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ETA’s first terrorist actions were bombings in the Spanish cities of Bilbao, Vitoria and Santander in 1959, followed by an attempt to derail train carrying civil war veterans in 1961. The Spanish police response was heavy handed with arrests, house searches and considerable use of torture. These actions drove many Basques into exile and others into the arms of ETA. When the Spanish dictator General Franco died in 1976, democracy was restored to Spain and the new government granted some autonomy to the Basque region with its own parliament and control over education, with the Basque language and culture being taught in schools. Many exiles returned and support for ETA fell. Yet for ETA the concessions were not enough and only full independence would be acceptable, so ETA began a campaign of violence against security forces and politicians which has continued to the present day. The Spanish government set up GAL anti-terrorist liberation groups who killed 28 suspected ETA members. Secret talks between ETA and the Spanish government were held in Algeria in 1992 but failed to end the conflict.
ETA’s campaign of violence was quickly loosing popular support and after the brutal murder of a young Basque politician in July 1997 over 6 million Spanish people took to the streets to protest against ETA. A hard line approach by the Spanish government resulted in the arrest in 97 of all 23 members of ETA’s political wing and imprisonment for 7 years for aiding the armed group. Events in Northern Ireland affected ETA as with the peace agreement in Northern Ireland ETA’s links with the IRA weakened and ETA announced a cease fire for the first time in 30 years. The Spanish government dismissed the ceasefire as it claimed ETA was using it to rearm and to carryout raids on arms depots and weapons factories as there source of weapons from the IRA had dried up. During the ceasefire there were no major terrorist attacks but violence in the Basque region continued, the ceasefire ended in December 1999.
ETA’s organisation is typical of a western terrorist group with a small hard core of activists possibly only 20 with around 100 supporters. It operates in the traditional self sufficient cells of western terrorist groups an inheritance of its Marxist origins. This makes the organisation very difficult for the authorities to penetrate. Operationally it is based in the Basque region in Spain but evidence suggests members and supporters if not cells in many countries including Algeria, Belgium, Cuba, Germany, Holland, Italy and Mexico. In recent years activities have been conducted from France and from Latin America. Links and training can be traced to the IRA and to Libya and Nicaragua in the past.
Funding comes from the traditional sources of terrorists such as extortion, drug trafficking, armed robberies and ransoms of which ETA has carried out around 46. Methods of operation include sophisticated bombings and assassination of government officials including the assassination of Admiral Blanco in 1973 as well as more traditional guerrilla attacks. In 1980 alone they killed 118 people in what was ETA’s bloodiest year. Over half the groups 768 victims have been Spanish security forces. In 2004 the Spanish government tried to blame ETA for the devastating bombings at Madrid railway station on the eve of the Spanish election. Blaming ETA was a heavy handed attempt to gain support for the governments anti Basque policies. The attack did not fit the normal modus operandi for ETA and it was quickly discovered that the attackers had links to Al-Qa’ida rather than ETA. There is no evidence that ETA has links with Al-Qa'ida and such links seem highly unlikely considering the long history of anti Muslim feeling in the Basque region. The Spanish government lost the subsequent election. With a more moderate government in power, the reduction and disarming of the IRA and the tightening international security in the wake of September 11th the effectiveness of ETA as a terrorist organisation is set to diminish.
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