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Uprooting Terrorism in Spain After Sept. 11

Andreu Jerez (tt)September 7, 2006

In view of the advance of international Islamic terrorists, Basque terrorist organization ETA had to revise its violent strategies in Spain. The Madrid bombings sealed this process in 2004.

After Spain got hit by Islamic terrorists, the Basque terror group ETA had to give up violenceImage: dpa

As the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, Spain changed thoroughly. The political reality of the country was not untouched by the greatest terrorist attack in history, which was also described by some as the actual beginning of the 21st century. The intensification of international terrorism meant the beginning of the end of Spanish internal terrorism and the Basque terror organization ETA.

Bush and Aznar

After al Qaeda's attack on the financial heart of the United States, US President George W. Bush started a war against terrorism. One of his main goals was to fight terrorists outside the United States. But Bush could not lead his crusade without the support of the West if he didn't want to gamble with its international legitimacy.

Blair Bush und Aznar auf den Azoren
British Prime Minister Blair (left), US President Bush and Spain's former Prime Minister Jose Maria AznarImage: AP

The American president could not only rely on the backing of the ever-faithful British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but also on the then Spanish Prime Minister, the conservative José María Aznar. The famous meeting in the Azores in March 2003 sealed this tripartite axis against international terrorism.

Washington rewarded Aznar's unlimited support by supporting the Spanish prime minister in his fight against ETA. The US State Department put ETA members on its black list of international terrorists. This helped block the flow of finances to ETA and increased the cooperation in prosecuting members of the organization in other countries. Currently, around 150 ETA members in French prisons. Finally, Aznar managed to integrate his fight against the Basque terrorist organizations into the global crusade lead by his ally George W. Bush.

March 11 was the Spanish Sept. 11

Galerie Anschläge in Madrid Zug Rettungsmannschaft
Spain was shocked by the terrorist attack of March 11, 2004Image: AP

On March 11, 2004, Aznar -- and, with him, the whole country -- paid a high price for cooperating with Bush. The attacks of Islamic terrorists in Madrid left almost 200 people dead and hundreds injured. The attacks took place three days before the parliamentary elections, which were expected to be clearly won by Partido Popular (PP), whose candidate Mariano Rajoy was seen as Aznar's successor. Aznar's unambiguous support for the Iraq war and Bush had not left a mark on Spanish voters.

Despite the expectations, PP lost the elections on March 14. Today, Spain is governed by the socialist José Rordrígez Zapatero. So why didn't Spain react in the same way that the US did after Sept. 11, when 94 percent of the population supported Bush and his crisis management, which then lead to his reelection in Nov. 2004?

"Spain is certainly of the most experienced western countries as far as the phenomenon of terrorism is concerned," said Peter Waldemann, a sociology professor at the University of Augsburg. "That is why public opinion there has a very strong attitude about the successes, but also the limits of hard-line politics. As a consequence, Spain does not follow the rule that a crisis caused by a terrorist attack is advantageous for hard-line politicians such as Bush, Sharon, Putin or even Aznar."

Attacks change ETA

Spanien ETA erklärt Waffenruhe
In the end, ETA had no choice but to declare a permanent ceasefireImage: AP

But the consequences of March 11 went beyond Partido Popular's loss of power. Spanish society and, above all, the Basques unanimously condemned the terrorist attacks in Madrid. Shortly after the brutal attacks, spokesperson for Batasuna (ETA's political wing) Arnaldo Oteg expressed his absolute denunciation of the massacre. He also denied what Aznar's government assumed at first that ETA was behind the attacks.

"March 11 had a psychological effect on ETA and the left," said Paul Ríos, coordinator and spokesperson for LOKARRI, a citizen's group fighting for freedom and reconciliation in Basque country. "The Basque people unanimously condemned the attacks in Madrid. If ETA were to commit such an act, then it would have become even more isolated than it already is."

Consequently, March 11 brought about a change of strategy for ETA.

"You cannot deny that March 11 sped up a discussion within ETA about violence as a means of achieving political goals," said Gorka Landaburu, a journalist and editor of the weekly cambio 16. "Then there was also the rejection in society -- both among the Spaniards and the Basques, the political pressure and international cooperation. All this has lead ETA and those close to it down the path of abandoning violence."

An irreversible process?

The fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 coincides in Spain with the peace process, which began in March with ETA's announcement of a "permanent ceasefire." At the end of June, Zapatero responded to it by announcing talks with the terrorist organization. That was the second most important milestone in the peace process meant to solve the so-called Basque conflict.

Many people in Spain talk nowadays about the supposedly irreversible nature of the peace process. Basque journalist Gorka Landaburu said he cannot completely rule out possible backward steps in this process, but he remains, nonetheless, confident about the possibility of success.

"The path is already sketched out and ETA doesn't have another way out," he said. "If it wants to keep defending the things it is defending, it will have to do that with the help of democratic institutions and earning the respect of the opponent. Zapatero has offered them a landing runway. If they choose not to use it, the end could be disastrous."