Assessment of terrorism in Spain Year 2003

por Juan Avilés, 21 de mayo de 2004

Last year was a milestone in the fight against the terrorist organization ETA, which according to all observers is undergoing its weakest moment since decades.  The progress of the fight against terrorism mirrors an enduring anti-terrorist strategy that encompasses the disintegration of assassin commando cells with legal actions against ETA’s framework, along with the encouragement of international cooperation.
Separately to the above-mentioned success, the dramatic failure of the fight against the Jihad terrorism needs to be highlighted. The cell that planned the 11-M terrorist attacks in Madrid --the most severe ones in the history of Spain-- could not be dissolved in time.
1. ETA’s Terrorism
1.1. Terrorist Attacks
In 2003 ETA launched 18 attacks, causing three fatalities.  This is one of the lowest figures in 30 years.  Except for year 1999 -when ETA declared a ceasefire- it wasn’t since 1972 that the number of casualties was that low.
More significantly, violence experienced a steady setback from year 2000 onwards, when ETA reappeared with special intensity as the terrorist group had had the time to get re-organized.  Back then, ETA carried out 47 attacks causing 23 mortal victims.

The victims were: Joseba Pagazaurtundua, Sergeant of the Local Police of Andoain (Guipuzcoa) and member of the Socialist Party and the citizen movement ¡Basta Ya! who was shot dead in February; and two members of the Spanish National Police, who were killed by a car bomb in Sanguesa (Navarra) in May.  In addition, two ertzainas --members of the Basque Regional Police-- were wounded in a shooting in Alava in September.  But the most severe bomb attacks in terms of victims --thirteen—were aimed at civilians and went off in two hotels in Alicante and Benidorm in August.   Nonetheless, the most dangerous attack could fortunately be prevented and consisted in a bag with explosives set in the intercity train that links Madrid with Irun, on December 23.  This attack included explosives on the railway tracks in the area of Aragon.
Other than the above-mentioned attacks, a large percentage of the blasts carried out by ETA in 2003 were aimed at intimidating and blackmailing businessmen, which depicts the concern of the terrorist group about the state of its finance.
Equally noteworthy was the decline of the so-called low-intensity terrorism i.e. launching Molotov cocktails or stones, that the media usually refers to as kale borroka -a Basque idiom for street violence— and the Ministry of Interior as urban terrorism.  In year 2003 there were 150 attacks of this kind, less than in any of the recent years including 1999 as such sort of terrorism was not discontinued during ETA’s ceasefire. This point is extremely important as such acts of terror contribute to magnify the alarm caused by more brutal attacks among the Basque population.  More importantly, many of the terrorists that joined ETA in the last years were initiated into violence through this type of actions.   It can be said that the kale borroka (street violence) is the recruiting source of ETA.  Thus, the feeling of impunity experienced by those that used to carry out street violence in the mid-nineties was a serious hurdle for the fight against terrorism.

Regulation changes undertaken in the last years, such as the amendment of the Criminal Law or the Criminal Responsibility of the Under Aged in January 2000 put an end to such impunity as the sentences for this kind of terrorist attacks were toughened.

1.2 Anti-Terrorist Measures
The mounting weakness of ETA results from the pressure put by the Police and Legal authorities of Spain as well as other countries.  In recent years such efforts brought about the capture of large numbers of ETA terrorists including some of its leaders. 
In contrast to the one hundred arrested in year 2000 -- as ETA resumed its terrorist activities following the ceasefire-- 187 ETA members were arrested in year 2003.  Most of these detentions took place in Spain, although the cooperation of France needs to be stressed.


