one that divides the parties to the core confrontation. However, there is a lot of "in-group" conflict resolution that is required before the core conflict can be addressed successfully. We know a great deal about the consensus-building and negotiation processes that are necessary to building effective coalitions.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

Force-based approaches to intractable conflict can be extremely costly-often with costs far exceeding the parties' expectations. Our field has developed a variety of strategies for helping the parties better assess the likely costs and risks associated with alternative approaches.
  • Costing: Helping the Parties Better Predict the Costs of Force-Based Strategies
    Traditional force-based strategies based upon legal, political, economic, police, or military power are frequently expected to be relatively easy and effective solutions to difficult problems. We assume that we can just "sue them," or "bomb them," and "they" will submit. While victories are sometimes achieved quickly, more often the result is a long, costly, and inconclusive struggle. Costing strategies can counteract unfounded optimism by helping the parties better understand all of the things which "could go wrong."

  • Understanding Escalation
    Escalation, polarization, and related processes can transform relatively minor disagreements and provocations into intense and tragic confrontations in which the parties conclude that they must devote all available resources to the destruction of their enemies. Our field can help the parties better understand the dangers of escalation, as well as the many techniques for de-escalating conflicts once escalation has occurred.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
Strategies for dealing with intractable conflict are limited by the accuracy of the parties' images of the situation and, especially, their understanding of the interests and positions of other parties. Proven strategies for promoting communication and understanding constitute one of the principal accomplishments of the conflict resolution field. Among the processes which can profitably be applied to the terrorism crisis are the following:
  • Conflict Communication Techniques
    Our field has developed a number of strategies for improving communication between people in conflict. Third parties can help disputants listen to and hear each other more effectively, and they can teach strategies (such as active listing, and "I" vs. "you" messages) which parties can use themselves to defuse hostility. While some of these techniques are culture-specific, others are more broadly applicable. Some are designed to be used in written communications as well. While these techniques may be of limited utility in the context of ongoing combat, they are essential to cease-fire negotiations, coalition building, and post-crisis healing processes.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Cross-Cultural Communication Strategies
    While effective communication in conflict situations is always difficult, these problems are dramatically compounded in situations that require the parties to cross cultural and language barriers. Our field is developing a reasonably strong knowledge base on cross-cultural communication strategies that will be essential for reaching understanding in the current crisis as well as other cross-cultural conflicts.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Fact-Finding Strategies
    Intertwined with the many conflict issues currently under dispute are a series of factual questions dividing coalition partners and others involved in the conflict. In these cases substantial benefits can be achieved by taking advantage of available techniques for resolving factual disputes through mutually acceptable fact-finding processes.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
It is not enough to understand the dangers of escalation dynamics; one must also understand ways of surmounting those dangers. This is an area where the field has done a great deal of work which is relevant to the current situation. For example, the following escalation control measures may be applicable to the core conflict or conflicts which are likely to arise within the anti-terrorism coalition.
  • Responding to the Challenges of Anger and Fear
    It is common for confrontations over intractable issues to provoke intense emotions of anger and fear which, in turn, often lead the parties to adopt strategies which they would be likely to regret should they have an opportunity to reflect upon their actions at a less emotional time. To limit this problem, the field has developed a number of anger and fear management tools which may be beneficially adapted for use in the current crisis.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Cease-Fires and Cooling Off
    In situations where escalation threatens to cause the parties to completely lose control of the conflict, cease-fires, cooling-off periods, and related techniques can make a significant contribution. Even if such de-escalation measures cannot be taken in the primary conflict, they may be applicable to associated conflicts (such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Pakistan-India conflict).
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Scapegoating
    Conflicts are often severely complicated by the tendency of communities (and their leaders) to avoid taking responsibility for their own difficulties by unfairly blaming problems and hardships on some other "scapegoat" group. Over time this tactic tends to exacerbate tensions between groups in ways which dramatically increase the chances of destructive confrontations. Techniques which help the parties understand and counteract this effect could play an important role in the current crisis.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Crisis Management
    Especially dangerous are crisis situations in which events progress so quickly that the parties are forced to act on the basis of incomplete and inaccurate information. To reduce the danger inherent in such situations, it is important to implement techniques designed to help the parties gather and evaluate information more quickly. In many, though not all, situations it may also be possible to slow down events sufficiently to give the parties a chance to think through the implications of their actions while also building support for more constructive alternatives.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Peacekeeping/Separation of Forces
