Europe’s Oldest Terrorist Organization: The Basque ETA Marks 50 Years of Operations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 14

Members of the Basque ETA group

On a December morning in 1973, an ear-splitting blast ripped through the fashionable Salamanca district of Madrid, shaking the walls of this reporter’s home. The first frenzied reports on the Spanish state-controlled media spoke of a gas main explosion.  A journalist’s instinct said this was not so; political tensions were running high in the final years of the Franco dictatorship, the aged general was suffering from severe Parkinson’s disease and his frail voice was barely audible in broadcasts. Everyone impatiently awaited the end of four decades of a tyranny that still had two years to run, and everyone expected trouble.  

When the dust cleared, it emerged that the Basque guerrilla organisation Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty – ETA) had detonated a bomb under the street, blowing up the car of Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir apparent, known as the “Ogre” for his extremist hard-line policies. It was generally agreed that had Carrero Blanco survived, Spain was in for a messy post-Franco period. [1] The banned socialist and communist parties, backed with the muscle of their trades unions, were beginning to resurface after nearly 40 years underground. Tensions were running high and there were widespread fears of bloody street clashes under a future Carrero Blanco régime. That night, stocks of champagne were depleted in the wine shops of the Basque Country, though this was the last time one of ETA’s violent actions was to win widespread popular support across Spain. [2]

Origins of ETA

This year ETA celebrates its 50th birthday, making it Europe’s longest surviving terrorist organisation. ETA’s founders were not urban guerrillas or militants of the revolutionary proletariat. They were well-heeled, middle-class university students from Bilbao’s Deusto University, whose aim was not to launch a campaign of violence. They took their inspiration from Sabino Arana, the 19th century father of Basque nationalism and founder of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco – PNV). The students were angered by the Franco regime’s political oppression, but also by what they perceived to be a plot to stamp out the Basque identity, as embodied in some of Arana’s more fanciful proclamations. For instance, "We, the Basques, must avoid mortal contagion, maintain firm our faith in our ancestors and the serious religiosity that distinguishes us, and purify our customs, in the past so healthy and exemplary, and now so infected and at the point of corruption by the influence of those who have come from outside." [3]

The Basque region was granted autonomy by the Spanish Republic in 1936 and formed its own government and army. Basque resistance to Franco’s rebel troops in the 1936-39 Spanish civil war collapsed following the carpet bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe and Italian Aviazione Legionaria in 1937. After the war, Franco took his revenge on the Basques by declaring Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, part of the intransigent Basque hinterland, “punished provinces.” The Basque language was banned and all other manifestations of Basque culture were proscribed. The provinces of Vitoria and Navarre (the latter not officially part of the Basque Country) had gone over to the fascist cause early in the war and were spared the ravages of Franco’s Falangists.

In 1959, a small group of Basque students managed to obtain government permission to travel abroad on the pretext of participating in a sporting event. They went to Paris to meet with José Antonio Aguirre, the president of the Basque government in exile, and seek his support for a campaign of political activism. The student delegation was kept waiting for hours and when Aguirre finally emerged, he greeted them effusively with “wonderful news” – all the defeated Republic’s political parties now in exile had at last agreed on a common platform. Struggling to conceal their dismay with this apparent demise of the Basque nationalist movement, the students returned to Spain, where some began to find inspiration in armed guerrilla movements like Israel’s Irgun and the Irish Republican Army. Thus began ETA’s transition from graffiti to bullets. [4]

ETA has never had a problem, then or now, recruiting young militants to its cause. In the Franco years, any attempt to raise the Basque flag or distribute nationalist leaflets was met with a merciless police crackdown, which often included torture sessions in the basement of Madrid’s Security Headquarters. Hence there was never a shortage of angry youth happy to take up arms for the cause. The fledgling band of revolutionaries was able to organize and arm itself thanks to donations from Basque exiles in Mexico and Venezuela. Later on, bank robberies and extortion became routine fund-raising tactics.

ETA drew its first blood in 1968 when a notorious police torturer, Melitón Manzanas, was gunned down outside his home in the border town of Irún. The government’s response was to impose a “state of exception,” effectively suspending constitutional guarantees, first in the Basque country and then in all of Spain. That same month some 600 arrests were made in the Basque provinces. The round-ups carried on for months and the following year another 2,000 people were detained, allegedly tortured and convicted of crimes against the state. The ETA activists, who at their peak never numbered more than a few hundred hardcore militants, had now acquired the status of a violent threat to the Franco régime. [5]   

