ETA’s demise provides lessons that challenge some popularly accepted counterterrorism maxims.
The dissolution of the separatist group ETA (Basque Country and Freedom), announced on May 2, was marked by celebration and expectation in Spain. But for a terror group that killed over 850 people in a nearly 50-year campaign of violence against the Spanish state, international celebration of the announcement was measured. This mellow reaction is perhaps less surprising when placed in the context of decreasing Basque separatist violence resulting from sustained action by Spanish law enforcement. Bucking trends that emphasize grievance and comprehensive reconciliation, the Spanish state succeeded by refusing to deal with ETA on its own terms, maintaining pressure even as the group demobilized, and preserving its commitment to liberal democratic ideals.
Few watching the security situation in northern Spain would find ETA’s demise very surprising. The group’s calls for armed action to preserve Basque identity were increasingly irrelevant after the end of Fransisco Franco’s dictatorship, which strived to establish a pan-Spanish identity that threatened the Basque regional identity. After Franco’s death in 1975, his efforts to enshrine Spanish as an artificial and universal language gave way to policies that recognized the patchwork of groups that made up the republic.
Spain’s post-Franco language policy was not intended to be a counterterrorism silver bullet, but it succeeded in diverting the wind from the sails of a group that prioritized cultural survival in the face of forced assimilation. While not a law enforcement tool per se, such accommodation could ameliorate the concerns of those susceptible to the message of existential ethnic conflict.
As Spain joined the democratic world order, potential political obstacles to collaboration were sidelined and arguments based on Basque marginalization — a key ETA claim — became harder to maintain. Embracing multiculturalism alone did not defeat the group, but it was effective at refuting at least part of the terrorist group’s foundational narrative and showing that Basque language and culture could live peacefully within the Spanish state. Spain succeeded without engaging directly with ETA’s grievance narrative, despite counterterrorism theory’s emphasis on development and inclusion as a panacea.
Even as ETA faded from view, tensions between Basque Country and the rest of Spain have continued, primarily driven by taxation, economic pressures and political preferences. But rather than focusing on addressing every grievance with its Basque citizens, the Spanish government succeeded in disrupting ETA through a specific focus on arrests, raids and public pressure. While post-Franco Spain has shown greater tolerance for regionalism, the state remains unified and committed to democratic ideals.
Spain’s approach to countering ETA may seem counterintuitive at first. Armed movements cement their identities in narratives that highlight collective grievance as justification for action, violent or otherwise. But while it would be foolish to diminish the suffering of marginalized groups, engaging with armed groups on the level of their own rhetoric also can be counterproductive.
Terrorist groups — especially those seeking to establish a new state — often seek legitimacy by trying to portray their actions as equal to that of their opponent, namely the state. Sitting across a table from a terrorist leader in a formal setting can lend the appearance of legitimacy to a group’s claim to be the sole representative of a disenfranchised people. By agreeing to make concessions in return for a cessation of attacks, the state can actually incentivize future violence. At the same time, this might disincentivize members of the same disenfranchised group to resolve their grievances through civil society.
What’s more, the state’s well-meaning efforts can overlook the layers of bureaucracy, each with its own motivations, within terrorist groups. As with any other organization, armed groups have factions that would like to see their own interests advanced. Had the Spanish state engaged with ETA negotiators until a consensual solution was found, it might have found itself running in circles with a group increasingly irrelevant on the ground but desperate to maintain credibility in the eyes of its supporters and members.
Mid-level members who have carried out multiple crimes might see little benefit to peace deals that fail to guarantee their freedom as more prominent members move to post-terrorism careers. Such conditions invite violence, as spoilers with little to lose have everything to gain from a dramatic return to nationalist violence. This is a classic tactic of militant and terrorist groups that plays to the asymmetric advantage that armed groups cultivate: the threat of unpredictable violence in pursuit not only of a political goal but also of survival.
Lessons in Counterterrorism
ETA’s demise provides lessons that challenge some popularly accepted counterterrorism maxims. First, its dissolution was the result of a lengthy process, not a dramatic victory. Cheers erupted when Colombia finally concluded a peace deal with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in November 2016, but such celebrations were premature. A group like the FARC — far larger than ETA, with ample access to weaponry and money — has the means to return to conflict if the political and military environment proves attractive. The treatment of FARC politicians in the 2018 elections should further worry those who see the group’s end through electoral participation, as FARC’s incentives to return to violence may remain despite the peace agreement.
In defeating ETA, Spanish authorities also challenged ideas that seek to paint terrorist groups in a more sympathetic light. While Spain has made commendable and necessary democratic advances since Franco’s death, it did not make the mistake of trying to “develop” its way out of the threat by promising investment and freedoms to legitimize the use of violence. And while Basque and other languages were legalized, Spain did not fall victim to ETA’s narrative and maintained its commitment to democracy and security hand in hand. ETA’s unilateral final declaration suggests that the group saw no end in site for its armed activities and no hope for winning further concessions. Former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s vow to continue pursuing the group also suggests continued efforts to arrest violent Basque separatists.
ETA’s dissolution is not just a cause for celebration. It cuts through some cherished myths of counterterrorism that circulate in the public domain and forces us to think critically about the situational success of certain hardnosed tactics. ETA’s demise will provide a useful case study in the relatively young field of counterterrorism studies for decades to come.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.