    In many violent conflicts, the parties can benefit from the use of trusted, third-party peacekeepers who make it more difficult for the parties to commit acts of violence and aggression against each other. These techniques may well be applicable to the numerous "flashpoints" which threaten to enlarge the current crisis. Options range from unarmed neutral observers who agree to broadly and publicly report any unacceptable behavior to the larger community, through armed peacekeepers who act to physically separate the parties and prevent acts of violence.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Strategies for Dealing with Extremists
    Extremists, especially violent extremists, have long been feared within the conflict resolution community because of their enormous "deal breaking" and violence promotion potential. Since the terrorism crisis, especially, is being driven by the behavior of violent extremists, it is imperative that steps be taken to make the field's insights into this problem available. We also probably need to do more work in this area to develop better ways of either getting the extremists involved in more constructive problem solving efforts, or reducing their effectiveness at breaking deals and peaceful approaches to intractable conflict.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Tension Reduction
    The destructiveness of the escalation spiral is largely attributable to a step-by-step process of provocation and counter-provocation. Tension reduction techniques developed by the field (such as GRIT) attempt to reverse this process through a step-by-step series of confidence-building measures designed to produce a counterbalancing process of reciprocal tension reduction. Such techniques are likely to play an important role in any successful effort to reduce the intensity of the many intractable conflicts associated with the terrorism crisis.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
Intractable conflicts often arise from the frustrations experienced by disempowered groups, who see their efforts to peacefully combat injustice as being overwhelmed by opposition from more powerful, but illegitimate opponents. Key to limiting the dangers associated with such frustrations are a range of constructive empowerment tools designed to promote nonviolent advocacy.
  • Nonviolent Direct Action
    Nonviolent strategies, such as those cataloged by Gene Sharp and made famous by Gandhi, King, and others offer a route to social justice which is often more promising than the violent confrontation techniques which seem to underlie so many tragic confrontations. This suggests that the field can make an important contribution by helping to publicize and demonstrate the effectiveness of these strategies.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Skill-Building for Disadvantaged Groups
    In cases where disempowered groups decide to participate in agreement-based, dispute resolution efforts, it is often helpful if intermediaries implement techniques designed to "level the playing field" by showing the parties how they can most effectively take advantage of these opportunities. Dissemination of knowledge about such techniques is likely to increase confidence in peaceful, alternative processes among the disempowered.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Giving People Voice
    Much of the plight of the disempowered is often attributable to the fact that few people outside of their immediate community are aware of the terrible injustices which they are seeking to address. Key to alleviating this problem are interventions designed to "give voice" to these groups by showing them better ways of publicizing their case and seeking support from the larger community.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Collective Security/Arms Control Agreements
    Efforts to more constructively address intractable conflicts depend, first of all, upon an ability to replace violent confrontation strategies with more constructive alternatives. Collective security, arms control, and (at the local level) community policing arrangements can promote trust and support for institutions which collectively oppose any person or group which initiates violent strategies as a means of advancing their interests. Crucial to the success of anti-terrorism efforts is an understanding of successful ways of structuring and promoting such institutions and agreements.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Democratic Processes
    For communities trying to recover from rule by violent, illegitimate governments, it is essential that they find ways of successfully incorporating democratic principles of nonviolent conflict resolution into their governance structure. In this sense, the field's programs for helping emerging democracies design new, peaceful dispute handling systems are likely to be especially valuable.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
By definition, it is extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to negotiate a universally-accepted resolution of the many issues which underlie and surround most intractable conflicts. Nevertheless, there are numerous opportunities for negotiating useful agreements within the context of these conflicts. Of special importance in the context of the terrorism crisis is the negotiation of sensible agreements among the national and international coalition of people working to oppose terrorism. Such agreements will also play up crucial part in efforts to end hostilities and rebuild Afghanistan and other affected communities. Topics on which we can contribute include:
  • Identifying and Promoting "Ripeness"
    Although intractable conflicts generally cannot be completely resolved, aspects of those conflicts and/or particular disputes within the larger conflict context can become "ripe" for resolution when the parties conclude that a negotiated agreement is likely to yield a better outcome than continued confrontation. Sometimes such ripeness occurs naturally, as the sides "tire out," at other times it can be stimulated by third party efforts.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Track One Negotiation
    While efforts to promote more constructive approaches to intractable conflicts must ultimately involve all levels of society, those in leadership roles are often in a position to initiate and take advantage of breakthrough opportunities. The conflict resolution field has much to contribute in determining when track one negotiations make the most sense, who should be involved, and how they should be structured.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Negotiation/Mediation
