Why Humanitarians Talk to ISIS

Millions of people now live under ISIS control. Starving them will not defeat the jihadists, and to deliver assistance, you have to deal with those in charge.

10.24.14 9:45 AM ET

In early October, Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, delivered a keynote address at an annual State Department gathering of international humanitarian aid officials in Washington, D.C.

Egeland, a Norwegian politician and former top humanitarian affairs official at the United Nations, is known for his directness, and he used the platform to lambaste his colleagues for their collective failure to do more to help needy Syrians still suffering after more than three years of war—a concern that many of them shared.

Then, Egeland offered a slightly provocative addendum: any aid going into Syria, he said, must include provisions for civilians living in parts of the country now controlled by the so-called Islamic State. The room went notably quiet.

For years, the question of whether and how to supply aid to territories that are under the control of terrorist groups has been one of the humanitarian community’s most fraught debates. It has been subject to political sensitivities and soapbox rhetoric, buffeted by popular disbelief and official omertà.

Last weekend, the topic was reignited when The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer reported that Western humanitarian aid has been falling into the hands of ISIS militants, and that some of those international agencies may have paid bribes to the group. The article also suggested that aid to those areas is assisting ISIS in its state-building ambitions.

In an interview this week, Egeland strongly defended the propriety of delivering aid to unwholesome parts of northern Syria. That aid, he said, must be stepped up, not scared off, and it must be disengaged from any political aims, including counterterrorism, he said.

“We cannot, and will not, pay bribes to any actor,” Egeland insisted in our phone conversation. “And we cannot let any actor direct our aid or take control over our aid.” But, that said, “I don’t think there’s a proper recognition that there are six to eight million people in those areas”—northern Syria—"who need aid. What needs to be done now is a careful examination of how we can maintain some channel of aid and support to the millions of people who will live under the control of the Islamic State. And it’s extremely important that those who now have taken on the Islamic State militarily do not mix in humanitarian organizations or tools in the fight against terror.”

Egeland is something of an outlier among the worldwide community of humanitarians because he says this sort of thing out loud. But he’s certainly not the only one who believes it. Several aid officials contacted by The Daily Beast this week shared Egeland’s general sentiment, but few were willing to speak on the record. Sending aid to areas controlled by radical groups is not a popular subject, even if its value in the name of life-saving intervention is little in dispute.

The ambivalence is reflected in U.S. policy, which often has served to complicate aid delivery in conflict zones. American terrorism laws are strict and clear: aid agencies may not provide any form of “material support” to terrorist groups, including humanitarian supplies that fall into their hands. But humanitarian practice is messy and chaotic: in conflict zones, need is urgent, and allegiances are not always evident until much later.

In 2011, these contradictions came to a head when a famine in Somalia threatened to spiral out of control, while American officials withheld aid from parts of the country that were controlled by the terrorist group Al Shabab. Faced with a backlash from international aid groups, the State Department issued a quiet reassurance to the agencies that they would not face prosecution over any “incidental” diversion of aid that ended up in the hands of Al Shabab —including, presumably, checkpoint “taxes” or other unexpected fees. It was too late. By the end of 2011, more than 250,000 people had died from starvation in the county, many of whom, many aid workers believed, could have been saved with a less cumbersome international response.

“The Somali case is clear,” says Joel Charny, the vice president of humanitarian policy for Interaction, a consortium of development and humanitarian aid groups. “It’s undeniable that in response to famine warnings assistance was provided in Ethiopia and Kenya, but was not in Somalia because of fear of diversion.”

Aid groups have continued to work closely with the U.S. government to establish better outlines of what qualifies as “incidental,” and how much responsibility an organization bears for food or medical supplies that are diverted.

On October 17, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) released an extensive new “guidance” on this policy, emphasizing that while the law has not varied, enforcement may: “Incidental benefits [to a terrorist entity] are not a focus for OFAC sanctions prosecution,” the guidance said. In a statement, Interaction applauded Treasury’s effort, but warned the steps still “have not gone far enough to prevent a repeat of the Somalia catastrophe.”

Even more complex, aid workers say, is the situation inside Syria, where millions have been displaced without safe food or water, and the hurdles facing aid delivery are compounded by active warfare and an unprecedented threat to aid workers themselves. (Several of the westerners beheaded or held by ISIS in recent weeks have been humanitarian aid volunteers.) The lack of legal clarity is only one piece of an already frenzied and shifting operating environment.

“The question is, ‘What is the line?’” says Naz Modirzadeh, a specialist in humanitarian law in conflict zones at Harvard. “You’re allowed to talk, but what if they say, ‘Yes you can bring in that convoy, at that specific time.’ Now you might be seen as 'coordinating.’ Are you texting with someone? Are you calling him? Did he come to meet you with the convoy? What is the point at which you become concerned that there are serious legal consequences?”

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Several aid officials working on Syria told The Daily Beast that aid organizations in southern Turkey had collectively agreed to some rules for engagement with ISIS, and, until recently at least, such contacts were fairly commonplace. The purpose of those meetings, the aid officials emphasized, was to lay out a straightforward description of their operations, not offer to negotiate or make deals. (All of the officials interviewed expressed dismay about the possibility that direct payments were made to the group.) Initially, one Turkey-based aid official said in an interview this spring, ISIS was fairly reasonable to work with, and it was possible to ensure appropriate levels of monitoring.

“ISIS is not any more difficult to deal with than any other group,” the aid official said at the time. The leaders of the groups that his organization dealt with, he said, were “quite practical,” and seemed to understand why aid was essential for the people under their control. “People give their word, and you can work with that,” he added.

But the situation has since changed. After ISIS began to escalate its brutality, and especially since the start of the coalition bombing campaign, the humanitarian exchanges have diminished significantly.

A second aid official said, “we’ve had to dramatically reduce the aid that we’ve delivered in north Syria due to the increased danger to our staff and the difficulty in monitoring the aid once it’s been distributed to ensure that it is civilians alone who benefited from this assistance.”

Egeland points to this drop-off, not the prospect of occasional contacts with terrorists, as his greatest concern. “I think there should have been much more cross-border aid deliveries, much earlier,” he said. As for engagement with terrorist groups, this is simply “the name of the game”: “There will have to be contacts, yes, if support will be provided there. You talk to all sides, and that’s how access is provided to those who need it most.”

And if fears of crossing an uncertain legal line makes aid groups hesitant to act, he said, that would be the worst outcome of all.

“I have always found that government armed actors and opposition armed actors specialize in scaring us, and we specialize in being scared,” he said. “All we’re thinking of is, ‘Can we lose access? Can something go wrong?’ Instead of doing what we must, because it’s the right thing to do.”