1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

ETA: A History of Terror

DW staff (win)March 12, 2004

Spanish authorities have named Basque terrorist organization ETA as the prime suspect in Thursday's train bombings in Madrid. It would be the worst attack the group has conducted in its 45-year history.

Basques demonstrate against ETA.Image: AP

On Friday, Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio reiterated her government's belief that ETA is responsible for the attacks. "We have very strong leads," Palacio told a French radio station.

But former members of the group have insisted that ETA could not have carried out the bombings. "It's not ETA's method of working," said Julen de Madariaga, ETA's founder and former leader, who later denounced violence. Madariaga added that the organization was unlikely to attack busy, working-class areas.

Baskische Idylle
An unidentified shepherd guides his sheep through a valley near San Sebastian in the northern Basque region of Spain.Image: AP

ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque words for "Basque country and Freedom," which is what the group claims to be fighting for. The Basque region lies in northern Spain and stretches into southwestern France. While Spain has already granted its Basque population far-reaching autonomy, the group demands independence.

From freedom fighters to terrorists

Founded in 1959 during Spain's Franco dictatorship, ETA did not start terrorist activities until a decade later: In 1968, the group killed the police chief of the Basque city of San Sebastian. ETA members have financed their activities through kidnappings, robberies and extortion.

In 1975, Spain became a democracy again. ETA lost its sworn enemy but continued with its attacks. This led to a change in public opinion: While the group had been seen as a resistance movement against the dictatorship before, it was now perceived as a terror organization that killed politicians and journalists accused of "collaborating with the Spanish state."

ETA-Bombe in Spanien
Police inspect the scene where a car-bomb exploded in the southern coastal resort town of Fuengirola, Spain in June, 2002. Six people were reported to be injured in the attack, allegedly carried out by the Basque separatist group ETA.Image: AP

ETA killed 118 people in 1980, Spain's "bloody year." The group began to fall apart as many could no longer justify the terror. The political party "Herri Batasuna," outlawed in 2003, began to function as ETA's mouthpiece.

ETA's threat had been declining in recent years as the Spanish government began a crackdown on the organization. More than 500 members of the group are currently in Spanish prisons. While 23 people died in ETA attacks in 2000, only three were murdered in 2003.

The group lost virtually all support among the population after it killed a young Basque council member in 1997. Millions went to the streets demonstrating against ETA, holding signs that read "Basta Ya," which means "Enough Already."

Almost 850 people have died in ETA attacks over the years, but the death toll has never been as high as after Thursday's bomb explosions in Madrid. An ETA bomb killed 21 people at a Barcelona shopping center, so far at least 198 have died in Madrid, and some 1,430 are injured.