ETA's farewell to peace

Diego Muro
18 January 2007

On 30 December 2006, the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom / ETA) exploded a van loaded with over 200 kilograms of explosives in the four-storey car-park of Madrid's Barajas international airport. The huge bomb exploded at 09.00 local time, destroying much of section D of the parking lot of the airport's newly built Terminal 4. It is estimated that the cost of reconstruction of the car park will be €30 million, with another €5 million spent on compensating the owners of the 1,500 cars damaged in the blast.

An anonymous person claiming to represent ETA made three warning calls  of the forthcoming explosion at around 07.55, and the police were able to evacuate the terminal. However, two Ecuadorian citizens who were sleeping in their cars (Carlos Alonso Palate [35 years old] and Diego Armando Estacio [19]) were killed, and twenty-six people injured. It took five days for the emergency services to reach the buried bodies among the 40,000 tons of rubble of what is already known as "ground zero".

Diego Muro is a lecturer in European studies at King's College London

Also by Diego Muro in openDemocracy:

"ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end? " (16 March 2004)

"A Basque peace opportunity"
(23 March 2006)

The van used in the attack had been stolen from a Spanish national who was abducted for three days in Luz-Ardiden (France) before being released unharmed shortly after the bombing. The Spanish police's specialist explosives unit Tedax say that the van-bomb, a Renault Traffic, had been filled with 200kg of ammonal combined with hexogen (also known as RDX) in order to maximise destruction.

But the damage has been far more than physical. For the bare facts of this incident do not convey the extent of the injury inflicted too on the peace process designed to bring a definitive end to Europe's oldest continuous terrorist campaign.

ETA's conflict with the Spanish state, which since the group's first assassination in 1968 - a member of the civil guard, at a checkpoint - has claimed at least 834 lives. A cautious process of dialogue between the Spanish government, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers Party / PSOE) and the ETA began in 2006, and another meeting had been expected in early 2007.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the main opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP), has consistently criticised the socialist government for negotiating with representatives of ETA. The two main Spanish political parties have been in disagreement over almost every issue since the PP lost the general elections in the aftermath of the Madrid blasts on 11 March 2004.

ETA in decline

ETA, founded in 1959, was long considered a sophisticated and dangerous organisation presenting a major threat to police and army officers, politicians, journalists, judges and other public figures through its campaign of urban violence, extortion, kidnapping, and assassinations. But the armed group, which aims to establish an independent socialist state for the Basque homeland, was severely weakened by concerted counter-terrorist actions by French and Spanish authorities in the 1990s. In the aftermath of the al-Qaida attacks of New York (9/11) and Madrid (3/11, or 11-M), there was also a growing consensus that ETA's indiscriminate violence was becoming anachronistic in resolving an essentially territorial dispute.

Its political wing, Batasuna, was outlawed by Spain's supreme court in 2003 for not condemning ETA's political violence, and the support network of radical organisations known as the Basque Movement of National Liberation (MLNV in its Spanish acronym) has been assailed by judicial and police initiatives. Hundreds of Batasuna supporters, including the group's leader Arnaldo Otegi, have been charged with various offences in cases being heard by Spanish courts.

With little room to manoeuvre in a political and security environment increasingly conducive to resolving the Basque region's grievances through political channels, ETA released a statement on 22 March 2006 in which it unilaterally declared a "permanent ceasefire". The ceasefire announcement came ten months after the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament had authorised the government to launch a process of dialogue if ETA abandoned violence.

However, the cessation of violence in the Basque region could not be completely verified. During the nine months and eight days of the ceasefire, the ministry of interior increasingly recorded acts of street violence (kale borroka) which included threats against Basque non-nationalists and arson attacks against shops, banks and public buses. There was not a single killing by ETA but the insurgents continued to send extortion letters to Basque businessmen claiming "revolutionary tax" payments. They also engaged in theft of cars (as many as thirty-one in France in this period) and arms; the most serious offence took place on 24 October, when an alleged ETA commando stole 300 revolvers and fifty pistols from a factory in Vauvert, France.