The disintegration of the cells of Navarra and Guipuzcoa in July and December, along with the consecutive blows to the recruiting mechanism of the terrorist band from the month of April onwards, need to be highlighted among the most significant operations against ETA.  Also decisive was the arrest in May in France of Ainhoa Garcia Montero, one of the leaders of the band as well as the disintegration in July of the financial, logistics and falsification structure that ETA possessed in Mexico.  On December 4, Ibon Fernandez Iradi, former member of the “political arm” of ETA was also arrested.  Fernandez had managed to escape from a previous detention as results of which the Spanish Police seized some documents that later on were proven to be instrumental for the ant-terrorist operations of the year 2003.  Finally it was also in France as of December 9 that the successor of Fernandez Iradi in the leading position of the “military arm” of ETA, Gorka Palacios, was arrested.
The French cooperation went beyond the arrest of important members of ETA.  The temporary transfer of ETA prisoners in France is an extremely important practice in place since the end of year 2001, which allows Spanish authorities to interrogate ETA members without having to wait until they have completed the term of their sentences in France.  It is also remarkable that for the first time in June 2003, the French Justice decided the extradition to Spain of a member of ETA for a crime committed within the French territory, namely training terrorists.  It is also to be highlighted the fact that France signed a bilateral police and customs cooperation agreement that make it possible for the Spanish Security Forces to undertake missions of surveillance in French territory.
Additionally, the sentences for terrorist crimes became more severe after the Law 7/2003 was passed by the Parliament as of June 30.  The Law was supported by a vast majority of the Parliament, with the endorsement of both the Popular and the Socialist Party.  The new rule extends the punishments for terrorist crimes from 30 to 40 years and in the most serious cases those convicted will have to fully serve their sentences.  Before the law was passed the most regular thing to happen was for terrorists to remain in prison for a maximum of 20 years.
Likewise, the steps taken against those who support ETA from the political or propaganda standpoint without participating directly in the group’s attacks were essential.  The most remarkable step in this sense was the sentence of the Supreme Court of March 17, 2003 that dissolved the political party Batasuna in accordance to the Law of the Political Parties passed one year earlier.  Such sentence prevented ETA from counting on a powerful propaganda tool, which used to benefit from public money.  The illegalization brought about the inability for Batasuna to participate in the local elections of May 25th, consequently loosing the power on the 49 little towns of the Autonomous Regions of Navarra and the Basque Country, with a budget of more than 90 million Euros.
On the other hand, the European Ministers of Justice and Interior approved as of June 5 adding Batasuna to the terrorist organizations list of the European Union. 
In contrast, the nationalist majority of the Basque Parliament declined to implement the Supreme Court sentence dated June 18, that called for the dissolution of the so-called Socialist Aberzaleak Group, the political arm of ETA, which brings together Members of Parliament of former Batasuna.  This dissent lead to a serious institutional conflict related to the radicalization process undergone by the Basque democratic nationalism, which firmly condemns ETA’s terrorism while attempting to achieve self-determination.
The nationalist Government of Juan Jose Ibarretxe presented October 25, a political bylaw draft for Euskadi (Regional Community) that breaks with the Spanish Constitution unilaterally.
Among the legal measures against the environment of ETA two additional ones must be mentioned.  On February 20 Judge Juan del Olmo ordered the preventive close down of daily newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria on the grounds that the direction of the paper was under the control of ETA.  Additionally, on April 29, the Police neutralized the direction of the Assembly Udalbitza Kursaal as part of an operation coordinated by the Judge of the Audiencia Nacional Baltasar Garzon.  The Udalbitza Kursaal Assembly was created in February 2001 by local representatives of Batasuna and served as a political platform to support ETA.
1.3. Loss of Social Support
In addition to the loss of operative capability, ETA experienced an important loss of support at an international level and more importantly within the Basque society.  In the international arena the image of international liberation that ETA used to have among certain opinion groups during its first years of existence disappeared almost completely.  And the effort made by Spanish intellectuals, such as that of the citizen movement ¡Basta ya! lead by philosopher Fernando Savater is achieving for public denouncement of ETA crimes to be echoed internationally.  A good example is the manifest signed in May by twelve American and European intellectuals --Arrabal, Levy, Preston, Bryce Echenique, Burleigh, Flores d’Arcais, Fuentes, Gordmer, Goytisolo, Monsiváis, Vargas Llosa y Vattimo--  “in memory of the victims that die in the name of liberty in the Basque country”.
