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26/01/2007 | E.T.A.: The Beginning of the End?

Soeren Kern

The deadly car bomb set off by the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (E.T.A.) at Madrid's Barajas International Airport on December 30, 2006 altered Spain's political landscape significantly.


The high-profile blast (at almost 800 kilos, or 1,800 pounds, it was the most powerful bomb ever planted by E.T.A.) caught the government completely by surprise and shattered Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's attempt to solve the 40-year Basque conflict through dialogue. It also sent hundreds of thousands of Spaniards onto the streets in rallies to protest the attack and left a reeling Zapatero fighting for his political future.

The attack also produced a profound split within Spain's political establishment: on the one hand, there are those on the left who remain open to the idea of re-establishing a form of dialogue with E.T.A. in the future; on the other hand, there are those on the right who believe that E.T.A. must be bludgeoned into an unconditional surrender. The main beneficiary of this divide has been E.T.A.

The bombing, however, has also exposed important fissures within E.T.A. itself, which has ignited a raging debate inside Spain as to whether the terrorist group is fading out of the limelight.

E.T.A.'s Interests

E.T.A. (which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom in the Basque language) is fighting for an independent Basque state in seven parts of northern Spain and southwest France. The group emerged in 1959 as a leftist student resistance movement that was against the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Franco had banned the Basque language and suppressed the region's unique culture in retaliation against Basque nationalists who sided with the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War.

After Franco died in 1975, however, the Basque region won home rule for its two million citizens, and the 1978 constitution enshrined the Basque country as an autonomous region with responsibility for education, health care, policing and taxation. It even has its own parliament. As a result, the Basque country today enjoys more autonomy from the central government in Madrid than does any other region in Spain.

Nevertheless, E.T.A. remains adamant in its demand for nothing less than full independence from Spain, and it has killed more than 800 people through terrorist violence during the past four decades in pursuit of this objective. The main byproduct of E.T.A.'s progressive radicalism, however, has been a steady decline in support for the separatist group, even among Basques. Indeed, today only a small minority of Basques favor full independence from Spain, and even less support E.T.A.'s violent methods.

According to the most recent Euskobarómetro poll dated November 2006, only 32 percent of Basques favor independence, while 37 percent prefer the current arrangement of autonomy and another 26 percent think federalism is the answer (the remaining five percent either favor centralism or are undecided). Moreover, 85 percent of Basques agree with the statement that "today in Euskadi [the Basque country] it is possible to defend all political aspirations and objectives without the necessity of resorting to violence."

Subsequent polls also show that a wide majority of Basques are in favor of political negotiations between E.T.A. and the central government. This sentiment, coupled with improved Spanish law enforcement following the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001, has put considerable moral and tactical pressure on E.T.A. (which is listed as a terrorist organization by both the European Union and the United States).

In March 2006, a politically weakened E.T.A. surprised nearly everyone in Spain by declaring a "permanent cease-fire," albeit with the proviso that it would maintain its weapons. Zapatero responded three months later by announcing in June that his government would initiate peace talks with E.T.A.

To begin those peace talks, however, Zapatero was forced to pull out of an agreement that he himself proposed in 2000 with the center-right People's Party (P.P.) not to talk with E.T.A. The P.P. took the position that E.T.A. should not be trusted unless it agreed to disarm. "Any normal person understands you can't negotiate with someone whose negotiating weapon is as powerful and hard to argue with as a pistol," P.P. leader Mariano Rajoy said at the time. The P.P. also opposed any talks with Batasuna, the outlawed political front of E.T.A.

This split between Spain's two main political parties has had the effect of limiting public support for a negotiated settlement; it has also left the P.P. positioned to gain politically should the peace process break down. Zapatero, on the other hand, has made the peace process the centerpiece of his political agenda in the hopes that a resolution to the Basque conflict would help him secure re-election in early 2008. This highly risky proposition, however, also made him vulnerable to pressure from E.T.A.

Indeed, during the final months of 2006, E.T.A. began complaining that the peace process had stalled because Madrid was refusing to make preliminary concessions. For example, E.T.A. has long demanded that more than 400 of its prisoners, who are being held in locations across Spain, be moved closer to the Basque region. E.T.A. has also insisted that the government stop arresting pro-independence politicians and E.T.A. suspects and that it legalize Batasuna.

Yet the Zapatero government met none of the demands set forth by E.T.A., nor have there been any meetings between the national government and either Batasuna or E.T.A. (largely due to the lack of political support from the P.P.).

Undeterred, Zapatero said at a year-end news conference on December 29 that his peace initiative was making progress. "Are we better off now with a permanent cease-fire, or when we had bombs, car bombs and explosions?" he asked. "This time next year, we will be better off than we are today."

The following morning, E.T.A. bombed Madrid's glitzy new multi-billion dollar air terminal, killing two people and bringing to a dramatic end nine months of a so-called "permanent cease-fire."