An intelligence failure

It is obvious that airport security will need to be revised in light of the Barajas attack. Standard protocols for boarding a plane have been tightened and passengers cannot go through security with liquids or baby milk. Yet, six ETA members (etarras) were able to park a van loaded with explosives in Europe's newest airport car park and leave the premises unchallenged.

The effectiveness of the anti-terrorist units is also in serious doubt. Zapatero's confidence in the peace process was misplaced and many accuse the national-security agencies of negligence for the inadequate information he was receiving. As late as 23 December, the director-general of the national police and the civil guard, Joan Mesquida, argued that he had no intelligence pointing at a possible ETA rearmament or preparation to launch attacks. Zapatero further embarrassed himself twenty-four hours before the blast when told the press that the peace process would be in a much better state in a year's time.

To be fair to the prime minister, this was the first time that ETA had broken a truce without previously releasing a communiqué. The breakdown of the ceasefire could have been precipitated by frustration in the Basque radical movement at the lack of political progress since the truce started. This last hypothesis is supported by ETA's political wing, Batasuna, who argue that that the Spanish executive had not made any gestures to reward ETA for its ceasefire of 1,310 days. An increasingly ostracised ETA might have felt the need to respond to the government's refusal to move ETA inmates to jails in the Basque region and halt the arrests and trials of ETA members.

ETA finally claimed responsibility for the attack on 9 January 2007 in a letter to the Basque newspaper Gara and insisted that the March 2006 ceasefire was still in place despite the bombing. The communiqué argued that the objective of the attack was not to cause victims and blamed the government for the two dead and for the slow progress of the peace process.

Also in openDemocracy on Spain and terrorism:

Richard Torné, "Spain's 3/11: democracy after atrocity"
(12 March 2003)

Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (18 March 2004)

Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge"
(10 March 2006)

Plus, Madrid11.net has regular reports, interviews and a daily security briefing on issues of terrorism, democracy, and security

An Irish lesson

Several analysts have argued that the bombing of Barajas airport resembles the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in February 1996 which ended a seventeen-month ceasefire. On that occasion, the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams spoke of the need to continue the peace process, and John Major's government decided to break off the negotiations with the Irish republicans while maintaining a line of communication - a decision that benefited Tony Blair when he came to power in May 1997.

The Irish republican group's second ceasefire in July 1997 was followed by the Good Friday Agreement on April 1998. ETA sympathisers have often compared their "national struggle" to that of the IRA, and looked to this sequence of events for a measure of guidance and inspiration. Gerry Adams is a regular visitor to the Basque region, and in 2006, the Catholic priest Alec Reid - who played a crucial mediating role in the Northern Ireland process - was also in evidence there. However, it is not clear that Arnaldo Otegi has the influence over its military wing that Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness had over the Provisional IRA.

The Basque insurgents called off their ceasefire because of their dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations and miscalculated the tight constrains under which an elected government operates. In pluralist democracies, national executives have little opportunity to exercise their discretion in matters related to national security. Furthermore, the PSOE-led government is currently under siege by some key victims' associations and the conservative opposition; the airport attack left it little option but to halt the strategy of negotiating with a group that evidently still refuses to give up its violent struggle.

On the side of ETA's sympathisers, the core problem seems to be the refusal of such radical nationalists to abandon their violent subculture and embrace democratic institutions, which they see as a block to the realisation of their aspirations. In response, their only strategy is to continue to mobilise an increasingly divided movement on fronts beyond the political one. 

However, the Irish example shows that future negotiations between the Spanish authorities and ETA will only be successful if political elites have the courage to recognise that the measures that led to the weakness of the armed group might not lead automatically to its final disappearance. Leaders of all political parties (Rajoy and Zapatero included) will need to behave responsibly and move outside their comfort-zones in order to balance their electoral concerns, agendas and priorities with the inclusive measures needed to facilitate a peaceful settlement.

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