Fast Facts: Look at Spain's ETA

The Council of Foreign Relations provides a series of questions and answers about the terror group ETA, Basque Fatherland and Liberty (search).

What is ETA? — ETA is a leftist group that uses terrorism in hopes of forming an independent Basque state in parts of northern Spain and southwest France. ETA stands for Euskadi ta Askatasuna, which means “Basque Fatherland and Liberty” in the Basque language. The State Department lists ETA as a foreign terrorist organization, and the United States and the European Union have frozen ETA assets since the September 11 attacks. Spain has long fought ETA and opposes an independent Basque homeland, though its 1978 constitution designated an autonomous Basque region with responsibility for education, health care, policing, and taxation.

Who are the Basques? — The Basques are a linguistically and culturally distinct Christian group that has lived since the Stone Age in the mountainous region that straddles the border between modern-day Spain and France. The Basques have never had their own independent state, but they have enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy over the centuries under Spanish and French rule. About half of the 2.1 million residents of the three provinces that make up the autonomous Basque region speak fluent Basque or understand some of the language. Basque nationalists include other areas with smaller Basque-speaking minorities—the Spanish province of Navarre and three departments in southwest France—in their vision of a Basque homeland.

Who and what does ETA target? (search) — Mostly national and regional officials and government buildings in Spain. In 1973, ETA operatives killed the aging dictator Francisco Franco’s apparent successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, by planting an underground bomb below his habitual parking spot outside a Madrid church. In 1995, an ETA car bomb almost killed Jose Maria Aznar, then leader of the conservative Popular Party and now Spain’s prime minister. The same year, investigators disrupted a plot to assassinate King Juan Carlos. And in 1999, Spanish investigators foiled a truck bombing of Madrid’s Picasso Tower, a skyscraper designed by the architect of the World Trade Center.

In addition to these ambitious targets, ETA has also targeted many regional officials and institutions in Basque regions, and in recent years ETA has also targeted journalists and civilians. About eight hundred people have been killed as a result of ETA violence since the 1960s.

Has ETA carried out attacks since Sept. 11, 2001? — Yes. ETA has been quieter than usual since September 11, but experts say this may reflect successful law enforcement pressure rather than any moral or tactical retreat from terrorism by ETA. However, since Sept. 11, ETA has been implicated in several attacks. These include:

— In March 2002, Spanish authorities defused a bomb planted at the stock exchange in Bilbao, a bomb exploded outside the home of a local politician, and a town councillor was assassinated. Spanish authorities suspect ETA in these incidents.

— In November 2001, ETA killed a judge and two police officers in the Basque region, and a French gendarme was shot, reportedly by ETA.

— In October 2001, ETA set off car bombs in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque region, and in Madrid; the latter attack injured a hundred people.

When was ETA formed? — In 1959, by young activists angered by the dictator Franco’s suppression of the Basque language and culture and frustrated with moderate Basque nationalist organizations. ETA, which soon embraced a revolutionary Marxist ideology, planted bombs that year in several cities in Spain.

Does ETA have ties to Al Qaeda? — No. ETA’s secular nationalist agenda has nothing to do with the Islamist fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and there is no credible evidence of any systematic cooperation between ETA and Al Qaeda, experts say. But Al Qaeda cells have been discovered in Spain. In November 2001, Spanish authorities arrested eight men suspected of being Al Qaeda operatives involved in the September 11 attacks, and one of these men reportedly had past links with ETA’s unofficial political wing, Batasuna.

Does ETA have any links to other terrorist groups? — Yes. ETA has close ties with the Irish Republican Army through their respective political wings. The Basque group has followed the IRA’s lead, many observers say. For example, in 1998, inspired by progress in the Northern Ireland peace process, ETA declared a cease-fire that lasted 14 months.

Where does ETA operate? — ETA began by carrying out attacks in the Basque region of Spain, and most of its activities still take place there. The group has also conducted attacks throughout Spain, including Madrid and popular tourist destinations, and in France. For many years, ETA’s leadership, planners, and bomb-making teams used Basque areas in France as their primary base.

How does ETA finance its activities? — ETA conducts kidnappings for ransom, robs banks, traffics in drugs, and extorts money from businesses in Basque areas, experts say. Following the September 11 attacks, the United States and the European Union moved to freeze ETA’s assets, which experts say may have put a damper on their activities.

Does ETA receive support from any governments? — ETA operatives have reportedly trained in Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, and Nicaragua. Cuba and several South American states harbor ETA operatives. ETA does not receive funding from governments.

Is there widespread Basque support for ETA? — No. Many Basques favor self-determination or more regional autonomy, but the vast majority reject terrorism. ETA attacks in the Basque provinces of Spain are often followed by mass antiviolence demonstrations, and the strongest force in regional elections is usually the moderate, nonviolent Basque National Party. Batasuna, the party associated with ETA, does not usually get more than 10 percent of the regional vote. ETA’s 1998 cease-fire coincided with an agreement between ETA and moderate Basque nationalists to pursue their common goals without violence. After ETA broke the cease-fire in 1999, the moderate Basque National Party lost some support.

How has Spain dealt with ETA? — Firmly and sometimes harshly, experts say. The Spanish government and ETA have approached the negotiating table a few times, most recently during ETA’s 14-month unilateral cease-fire. Since ETA resumed its attacks, however, President Aznar has taken a hard line against the group. Since September 11, more than 50 suspected ETA members have been arrested, and Aznar has said he will not negotiate with ETA until it surrenders and forsakes violence. In December 2001, a Spanish judge outlawed Gestoras pro Amnistia, an organization that provides support to families of jailed ETA members; in August 2002, he ordered a three-year ban on the ETA-linked Batasuna political party.

Spain has successfully prosecuted hundreds of ETA members in open courtroom proceedings. But from 1983 to 1987, the paramilitary Antiterrorist Liberation Groups, which enjoyed covert government support, killed 27 suspected Basque separatists. Under Franco, the Spanish government often met ETA violence with violence, and terror suspects were sometimes tortured.

How has France dealt with ETA? — For many years, the French government condoned ETA’s presence so long as it did not carry out attacks there. This began to change in the 1980s, and the past several years have seen an increase in anti-ETA cooperation between French and Spanish authorities, experts say. In April 2001, the French interior ministry organized a police unit committed to rooting out ETA cells. And since September 11, the European Union has been working to coordinate its members’ efforts to combat terrorist organizations.

What steps has the United States taken against ETA? — The State Department has listed ETA as a terrorist organization since 1997. After September 11, the United States froze ETA assets. In February 2002, the Treasury Department announced that it would block the assets of 21 individuals suspected of links to ETA. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill cited this decision as a demonstration that “our crackdown on terrorists is blind to nationality and origin.”

Has ETA ever targeted U.S. interests? — No.

Do Basques in the United States support ETA? — Basque-Americans do not provide financial support, weapons, or political support for ETA, experts say, although some Basques in the United States do support Basque self-determination.

The Council on Foreign Relations provided this terrorism explainer.