With regards to the attitude of the Basque population towards the terrorist organization it is to be underlined that 2003 saw a historical peak in the degree of refusal to ETA according to the Euskobarometro opinion polls conducted by the Political Sciences Department of the University of the Basque Country, the latest of which concluded that only 2 per cent of the Basque people support or justify ETA, while 64 per cent completely reject it.
In summary, and although the possibility that ETA strikes again causing new victims cannot be excluded, all indicators conclude that year 2003 saw a crisis moment without historical precedents for the terrorist band.  The latest EU terrorist organization is on the verge of being ultimately defeated.
2. The Islamic Jihad Terrorism
Since the mid-nineties Spain has been an operations base for the Islamic Jihad terrorists.  Especially since 2001 several cells in connection with Algerian Islamic terrorists and Al Qaida itself have been disbanded.  The most important cell, dissolved as of November 2001 was lead by Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah and Judge Baltasar Garzon brought up its members to Justice with charges of belonging to Al Qaida. On September 17, 2003 Garzon judged 35 people, including Bin Laden and the Al Yazira journalist Taysir Alony in an indictment that accused several members of the Spanish cell of Al Qaida --among them Abu Dahdah and the businessman Ghasoub Al Abrash-- of being involved in the 11-S terrorist attacks in the U.S.  Despite of this, attacks such as the ones occurred on March 11th, 2004 were not considered likely to happen in Spain at that point of time.
2.1. Arrests of Alleged Jihad Terrorists.
In January 2003, as results of the so-called Operacion Lago (Lake Operation) 16 alleged members of the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat were arrested in Catalonia.  The operation took place as requested by a French judge in light of the alleged relationship of those arrested with a terrorist group dissolved in France in December 2002, which apparently was planning a terrorist attack against the Russian Embassy.  They were taken an important amount of electronic as well as communications material in addition to some suspicious substances that could not be proven to be precursors for the elaboration of toxic products aimed at terrorist attacks.  France did not request them to be extradited and consequently the judge Ruiz Polanco filed the case, which was later on re-opened by judge Garzon.  Possibly we are faced with an example of lack of cooperation among the countries involved namely Spain, France and Algeria, which translated into the release of some suspects that eventually, could end up getting involved in the preparation of terrorist attacks.
Another case worth to be mentioned is the arrest in March of one Spaniard and one Pakistani citizen allegedly involved in the financial networks of Al Qaida.  Judge Ismael Moreno has filed actions against Enrique Cerda, a businessman from Valencia for his relation with terrorist funds, which could have been used to finance the suicide blast against a Synagogue in the Island of Yerba (Tunisia) where 16 people -most of them German tourists-- died in April 2002.
2.2. The Attacks of Casablanca and the Moroccan Link
Those responsible for the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004 in Madrid were mostly from Morocco and the Moroccan population represents the largest number of the Muslim community in Spain.  What happened in Madrid proves that the control over the Jihad movement within minority groups of the Muslim community was insufficient.
Nonetheless, several services had drawn the attention on the possible implications for Spain of the attacks in Casablanca May 16, 2003 as they revealed the relevance that the threat of the Jihad terrorism had in Morocco.
One of the targets of such attacks was the restaurant of the House of Spain, and out of the 40 victims, four were Spaniards.  The conclusion to be drawn from the attack could be arguable yet those that warned against the anti-Spanish side of the attacks were right.
Following the attacks, the Moroccan authorities launched a great operation against the framework of the Jihad Terrorism --Salafiya Jigadiya-- in the North-African country and asked Spain to arrest 16 Moroccan citizens resident in Spain.  These facts supported the theory that the Islamic Terrorism had connections in Spain and France.  The undergoing investigations will unveil if there was a connection between those responsible of the attacks in Casablanca and Madrid.
The conclusion to be drawn about the fight against terrorism in Spain in 2003 is very positive regarding ETA and extremely insufficient with regards to the Jihad terrorist cells. The decline of ETA clearly indicates that it is possible to defeat a deeply rooted organization by making use of the instruments of the State of Law as long as the fight is prioritized.  It is also critical the concurrence of the major political forces to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of the differences among the political parties. A third instrumental token is international cooperation.
Nevertheless, the threat posed by the Jihad terrorism was not correctly appraised and as a result it was not prioritized as appropriate.  International cooperation, which was pivotal --as long as the number of involved countries is concerned—did not reach the degree of relevance that Spain and France have achieved in the cooperation against ETA.
Spain is faced with a double challenge: on the one hand it must reinforce the effort of Security Forces and Justice against the threat posed by the Jihad terrorists --at present the number one cause of insecurity both domestically and internationally-- yet without disregarding ETA, whose political and operative weakness do not exclude the possibility of new attacks.