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A Cause Without Rebels? ETA Changes its Tack

28/10/2011

Last week, the Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna, better known by its acronym, ETA, declared that it was permanently ceasing fire. The sense of normality this has brought the region has been both welcome and palpable – life is no longer overshadowed by the constant threat of violence, and, as ETA moves away from such tactics, its victims and their families can begin to move on with their lives. With good reason: terrorism from ETA as we know it is a neutralized threat – in part due to concerted efforts by French and Spanish security forces. Where terrorism is concerned, however, the “end” as heralded at a press conference isn’t always the end. The peaceful majorities concerned have reason to be optimistic, but more still to be cautious in these early days of the “permanent ceasefire.”

ETA: some background

Purporting to act in the interests of Basques – a Christian group with a distinct cultural identity, located in the borders of Spain and France – ETA was formed in the late 1950s, and has since pursued the creation of an independent state, claiming more than 800 lives as collateral damage. With mainly government targets and usually issuing warnings ahead of attacks, ETA falls into the category “old terrorism,” in the vein of the Irish Republican Army and the Red Brigades. Authorities have had a mixed record with the group – various attempts to negotiate were derailed by ETA’s refusal to disarm, but a significant blow to the separatists came in November 2008, when its figurehead was arrested.

The group has declared ceasefires in the past, but with its overt promise of permanence, last week’s announcement is being greeted as something different and more enduring. Prompted in part by a push from the unlikely alliance of Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Gerry Adams, the announcement, though promising, should be viewed with caution. ETA has announced a change in tactics, not goals – it still demands the release of hundreds of militants, for example – and has broken similar promises in the past.

Scars of the violence wrought by ETA are raw, and victims’ families are coming forward to express pleasure at this apparent end to violence, as well as dread at the prospect of walking the long road to reconciliation. Indeed, this announcement was a product of both public fatigue with violence and efforts by third parties, although it was made by the group themselves. Had it been made by the former, it would have gone further – ETA did not pledge to disarm or renounce its aims, but signaled a move into politics. And as many in observers have noted, memories of violence will endure.

Put another way, ETA is neither gone nor forgotten.

Key considerations

  • Disengagement from violence mightn’t alone be sufficient for enduring peace. One relative of an ETA victim “worries that ETA wants peace only because violence is no longer viable, rather than because it is wrong.” Here, he gets to the crux of the “deradicalization versus disengagement” argument: for counterterrorism to be effective, need a cognitive shift take place, or is a behavioral change enough? Spain and France will confront questions such as these as they tackle reintegration of militants. Moreover, even those who have abandoned the cause of Basque independence may turn to other less-than-savory pursuits. Organized crime is a common refuge for many former terrorists, and no less a menace for state and people.
  • Splinter groups may emerge. Although the Provisional IRA is for many a distant memory, the “Real” IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army grew alongside it and today some persist in its place. Just last week, British newspapers reported a “Real IRA Plot to Blow Up London.” Can authorities be sure the ETA equivalents aren’t lurking in the shadows?
  • Support may remain and resurge. Even if the current generation is satisfied by the end of the violent campaign, it may not be over for future ones. Last year in Northern Ireland, marches grew into riots, fueled largely by youths who have known only the post-Good Friday peace. Intangible elements such as these may emerge in ETA’s wake.

How states handle the end of terrorist movements has been a subject in vogue among the research community of late, and the decline of ETA will be an interesting real-world test case. Despite the potential hurdles ahead, the apparent decline of ETA is reason to be cautiously optimistic; but, facilitating such an end – one that will endure – is an art, not a science.

“The process that follows will not be straightforward,” as one local put it. “But at least it means that people won’t have to look under their cars every morning for bombs or have a police escort.”