Since then, Zapatero's ruling Socialist Party has fallen behind the opposition P.P. for the first time in 18 months in opinion polls. Indeed, the bombing has opened the distinct possibility for early elections, which could see Zapatero removed from office before the end of 2007. That would be an ironic twist of fate, considering that the former ruling P.P. was swept out of office only days after the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 2,000 others. Those attacks were initially blamed on E.T.A., but later were found to be the work of local Islamists.

E.T.A. in Decline?

The attack also surprised Batasuna, the political wing of E.T.A. that was banned in 2002 for supporting E.T.A.'s violence. Indeed, Arnaldo Otegi, the leader of Batasuna, has distanced himself from the bombing; he said that he had had no advance knowledge of the attack and called on E.T.A. to respect the cease-fire. This strongly points to the likelihood of an internal rift within the leadership of E.T.A.

The leader of E.T.A.'s political wing, Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea (also known as Josu Ternera), has led the group into the negotiating process with Zapatero. Ternera told Gara, a Basque newspaper that E.T.A. regularly uses to publish statements, that he won a pledge from the government that it would stop the arrest of E.T.A. members in return for the cease-fire. Yet, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry, the government arrested 13 people suspected of collaborating with E.T.A. during the nine-month cease-fire (compared with 71 arrests during all of 2005).

By failing to yield concrete benefits for the separatist group, therefore, Ternera may have lost control of the process, and E.T.A.'s military leader, Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, who opposed the talks, may have taken over. If Rubina acted alone in ordering the bombing, it would explain why Batasuna was not informed in advance, and by extension, why Zapatero was caught by surprise.

To be sure, there still is a hardcore minority within E.T.A. that believes violence is the only way to achieve independence for the Basque country. For example, E.T.A. still maintains logistical networks in Spain and France and the group is thought to sustain several hundred youths scattered across the Basque country who are willing to engage in deadly missions. E.T.A. is also believed to be behind the theft of 350 pistols and large quantities of ammunition in a raid on a French arms supplier last October. Moreover, just five days after the Madrid bombing, police found another bomb that had been rigged to be used in an attack.

Nevertheless, E.T.A. is widely believed to be far weaker today than in the past. During the late 1970s, for example, E.T.A. was able to kill 100 people per year on average. By contrast, after three people were killed in 2003, E.T.A. has not carried out any other deadly attacks until the final days of 2006. Although the Spanish government does not know for certain how many people are active in E.T.A. currently, they estimate that the number of fully trained members could be as low as 30.

Spanish and French police also continue to work together to reduce E.T.A.'s capabilities. For example, raids in both countries in October resulted in the seizure of huge caches of arms and the arrest of more than 20 E.T.A. suspects, which was a significant blow for the separatist group. Moreover, the Spanish government has maintained the ban on Batasuna in hopes that this will reduce the flow of funds and support to E.T.A. units.

Yet the biggest setback for E.T.A. has little to do with improved law enforcement, but rather more with the steady decline in support for the group among Basques themselves. For example, most Basques have lost their zeal for full independence because, as polls consistently show, the majority are quite satisfied with the current level of autonomy granted to them by the central government. At its foundation, however, is the fact that most ordinary Basques are flatly repulsed by the E.T.A. killing machine and the dark shadow the separatist group has cast over the Basque people as a whole.


Many Spaniards are famously more loyal to their region than to their country. Indeed, regional sentiments have for many centuries complicated Spain's efforts to build a strong unitary state. Separatism in the form of E.T.A. poses one of the greatest challenges to the stability of contemporary Spain.

Zapatero is not the first Spanish leader to seek a negotiated settlement to the Basque conflict. His predecessors tried to negotiate with E.T.A., but talks in 1989 and 1999 went nowhere, and bomb attacks resumed.

Since then, the conservative P.P. has taken a consistently hard line against E.T.A., demanding not only that the group renounce violence but also that it give up its weapons as an essential precondition for dialogue.

Zapatero has long complained of a lack of support from the P.P. during the now-ended peace process, which has complicated his efforts to build a united front against E.T.A. Indeed, the lack of cross-party support in Spain contrasts sharply with the united political front among the main political parties in the United Kingdom that contributed to a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

In the immediate aftermath of the Madrid bombing, Zapatero seemed reluctant to end the peace initiative. Indeed, hours after the bombing, the prime minister announced the "suspension" of dialogue with E.T.A. rather than the end of the peace process. It was only several days later that his interior minister proclaimed that E.T.A. has "broken, liquidated and finished off the peace process."

Thus far, Zapatero has not announced any new measures against the separatist group. He says that the police pressure and court trials that had continued during the cease-fire declared by E.T.A. will go on as usual.

At the same time, the P.P. has begun its election campaign on a platform of holding a tough line against E.T.A. and defending Spain's constitution in the face of demands for greater autonomy from the Basque country and Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spaniards are debating whether E.T.A. is a spent force or whether it is regrouping. One thing remains certain: E.T.A. can be expected to strike again.

(Published in The Power and Interest News Report, January 25, 2007)

Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos (España)


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