Negotiate with ISIS? Lessons from Arsal, Lebanon

In at least two instances, negotiations with the Islamic State led to significant results: the withdrawal of militants from the Lebanese town of Arsal and the under-reported liberation in early July of 46 Indian nurses in Iraq (Mosul).

What are these two cases telling us about ISIS? Can it be inferred that negotiations with the group are an option


On August 2nd , ISIS launched an offensive on the city of Arsal[1] following the arrest by Lebanese security forces of Imad Ahmed Joumaa, a Jihadist who had recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

arsal view

ISIS was apparently in a position of strength – the militants took over the city in a blitzkrieg-style attack within a few hours and were later joined by Jabhat al Nusra. They were however strategically vulnerable, surrounded by the Lebanese army in a Hezbollah-dominated area, the Bekaa Valley.

map arsal

It was in ISIS’s interest to negotiate a way out. A hitherto unknown “Muslim Scholars Committee”, which proved an acceptable mediator for all parties[2], brokered a comprehensive deal:

  • the militants and the army agreed to a ceasefire
  • the Red Cross went in to take the wounded
  • humanitarian assistance was allowed in
  • The militants withdrew to the surrounding mountain – with 30 hostages from the Lebanese Security Forces.

Since then however, the negotiations for the release of the hostages have faltered despite the mediation of Qatar. Jabhat al Nusra did free eight soldiers as a sign of good will, but ISIS beheaded two of its 11 captives

The Indian nurses

In the case of the Indian nurses, there was at first little ground for optimism. The Jihadists had no particular reason to spare a group of non-Arab, non-Muslim (“Infidels”) women from a country ruled by a Hindu nationalist.

It appears that ISIS had originally no intention to take the nurses hostage. They just happened to be there when ISIS took over Tikrit. They were moved to safer grounds in Mosul where the group could negotiate at ease.

A secretive negotiation then took place through “very unconventional methods” and multiple diplomatic channels including the Iraqi Red Crescent, a Saudi mediation, the Indian Ambassador in Baghdad and Prime Minister Modi’s national security adviser Ajit Doval who has in the past secured hostage releases for India.

Mother of an Indian nurse kisses her daughter at Kochi airport. (photo by Jipson Sikhera)

Mother of an Indian nurse kisses her daughter at Kochi airport. (photo by Jipson Sikhera)

Upon their arrival, a nurse declared: “They were good people because they did not misbehave with us. They provided for food, accommodation and whatever we wanted they provided for. They were saying you are Indian nurses and we are not targeting you people.”[3]

What are these two precedents telling us about the group and does it mean we can negotiate with the Islamic State?

  • Unlike other radical groups, ISIS has plenty of cash and arms. The group does not really need to negotiate. It uses hostage situations as part of a global communication strategy to terrorize its enemies and attract new recruits. What they really need is: skilled civilians to run the conquered land (nurses, pilots to fly the recently ceased jet fighters of Tabqa, engineers to run the oil factories) and trustworthy, experienced fighters such as the Jihadists jailed in Roumieh, Lebanon.
  • ISIS follows a punitive logic. Hostages from countries and organizations deemed hostile pay the price for the decision of their headquarters to fight ISIS. This bodes ill for the 49 Turkish hostages held in Iraq by ISIS if Ankara were to align with Washington against the Jihadists. Conversely, the Indian nurses were not associated with an openly hostile leadership.
  • In the region, fighting apostates supersedes the fight against infidels. The crime of apostasy – when someone renounces his God – is considered by the Islamic State as a deliberate act of betrayal with no possible redemption. For ISIS, the Lebanese soldiers are both enemies and apostates…This explains why the group has not considered, up to now, Israel and Western targets as a priority. But the military coalition the USA is gathering might change this fact.
  • The Arsal crisis confirmed major differences between the Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhat al Nusra (JAN), and ISIS. First, JAN negotiates, not ISIS. While ISIS beheaded two soldiers, JAN freed up to eight hostages as a sign of good will[4]. Second, JAN is almost fully Syrian, now that most foreign fighters have joined ISIS. That explains their concern for the well-being of Syrian refugees and their insisting on Hezbollah withdrawing from Syria. Ironically, this Al-Qaeda group is proving to be more rooted than the Islamic State who is settling down in the Levant[5].


Looking at the cases of Arsal and the Indian nurses has taught us a few things, mainly that ISIS does not engage in negotiations, it merely communicates its demands. Its key interest is to expand the ranks of militants to continue conquering more land for its Caliphate.

If you can’t negotiate with ISIS militants, the next question in line is how to fight them.

In a previous article, we already singled out a number of recommendations, including in particular the need to:

  • Fight ISIS simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. Arsal should be a cautionary tale: the militants escaped the battles of Al Qusayr and Qalamoun on the Syrian side of the border only to regroup in the Lebanese mountains surrounding Arsal.
  • Engage local tribes in Syria and Iraq to either buy back their support and/or reassure them, depending on their motivations.
  • Tempting as it may be, don’t partner with Assad and Iran to fight Sunni extremists, this would only swell the ranks of those you intend to fight. The best way Iran can help is to rein in the Shia militias it supports in Syria and Iraq.

We would like to add a number of pointers:

  • The Prisoners’ dilemma: imagine 300 high-profile international Jihadists locked down together for years in an antiquated jail of a failing state… this is Roumieh in Lebanon. The prison has been a point of contention for Salafists and Jihadists for years[6]. There has been already many warnings: last January, JAN requested the release of Roumieh Islamists in exchange for the Maaloula nuns; in June, ISIS fighters dedicated a song to their brothers in Roumieh, which they compared to Abu Ghraib. The international community should urgently approach the Lebanese authorities to help secure the prison, before the Islamic States – or JAN – decides to free the inmates in a spectacular operation[7].
  • Western capitals should study the possibility of some kind of amnesty for repentant Jihadists. They could provide crucial information on the group’s strengths and weaknesses on the ground, help locate them in case of strikes in Syria and dissuade further Western recruits to join their ranks in a far more effective way than the official counter-terrorist narrative.


[1] Arsal is a predominantly Sunni town of 35 000 inhabitants in the Bekaa valley (mainly Shiite), near the border with Syria. The town, who supports the Syrian uprising against Bachar al Assad, hosts more than 150 000 Syrian refugees and has been raided on many occasions by Syrian warplanes.

[2] The head of ISIS belongs to al-Weiss clan, as does one of the Muslim Scholars Committee member, Amar al-Weiss.

[3] Times of India

[4] On September 9, JAN even allowed the parents of a Christian soldier they took hostage to come and visit their son…

[5] Although ISIS is becoming more and more Syrian, see the special report of Romain Caillet, NGC consultant, on The Governorate of Homs: is this the Islamic State’s new fiefdom?

[6] Members of the extremist group Fatah el Islam are kept in Roumieh since 2007 without trial.

[7] There are disturbing reports on Islamist inmates in Roumieh able to communicate with militant groups via their digital phones. This situation is somehow reminiscent of the early days of Cell Block Three in the Afghan Pul-e-Charki prison. Over the years, Taliban and Al-Qaeda inmates had taken over the Cell and set up “a fully operational terror cell safe from aerial drones” (The New Digital Age, p.159).

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