George Kassimeris


On 2 May ETA publicly announced they had “completely dissolved all its structures and ended its political initiative”. They failed in their aim, but there are lessons about how the group was able to continue for so long. 


“Neither ETA’s history nor its responsibility can be dissolved…We will never forgive them” said Alfonso Alonso, the leader of Spain’s governing Popular Party in the Basque region, when asked to comment on ETA’s decision to dissolve itself. His response spoke volumes about the trauma and the poison the separatist group’s decades of violence has inflicted on Spanish society. 

The bitterness is understandable. Spain, and the Basque region, have suffered one of the most lethal, protracted and intransigent campaigns of terrorism in modern Europe. For 58 years ETA militants assassinated Spanish politicians, magistrates, newspaper publishers, planted roadside bombs and fired rockets, and killed more than 800 people.

What caused such a persistent and long-standing volume of terrorist violence? What were the reasons for Spanish state’s failure to defeat ETA, particularly when contemporary organizations such the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy have been crushed long ago?

Founded in 1959, ETA — whose full Basque name, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, means Basque Homeland and Freedom — began as a Marxist revolutionary, independence movement during the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. ETA violently opposed the Franco regime, which suppressed opponents and banned minority cultures and languages, including Basque.

Throughout its campaign, ETA’s conception of the political environment was always one of resistance and violence. ETA maintained an extremely one-dimensional view of the world, peopling it with clearly demarcated heroes and villains. From the outset, the group saw violence as the most effective form of political pressure against what it perceived as an unfair and unresponsive political system. Although the group’s methods during the Franco years drew support from a wide range of anti-fascism opponents, its fanatical nationalism, contempt for the Madrid central government and a cult of violence for its own sake, prevented ETA from understanding that its narrow belief system was incompatible with modern Spanish democratic principles after Franco’s death.

At the same time ETA’s stubborn terrorist campaign exposed deficiencies within Spain’s new political structures: irresolute administrations, squabbling intelligence services and a cumbersome judicial system. ETA might have been more easily contained had the Spanish governing elites and the security authorities acted in a more balanced way and combined security pressure to destroy ETA infrastructures with reforms intended to remedy grievances across the Basque country. Their failure to understand the dynamics of politically-motivated violence, their disproportionate security responses, and their deliberate exploitation of the situation for political ends, all contributed to the growth and consolidation of ETA violent extremism.

Terrorism is a political and social phenomenon that needs to be understood within a specific context. In Spain, it was always easier for successive governments to dismiss ETA militants as fanatical maniacs than even consider to the message the ETA militants were sending. For terrorism, whether one agrees or not, is not simply violence but violence with a message. Discerning the logic behind the terrorists’ brutal methods does not justify it, nor in any way diminish the barbarity of their acts. Trying to see things from the terrorist’s perspective can be an effective tool in the effort to defuse terrorism and deter further attacks.

History will judge ETA as a failed terrorist group. A history of failure, however, is not a history of insignificance. Spain was fortunate not to have suffered anything comparable to Italy’s Red Brigades anni di piombo (the years of lead) as ETA never held the nation to ransom through its terror. Spain’s institutions have successfully withstood high levels of terrorist activity, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the toxic effects ETA’s prolonged campaign of violence has had on political attitudes and values. Reading the Spanish media and talking to Spanish friends over the past few days, I was left with the impression that Alfonso Alonso’s ‘We will never forgive them’ position seems to be widely shared.

If Spain’s ETA terrorist experience has a lesson to offer to the rest of Europe is that neither absolutism nor denial are effective ways of solving complex issues of  national security. Had the Spanish political establishment accepted at an earlier stage that ETA did not operate in a sociopolitical vacuum and was therefore a political problem that required a political solution with everything that entails, the conflict over the Basque country might have ended sooner. In the long run, all politically-motivated conflicts eventually end. But the longer they are allowed to last, the more innocent people die, and the more damage is caused.


This piece was first published on the LSE EUROPP blog.


Professor George Kassimeris is chair in security studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He tweets @GKassimeris


Image: Trevor Huxham