    The parties' ability to take advantage of the available opportunities for agreement often requires sophisticated negotiation skills and often the ability to take advantage of assistance from third party intermediaries. As such, state-of-the-art, interest-based bargaining techniques can often play a critical role by helping the parties identify ways of handling key issues which are likely to have the broadest possible appeal.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Peace Plans
    The negotiation of workable agreements within the context of intractable conflict often requires the setting up of complex institutional structures capable of implementing and enforcing carefully worded agreements. A key component of the field's knowledge base, therefore, is the systematic collection of these "peace plans" and the compilation of the complex reasoning which goes into determining which strategies are most likely to work in specific situations.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Track Two Dialogue and Problem-Solving Processes
    National leaders and formal representatives of contending parties are commonly constrained by a broad range of political factors which make it difficult for them to take advantage of more innovative approaches to their conflicts. Track two approaches are often useful in such situations. These include needs-based problem solving efforts, which usually involve influential, but middle-level leaders, and dialogue processes that bring people together to get to know and understand each other better, even when they are not yet ready to try to negotiate a formal peace agreement.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Mobilizing Assistance from Informal Third Parties (Third-Siders)
    While the focus of attention often tends to be national leaders, official representatives, and formal mediators, it is also important that the knowledge base recognize the many contributions that can be made by people in a much broader range of intermediary roles such as those who Bill Ury highlights as "third-siders," and the Institute for Multitrack Diplomacy identifies as tracks 2-9.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Agreement Verification and Enforcement Mechanisms
    One of the biggest obstacles to agreement, especially among parties with a long and distrustful conflict history, is the fear that they will someehow be "double-crossed." In these cases, effective agreement enforcement and verification mechanisms are likely to play an essential role in making agreement possible. Our project can compile information about how such verification and enforcement mechanisms have worked in other situations.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
In addition to improving peacemaking processes, successful treatment of intractable conflicts also requires an ability to fairly address underlying substantive issues and charges of injustice. It is success in this area which can ultimately make it possible to transform relationships in ways which allow genuine progress to be made toward resolving the underlying conflict.
  • Grassroots Peacebuilding Efforts
    Although leaders can negotiate peace plans, they cannot succeed unless grassroots citizens support them. A driving force behind much intractable conflict is grassroots hostility, often supported by unrealistic stereotypes and scapegoating (but also justifiable fear and violence) which divide everyday citizens from one another. Important, therefore, to the overall body of conflict knowledge are the broad array of people-to-people programs designed to replace destructive stereotypes with genuine understanding and personal contacts and friendship. A systematic inventory of what has worked when and where is particularly important, as is information about who is doing what, with respect to particular conflicts.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Strategies for Identifying and Fulfilling Unmet Human Needs
    At the core of intractable conflicts one frequently finds desperate people struggling to meet their most fundamental human needs. An understanding of the role that such needs play is essential to understanding intractable conflict. Of equal importance is an understanding of realistic and workable strategies for meeting those needs.
    Material on this topic from CRInfobr>
  • Confronting Moral Issues Relating to Justice, Legitimacy, and Human Rights
    The most stable form of social change is moral argument, through which people decide to modify their behavior because they have been persuaded that it is the "right thing to do." This suggests that strategies of moral argument and persuasion, leading to philosophical transformation, are as important a part of the conflict knowledge base as force-based processes which tend to foster backlash and continuing confrontation.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Restorative Justice Programs
    The history of intractable conflict is often punctuated by ghastly stories of almost unthinkable acts of inhumanity and violence. Even in cases where violence has been avoided, personal insults and attacks usually leave deep scars on the parties. While the history of these tragic events cannot and should not be forgotten, it is also critical that the parties find workable mechanisms of moving beyond them and building a more compassionate and mutually respectful future. It is toward this end that programs of restorative justice and truth and reconciliation are directed.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
When people are faced with problems they do not know how to handle — as often occurs in the context of difficult and intractable conflicts — they are likely to seek new ideas about how to confront those problems. This creates an opportunity for training and education that might not ordinarily be present.
  • Training and Education as Intervention
    Training and education efforts often represent the best type of intervention. Rather than leaving the parties dependent upon outsiders for key conflict handling skills, these "capacity building" programs show the parties how they enhance their ability to deal with their own conflict problems.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Elicitive Training
    Within the culture and institutions of communities involved in intractable conflict, there are certain to be traditional mechanisms and institutional structures which can be mobilized to promote more constructive approaches to the problem. Elicitive training programs are designed to help the parties recognize and make use of these pre-existing but perhaps unrecognized skills.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo

