Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) is a Basque separatist group that formed in 1959. For a half-century, ETA actively perpetrated over a hundred terror attacks across Spain and France. The ultimate political goal was that of a unified and independent Basque land that comprises the Basque region in northern Spain and southwestern France. There is very little debate over ETA’s actions throughout the second half of the 20th century. However, recent events have called the US foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation into question. The proclaimed cessation of all paramilitary operations and ultimate disbanding of any political aims and structure in 2018 would make the FTO designation pointless (Jones 2018). Because of the stated disbanding of the group, it would be a mere technicality to remove ETA from the list of FTOs – nothing gained, nothing lost. However, ETA as an idea rather than populated organization still creates cause for concern. That in mind, it would be useful to compare the current activities and influences of ETA with similar groups that are not listed as FTOs to make the case that ETA should no longer be listed. Other similar groups exist with even a stated modus operandi that are not listed. A designation as FTO also further complicates genuine political activities surrounding Basque separatism that are legitimate and unaffiliated with ETA.
First, a quick history of how ETA’s designation came to be. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START), ETA was the fourth most active worldwide terrorist group from the period of 1970-2010 having commit a reported 2,005 acts of terrorism in that period (Background Report). Attacks ranged from armed assault to kidnapping to bombing. The Rand Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents calculates an 84% usage of bombings over 418 verified observations of ETA activity (RAND). The nature of ETA targets varied greatly, adding to the argument for strong counteraction. Many terrorist groups specifically target government institutions in a specific pattern, but ETA has been involved with most fathomable public and private targets over time. Attacks on Spanish tourism, department stores, military barracks, airports, and busy streets were among the many targets. Although the attacks never reached the fatality levels of other separatist groups (no single attack explicitly linked to ETA reached more than 21 fatalities), the attacks injured many foreign citizens. Because the attacks took place in populated areas and tourism destinations, ETA created an international problem.
Thus, with the 1997 publication of the US Department of State FTO list, ETA was included in the first batch of organizations. The climate in 1997 in the Basque region was on tenterhooks as the early part of the decade saw the most ETA activity in its history. Justifiably so, the international community was wary of separatism, spurred on by violence in Yugoslavia. Therefore, the aims of FTO designations were very appropriate at the time – to curb donation and contribution to ETA, stigmatize and isolate the group, and heighten international awareness of the situation (Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)). However, these requirements are hardly met in 2019 as the structure no longer exists.
The main reasons for delisting ETA have occurred in the last ten years. In 2010, ETA declared its third ceasefire in its history. However, this was not an indefinite ceasefire and was met with skepticism by the international community. The following year, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire. This was also met with skepticism but presented a marked changed from the prior decades of open violence. ETA produced statements encouraging the international community to observe its ceasefire. The stated goal of an independent Basque land was to “come through the democratic process with dialogue and negotiation as its tools” (Tremlett 2011). Political commentators inferred that ETA did not have the capacity to carry on with its paramilitary goals given the numerous arrests of group members and general ineffectiveness of its campaign.
What counted the most for the Spanish government and international community was a 2018 letter obtained by Spanish media that declared a complete dissolution of ETA. The letter stated, “Eta has completely dissolved all its structures and declared an end to its political initiative” (Jones 2018). The inherent goals of many community members for political unification of the Basque region of course lives on strongly, with roughly 14% of Basque nationals wanting independence (Bernhard 2018). The letter went on to state that “[dissolution] does not bring an end to the conflict between the Basque homeland and Spain and France. The conflict did not begin with Eta and will not end with its dissolution” (Jones 2018). ETA will still have its sympathizers among the Basque population, but there is no longer any structure that supports any terrorist activity.
Where does that leave ETA? It is now no more than history. There is no reason to list it as an FTO if it has no structure. It is altogether possible that terrorist incidents could occur under the guise of Basque separatism, but this is similar to any other unaffiliated nationalist terrorism seen across the world – the State Department does not make a habit of listing unaffiliated persons as FTOs. For example, the Real Irish Republican Army has been active as recently as June 2019. It has a structure with known leaders and goals. It remains a listed entity. But, with groups such as the National Liberation Front of Provence, the Breton Revolutionary Army, or the Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA), isolated attacks with marginal connections to the group do not warrant designation as FTOs.
