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ETA, one of Western Europe’s last terrorist groups, is rumored to be weakening as a split forms between those who call for violent resistance and those who advocate negotiation. The November 2008 arrest of the group’s alleged military leader, Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, may help swing the group away from violent tactics. Spain has historically resisted ETA and the idea of an independent Basque homeland. In November 2008, left-leaning political party Eusko Alkartasuna (EA), which had previously belonged to a coalition affiliated with ETA, announced it will run in regional elections in March 2009. This, experts say, could restart the integration of the group into the political process. ETA’s violent past, however, keeps it designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, and United Nations.
What is ETA?
ETA, which is pronounced "etta," is a leftist group that conducts terrorist attacks to win independence for a Basque state in northern Spain and southwestern France. ETA stands for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, which means "Basque Fatherland and Liberty" in the Basque language. When the group formed in 1959, its founders focused on Gen. Francisco Franco’s suppression of the Basque language and culture. More moderate Basque nationalist organizations, including the Basque Nationalist Party, the Partido Nacionalista Vasco, were denounced as collaborators by ETA, which evolved by the 1960s into a revolutionary Marxist group. In 2003, the Spanish Supreme Court banned the Batasuna political party, which was considered the political arm of ETA, and successive efforts by Spanish governments to negotiate with ETA have failed.
Who are the Basques?
The Basques are a culturally distinct Christian group that straddles the mountainous region between modern-day Spain and France. According to a census from 2001, there are between 2 million and 3 million people living in Spain’s Basque regions. The Basques have never had their own independent state, but have enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy over the centuries under Spanish and French rule. About half of the residents of the three Spanish Basque provinces—Vizcaya, Guipuzco, and Alava—speak fluent Basque or understand some of the language. Basque nationalists include other areas with smaller Basque-speaking minorities—including the Spanish province of Navarre and the French departments of Labourd, Basse-Navarra, and Soule—in their vision of a Basque homeland.
Who and what does ETA target?
Many of ETA’s victims are government officials. The group’s first known victim was a police chief who was killed in 1968. In 1973, ETA operatives killed Franco’s apparent successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, by planting an underground bomb below his habitual parking spot outside a Madrid church. In 1995, an ETA car bomb almost killed Jose Maria Aznar, then the leader of the conservative Popular Party, who later served as Spain’s prime minister. The same year, investigators disrupted a plot to assassinate King Juan Carlos. More recently, in March 2008, ETA killed a former city councilman in northern Spain two days before an election.
The Spanish government estimates that ETA has killed over 800 people and carried out over 1,600 terrorist attacks. Some of ETA’s victims are civilians, though the group usually phones in warning of their attacks before the attacks occur. ETA has consistently targeted Spain’s tourist attractions, most recently by bombing buses along Spain’s tourist-packed Costa del Sol. According to a report from the newspaper El País, attacks by ETA cost the Spanish government nearly $11 billion from 1994 to 2003.
Has ETA carried out attacks since the 9/11 attacks?
Yes. Since 9/11, ETA has been implicated in dozens of attacks, though many of them were minor and caused no injuries. Most of the attacks were preceded by a warning call, allowing people to evacuate before the explosion. Some experts say that ETA has been quieter than usual since 9/11 because of successful law enforcement measures.
Soon after 9/11, ETA set off car bombs in Vitoria and Madrid, injuring one hundred people but missing the government official targeted in the attacks. In March 2002, Spanish officials defused a bomb in the Bilbao Stock Exchange after receiving a tip under the name of ETA. Two months later, ETA took responsibility for two bombs that exploded outside the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium of Real Madrid, injuring seventeen people.
In December 2003, the Spanish police said they foiled an ETA plot to detonate two bombs in a Madrid train station. The detained ETA members reportedly told Spanish officials they had placed two additional bombs beneath railway lines in Aragón, one of which blew up a day early but injured nobody. For the next three years, ETA kept the conflict at a constant simmer, frequently bombing tourist and police targets but causing few injuries.
The ’3/11’ Attacks
In March 2004, on the eve of the Spanish national election, bombs planted on commuter trains in the Spanish capital killed two-hundred people and injured hundreds of others. Aznar’s conservative government, which had taken criticism for sending Spanish troops to Iraq as part of the American-led invasion, quickly blamed ETA for the bombings. When it quickly emerged that al-Qaeda, in fact, was behind the attacks, support for the government plummeted. Aznar’s conservative Popular Party lost power to a government which, having argued that Spain’s participation in the Iraq War would cause it to be targeted by al-Qaeda, quickly withdrew those forces.
Within two years, talks between the new Socialist government and ETA led the group to announce a "permanent cease-fire" and pledge negotiations modeled on the Good Friday process which brought peace to Northern Ireland. The violence seemed to ebb. But in December 2006, ETA burst back into the spotlight when it set off a car bomb in a parking area at a new airport terminal in Madrid, killing two and injuring nineteen. This was the first lethal attack from the group in over three years. By June 2007, ETA had formally withdrawn from its cease-fire. The following month, ETA was blamed for a large explosion that occurred outside a police barracks in the Basque country town of Durango. Since then, ETA has continued to conduct frequent, low-intensity bombings in Spain.
Have there been recent efforts to draw ETA into the political process?
Yes. In June 2005 the Spanish Parliament voted to restart talks if ETA disarmed; the group said it was willing to talk but not to disarm. More than 250,000 people demonstrated before the vote, urging the government against negotiating with ETA.
In March 2006, ETA announced a "permanent cease-fire" to take effect March 24. In a statement delivered though the Basque media, ETA explained: "The object of this decision is to drive the democratic process." The group also called on all Basque citizens to participate in the political process in order to construct "a peace built on justice." In a reversal of his earlier position, Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero agreed to begin negotiations with ETA despite the group’s continued refusal to disarm. Spain’s conservative opposition party, the Popular Party, withdrew its support for peace talks, and demonstrators gathered in Madrid in June 2006 to protest the negotiations.
In December 2006, however, a car bomb leveled a parking garage at Madrid’s international airport, killing two men. A phone call to authorities in advance of the attack acknowledged ETA’s responsibility for the bombing. In June 2007, ETA announced an end to the cease-fire amid reports that the group was planning attacks for later in the summer. Sporadic attacks did occur throughout the following year. Though ETA’s strength has waned over the years, experts warn the separatists can still prove disruptive and lethal.
Does ETA have ties to al-Qaeda?
No. ETA’s secular nationalist agenda has nothing to do with the Islamist fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and experts say there is no credible evidence of any systematic cooperation between ETA and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda cells have been discovered in Spain, however. In November 2001, Spanish authorities arrested eight men suspected of being al-Qaeda operatives involved in the September 11 attacks. One of these men reportedly had past links with ETA’s unofficial political wing, Batasuna, which the Spanish Supreme Court banned in March 2003. In September 2003, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon said the September 11 attacks were partially planned in Spain.
Preeti Bhattacharji contributed to this report.