  • Cross-Cultural Training Strategies
    There is much to be gained from cross-cultural training programs in which experts on conflict resolution from one culture share their ideas with people from another. Key to the success of these efforts, however, has been the ability of trainers to recognize cultural differences in conflict learning processes and modify their programs accordingly.
    Material on this topic from CRInfo
While the many strategies for dealing with intractable conflict embodied in the previous sections enjoy wide acceptance and support, they have, in many cases, never really been subjected to rigorous academic testing and evaluation. A key element of the knowledge base project should, therefore, be the identification of evaluation research that has been done, and the identification of areas that still are in need of such evaluation.

Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D. are co-directors of the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project.

Article copyright © Guy Burgess, Ph.D., Heidi Burgess, Ph.D., The Conflict Resolution Information Source; all rights reserved
related resources

| r e a d i n g |

Combating Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism: A Comprehensive Strategy (A Report of the Csis Homeland Defense Project); Frank J. Cilluffo, Sharon L. Cardash, Gordon Nathaniel Lederman; ISBN: 0892063890

Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland; Anthony H. Cordesman; ISBN: 0275974278

How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War; Gideon Rose, James F. Hoge Jr.; ISBN: 1586481304

The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11; Strobe Talbot, Nayan Chanda ; ISBN: 0465083560

Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland; Anthony H. Cordesman; ISBN: 0275974278

Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare; Bard E. O'Neill, Edward C. Meyer; ISBN: 1574883356

What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response; Bernard Lewis; ISBN: 0195144201

Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox; Jonathan B. Tucker; ISBN: 0871138301

The New Face of Terrorism: Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction; Nadine Gurr, Benjamin Cole; ISBN: 1860644600

Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama Bin Laden; Peter L. Bergen; ISBN: 0743205022

From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine; Joan Peters; ISBN: 0963624202

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society); Mark Juergensmeyer; ISBN: 0520223012

Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy; Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations; ISBN: 0876092121

Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy ; Paul R. Pillar, Michael H. Armacost; ISBN: 0815700040

Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare;Bard E. O'Neill, Edward C. Meyer; ISBN: 1574883356

The Ultimate Terrorists; Jessica Stern; ISBN: 0674617908

The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism; Simon Reeve; ISBN: 1555534074

| u s e n e tg r o u p s |













| w e b s i t e s |

National Security Agency

Office of Homeland Security (White House)

Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security (US Gov)

Defense Technical Information Center (US Dept of Defense)

DefenseLINK (Official Website of the US Dept of Defense)

GAO Reports: Homeland Security (US General Accounting Office)

US Immigration & Naturalization Service (USINS INS)

Jane's Information Group

Jane's Regional Security Digest

Homeland Security and Defense (Business Week publication)

Center for Security Policy

ANSER Institute for Homeland Security

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Center For Strategic & International Studies

Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

The Henry L. Stimson Center

Adm. Blair on Regional Security, Fight Against Terrorism (US Dept of State)

The Army and Homeland Security: A Strategic Perspective... (US Army War College)

(*see our resource directory for add'l resources)

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