The SNLA presents a good case study to compare to ETA’s current situation. If the RIRA is a solid measure for pre-2018 ETA, then the SNLA is an equally valid measure for post-2018 ETA. The SNLA was never listed as a terrorist organization. In fact, there was never an organizational structure beyond rudimentary communications among interested Scottish nationalists. Multiple attempts at terror attacks occurred from the 1980s to the early 2000s including letter bombs and attempts to poison water supplies. In 2008, two British nationals were handed a six-year prison sentencing for actions linked to the SNLA. A judge stated:
“In summary, what you did was to prepare packages into which you placed bottles, miniature vodka bottles, from which the vodka was removed and caustic soda placed… The reason you did that was in furtherance of a campaign by a group calling themselves the Scottish National Liberation Army, an organisation which works in cells of two, an organisation set with its aim of separating Scotland and England and English interests in Scotland being expelled” (Batty 2008).
This type of action is surely within the realm of possibility for future Basque separatist terrorism. It could be useful or convenient to invoke the name of a group, regardless of affiliation, to gain clout and to more easily transmit the political aims of the attack. But, an FTO designation for the SNLA is moot because there is no formal structure and the terrorism is better categorized as Scottish separatism rather than SNLA-specific. The same goes for the future of Basque separatism.
The Department of State clearly delineates its requirements for group designations. A potential FTO must “be a foreign organization, engage in or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorism, and threaten the security of U.S. nationals or [national interests]” (Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)). ETA no longer meets these requirements. As it is no longer an organization, it cannot be considered as an FTO. Sympathetic individuals, such as with the SNLA, may commit acts of terrorism with claims of ties to ETA, but that is outside the scope of FTO designations.
Why does it then matter if ETA is listed? Intuition may suggest that no harm comes from leaving ETA as a listed group as a precaution. However, this listing creates two problems: unnecessary resources from a US counterterrorism standpoint and an infringement on Spanish political right. The first problem is self-explanatory. The problem with Spanish democracy is that this designation creates a bias against legitimate Basque political movements. As stated on page two of this document, the goal of an FTO designation is to stigmatize and isolate a terrorist group as well as heighten general public awareness. When combatting a terrorist group, this is vital. When there is no group to combat, it is important to separate the political aim of the defunct organization from terrorist actions. To help remove the negative stigma surrounding Basque separatism, the US should delist ETA. This would facilitate healthier debate in the international community surrounding a strictly political movement.
There are a few things to keep in mind. If any intelligence arises that indicates a reformation of ETA, there is no problem with relisting it as an FTO. Indeed, there may be current classified information that has led the Department of State to maintain ETA on its list. It is also worth noting that ETA does not easily compare to many other groups because of the sheer volume and impact of its attacks over time. Other than the IRA, there are not many western separatist groups that have claimed hundreds of lives and drummed up copious media attention.
“Background Report: ETA Ceasefires by the Numbers.” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Accessed via https://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/publications/br/ETACeasefires.pdf.
Batty, David. 2008. “Nationalists Jailed Over Poison Plot.” The Guardian, Jan 25th.
Bernhard, Meg. 2018. “With Independence a Far-Fetched Dream, Basque Country Activists Downsize Their Ambitions.” Los Angeles Times, June 15th.
Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Congressional Research Service. Updated Jan 15th, 2019. Accessed via https://fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/IF10613.pdf.
Jones, Sam. 2018. “Basque Separatist Group ETA Announces Dissolution.” The Guardian, May 2nd.
“Politicians on Alert Over Mail Scare.” BBC News UK, Mar 2nd, 2002.
RAND. Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents. Accessed via http://smapp.rand.org/rwtid/search.php
Tremlett, Giles. 2011. “ETA Declares Permanent Ceasefire.” The Guardian, Jan 10th.