International Connections

Leaving aside the early financial contributions from abroad, it is worth pointing out that ETA’s alleged links to terrorist groups in Latin America, North Africa and elsewhere are tenuous and sporadic. The Basques have reportedly helped train some FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas in exchange for cash and the Colombian terrorists have unsuccessfully tried to persuade ETA to carry out killings on their behalf in Spain, but the relationship is peripheral to ETA’s strategic objectives (El País, July 30, 2008; see also Terrorism Monitor, January 23). ETA is not concerned with world revolution and the liberation of the proletariat. It is a narrowly-focused movement fighting to achieve an independent Basque homeland free from “Spanish pollution” and embracing an almost hysterical doctrine of “racial purity”. The only mantra it shares with other guerrilla groups is an intense dislike of the United States. This hostility, however, is not based on accusations of imperialism but rather of betrayal. After the Second World War, the Basque government in exile fervently expected the United States to depose Franco, who had sided with Hitler in the war despite declaring Spanish neutrality. Instead, what they got was four U.S. military bases on Spanish soil and an aid package from the Eisenhower administration that rescued Spain from economic collapse. [6]

Given the ferocity of the police crackdown, one wonders how ETA managed to survive and indeed intensify its campaign of violence. The answer is the French connection. The French Basque region provided refuge for ETA militants on the run and a safe haven to regroup and plan attacks south of the border. “ETA operated across the border between Spain and France with something approaching impunity,” says the Basque journalist and ETA historian Iñigo Gurruchaga. “It was in the latter country that their leadership operated, apparently unhindered by French security forces.” [7] ETA considers this French region a part of Euskalherria, or the Greater Basque Country. In fact, one of their slogans is 4+3 = 1, referring to the four Spanish and three French Basque provinces. The French government takes a somewhat different view, yet for years Paris refused to comply with Spanish demands to hand over ETA guerrillas holed up in French territory. During the Franco period, France turned a deaf ear to Madrid’s demands on the grounds that it could not in good conscience deport asylum seekers to a fascist dictatorship. It is only in recent years that ETA militants have been denied a safe haven across the border. Thanks to French police work, a number of major ETA figures have been arrested and sent back to Spain. This has undeniably weakened the movement, perhaps terminally, though there remains the deeply-rooted challenge of grassroots support.

The Political Dimension

Gone are the days when ETA’s now illegal political arm, Herri Batasuna, could command 15% or more of the vote in Basque elections. Last March, radical parties won only four of 75 seats in the regional Basque parliament. The result also marked a crushing setback for the Basque nationalist PNV, which had held power for nearly 30 years (El Correo, March 27). Socialist Party leader Patxi López was sworn in as president of a government that will rule the Basque region in coalition with the conservative Popular Party. For the moment, the Spanish government has no plans to renew peace talks with the guerrillas. Sporadic attempts to achieve a lasting ceasefire have been ongoing for years and the last round failed in 2006, when ETA planted a massive bomb in Madrid Airport (Reuters, April 21). ETA still believes it is negotiating from a position of strength and refuses to budge from its demands for a referendum on Basque independence. The Spanish government correctly argues that this is unconstitutional and refuses to open a dialogue on greater regional independence.  


The ETA has killed more than 825 people since the start of its campaign of violence in the late 1960s. More will undoubtedly fall until a sizeable segment of the Basque people is persuaded to withdraw its tacit support for the terrorists. Most of the victims have been members of the security forces or figures linked to the government, but the Basque terrorists have not shied away from the occasional civilian atrocity. Nevertheless, the suspected beating of an ETA supporter in police custody, or the transfer of an ETA convict to a prison outside the Basque Country, are events capable of detonating mass street protests in San Sebastián or one of the industrial towns of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa.  

ETA retains the capacity to inflict isolated acts of murder and destruction. It has never had the ability to destabilize the Spanish political system, but documents seized in the recent arrest of Jurdan Martitegi Lizaso, the military leader of ETA, indicated the group was about to begin a new series of attacks on the new Socialist government of the Basque region (La Voz de Galicia, April 23; Euro Weekly [Spain], April 30).  Madrid will now have to decide whether to soften its approach to Basque nationalism without capitulating to the terrorists, or accept separatist violence as a long-term thorn in the side of Spanish democracy.  

1.    Antonio Elorza, La Historia de ETA,  Edición Temas de Hoy, 2000, p. 262.
2.    Ander Landaburu, Cambio 16 Basque country correspondent, in conversation with the author, December, 1974.
3.    Sabino Arana, La Patria no. 19, 1890.
4.    Iñigo Gurruchaga, Talking to Terrorists, Hurst & Co., 2009, p. 177.
5.    Eugenio Etxebeste, Veinte Años Después, Argitaletxe Hiru, 1994, p. 59.
6.    Gurruchaga, op. cit., p. 175
7.    Ibid, p.181