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How the Basques Got Rid of Terrorism



The following heartwarming story comes from Javier Argomaniz, an inter-disciplinary terrorism expert at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. Terrorism experts are not known for telling heartwarming stories. This is a good one.


We read so many stories about attacks here and wars there that it is easy to forget about the places you do not read about. It is also easy to forget about the places that used to have attacks but don’t have them anymore.


The Basque Country in Spain had a long history of nationalist terrorist violence, stemming from the founding of the ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) in 1959. Relationships between the Basques and the Spanish state were far more acrimonious than those between the Basques and France. Spain had a long series of civil wars with one side generally being conservative military monarchists or dictators. The right generally crushed all progressive or workers’ mobilization, Basque or not. They also clamped down on the ethnic culture of subnationalities within their territory. The dictator’s responses to anything they did not like were arrests, jailings and killings.


France, without a history of civil war within its territory and a substantially weaker far-right, was far more tolerant of worker protest. Regions were allowed to have their subcultural peculiarities as long as education and government were kept single-mindedly French. Violent persecution of minorities was non-existent.


So when the ETA was founded in 1959, it had substantial popular support in Spanish Basqueland. Many Basques had personally seen or experienced the violence of the Franco regime; they were willing to answer violence with violence. The labor factor mattered as well. When a state systematically thwarts all attempts of workers to unionize, workers will rationally attempt to get rid of the state. Basque workers didn’t care about who governed Madrid. If they could get Franco out of the Basque Country, they had a shot at organizing.


The ETA was bloody. It carried out over 3,600 terrorist attacks killing 836 people. 40,000 more receiving personal threats. Potential victims had to resort to using bodyguard protection. Many self-exiled themselves to other parts of Spain for their own safety.


Generally, the victims were other Basques. The political scene in the Basque Country was complex. (It was to become even more complex with the return of democracy to Spain.) The targets of ETA action were members of pretty much any political formation that was not the ETA itself – with temporary truces existing between the ETA and its allies of the moment. That put a lot of Basque citizens in the way of danger.


The happy story here is the Basque population getting sick of the random violence and organizing itself to put an end to terrorism in the Basque country.


When democracy came to Spain, the need to combat Francoist violence with equal and opposite violence came to an end. While many regions continued to wrestle with whether they wanted to become independent of Spain - Catalonia is still having that discussion – the modality of attaining independence moved towards peaceful means.


The need for a violent war of secession disappeared. The ETA did not.


The ETA continued its campaign of total intimidation, moving its targets to the new political party formations across the entire spectrum of Basque politics. Popular support for the ETA tanked. Survey evidence saw steadily declining approval of both the ETA organization itself and the acceptability of terrorism or violence as a political tactic. ETA murders, beatings and threats continued regardless.


What happened is that Basque citizens organized to stop the violence. The strategy was to hold a public demonstration after each and every public violent act to show the ETA it did not have the support of the general population. The first protest group, Gesture for Peace was founded by a Catholic school in Bilbao in 1985. 200 people turned out to protest the killing of two naval officers. Parallel small groups began to be formed in Bilbao, and the movement then spread to the rest of the Basque country. By the 1990’s, 175 independent groups operated under the Gesture for Peace umbrella. They held tens of thousands of protests. In 1996 alone, they held 8,150 anti-violence protests. In 1976-1979, only four percent of ETA kidnappings generated any form of public response. Between 1986 and 1997, 82 percent of kidnappings led to conspicuous public responses.


Protesting was not an easy or gratuitous activity. To lead or participate in an anti-violence rally made you a target for the ETA. As an intermediate strategy, allies of the ETA would organize their own counter-demonstrations right next to the non-violence demonstrations. The pro-ETA marchers would harass, threaten and physically assault the pacifists. Note that verbal threats were not idle threats in a region where ETA kidnappings were the norm. High profile leaders were assassinated. Other organizers had to hire bodyguards on a 24/7 basis for years.


Popular organization was facilitated by two other favorable developments. The first is that the ETA lost over time most of the legitimate peaceful political organizations that were its allies. The second is that the Spanish state turned its repressive force against the ETA. Diplomatic efforts led to France taking action to see that French territory could not be used as a safe haven for ETA organizing. ETA leaders and perpetrators of violence were arrested. Substantial police protection was provided for participants in peace demonstrations.


Finally, the ETA capitulated to the inevitable. In 2011, the ETA formally abjured terrorist activity. The political violence came to an end.


What are the lessons to be drawn from this?

  1. Argomaniz argues, and I fully agree, that individual citizens can make a gigantic difference in reducing violence in their home territories. The residents of the Spanish northeast organized against political terrorism. Through force and persistence and courage, their campaign worked.

  2. I would add that insurgent groups are really better off not attacking members of their own population. Robin Hood wins a lot more popular support than does the Joker. FARC in Colombia got a lot of popular support by taking care of the populations under its control – and by limiting its attacks to targets that represented bona fide threats to local residents. It was very, very difficult to remove.


However, there are more readers of this website who are general citizens with hopes of making the world a better place than there are leaders of insurgent organizations in embattled regions.


For the general citizens reading this, organizing for the things that matter works.


For More Information

You can read the details about the Basque story in Javier Argomaniz’s “Civil Action Against ETA Terrorism in Basque Country.” Pp. 229-254 in Deborah Avant et. al. (eds.), Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence. (Oxford University Press.)  Incidentally, that whole collection is just terrific. There are eight other anti-violence organizing stories there that are just as good as well as some great overview essays.

On the relative dynamics of French vs Spanish Basque nationalism, see Matthew Lange’s excellent Killing Others: Natural History of Ethnic Conflict. That book is a general discussion of ethnic conflict worldwide and a fine one at that. Use the index to find the Basque discussion.

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