Basque Terrorist Group ETA Disbands, Ending Decades of Violence

One of Europe’s longest terrorist campaigns is finally over.

The dissolution of Basque separatist group ETA puts an end to the use of deadly violence for political goals in Spain, namely, establishing an independent nationalist state in the country’s Basque region.

Like the Good Friday Agreement that sealed the peace process in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, the end of ETA contributes to the long-term decline of violent nationalist movements in Western Europe.  

The May 2 disbanding of ETA—which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or “Basque Homeland and Freedom” in Basque language—has been long in the making, and can be traced back to a permanent ceasefire in 2011 following several arrests that severely weakened ETA. The ceasefire was followed by a partial surrender of ETA’s stock of weapons in 2017 and a half-hearted admission of guilt by the group in late April. This process, and the subsequent dissolution of ETA, is the result of its weakened ability to pursue its goals, rather than a change of heart. While non-violent separatism remains a significant challenge to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, specifically in Catalonia, the end of ETA has brought a wave of relief to Spain.

With a letter dated April 16, but only published on May 2, ETA announced it will irrevocably dissolve “all of its structures,” and accept “the end of its historical cycle.” A ceremony in southwestern France promoted by South African human rights lawyer Brian Currin and other international mediators followed the announcement, providing symbolic closure. 

Founded in 1959, ETA stands as one of the deadliest and oldest terrorist groups in recent European history. The militant separatists fought to create an independent Basque state in Northern Spain and Southern France, killing at least 853 people—from politicians with diverging views, to journalists, professors, policemen, and anonymous men, women and children—in the process. In addition, ETA injured thousands and committed several kidnappings. Many of the victims were Basque.

In addition to physical violence, ETA disrupted the political processes and daily life of the Basque society, by terrorizing occupants of the region. Many were forced to leave their homes fleeing daily threats to their safety and livelihood. Those who stayed lived with constant fear. Economically, local firms had no choice but to pay the “revolutionary tax,” imposed by ETA as one the group’s main revenue sources. ETA’s violent methods also created deep-seated mistrust and division within the Basque society, permeating all political stances and infiltrating daily life. Those wounds are only now beginning to heal. Full reconciliation between victims and ETA supporters, however, remains decades away.

While ETA originally opposed the fascist regime of Franco, it continued its deadly terrorism long after Franco’s death. For most of its history ETA operated under fully democratic governments, which granted the Basque region and others high degrees of autonomy. Madrid has fought back against ETA since its start with an effective police campaign (actively supported by France, where ETA was also active) that dismantled the militants’ leadership several times. The first major successful operation took place in 1975, and the last key leader was detained in 2010. The Spanish government also passed legislation in 2002 banning politicians linked to ETA from participating in elections.

In addition to these punitive measures, Madrid held peace talks with ETA on several occasions. However, the resulting cease-fires always failed.

In the end, Madrid’s strategy has borne its fruits. The constant pressure resulted in an extremely weakened ETA, left with no option but to concede defeat.

Ultimately, ETA’s dissolution reflects more its own weakness than a true change of heart about its violent ways. Put simply, as a result of Madrid’s counterterrorism tactics, ETA reached a point when it lacked the material capability to continue pursuing terrorist acts —namely a decimated membership, lack of funds, and insufficient numbers of weapons—. It has also received abysmal levels of popular support—a vast majority of those supporting Basque independence remain in favor of non-violent secession. About 60 percent of Basques support no secession at all.

ETA’s announcement is less of a conscious disbanding, and more an acknowledgment that it no longer exists anymore. It is fair to say that ETA’s end is due more to the strength of democratic Spain—from all sides of the political spectrum, to an efficient judiciary and a vibrant civil society—than to an act of contrition.

That is not, however, the image that ETA wishes to project. In its published letter, ETA claims that “it has served its function” and has “open[ed] a new political cycle.” In a different letter from the one announcing its dissolution, ETA asked for forgiveness, but only for “the excessive suffering” caused, and only to those victims that ETA defines as “without responsibility in the conflict.” While a handful of former ETA members might have shown true remorse for their part in the violence, clearly the ETA as an organization has not.

That should not matter much. As in all conflicts, the winners have already begun to dictate the narrative. For Madrid, ETA’s end comes not as a bang, but as a whimper long overdue. Rajoy did not immediately react to the news of ETA’s dissolution. Instead, his party’s local representative merely stated that, “neither ETA’s history nor its responsibility can be dissolved. We will never forgive ETA.” For now, ETA will not be the subject of morning headlines but rather the theme of fiction novels, such as best-seller Motherland Patria by Fernando Aramburu, Spain’s literary success of the year.

Ultimately, that’s where ETA belongs, in the history books. May its violence never return.

Alvaro Morales Salto-Weis is a program assistant in the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program. You can follow him on Twitter @alvarosaltoweis

Image: A municipal worker removes graffiti reading "ETA, Thanks" two days after militant Basque separatists ETA announced their dissolution, in Bilbao, Spain, May 5, 2018. (REUTERS/Vincent West)