Small Wars Journal

ETA: From Dictatorship to Democracy

Fri, 11/03/2017 - 2:30am

ETA: From Dictatorship to Democracy

Cristina De Esperanza Picardo


The case study of Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) offers a unique opportunity to assess the strategy and ideology of both the state and the terrorist organization in the context of dictatorship and democracy. This article studies the underpinning ideological pillars of Basque nationalism that provided legitimacy to ETA terrorism and how these were disrupted with the change in the political landscape.

Historically, Basque nationalism has been defined in negative terms. The dialectical relationship between the Basques and the Spanish State, even if largely ideological, was matched by the physical grievance of the Basque population. It served a practical purpose, that is, Basque nationalism and its incarnation in ETA provided a relatively deprived population a cognitive framework to channel their feelings of anger against another.

This understanding raised expectations on the impact that the change in the political regime would have on ETA and therefore, the fact that the terrorist group did not announce its dissolution after Franco’s death was considered a miscalculation. However, the fact that this did not occur overnight shall not overshadow the repercussion that the alternation of the political system supposed for ETA in terms of strategy, legitimacy and constituency, which are the issues this article intends to assess.

The Evolution of Basque Nationalism

The roots of the Basque people can only be identified with difficulty yet the emergence of self-awareness in the region clearly dates back to the 19th century with Sabino Arana as the patriarch of Basque nationalism.[i] In a context of a deep social cleavage between those who prospered with the industrialization of the Basque Country and those who suffered its miseries as well as of massive migration from underdeveloped provinces to Bilbao, the Basque nationalist leader managed to develop a cognitive framework that matched the sense of deprivation shared among the Basque population with an external enemy: Spaniards. As it has been largely explained by identity theorists, “for peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity enemies are essential”[ii]; in other words, identity is defined in negative exclusive terms. Hence, Arana settled the basis cognitive radicalization by dehumanizing maquetos (Spaniards), an inferior race and the incarnation of evil thus paving the ground for the justification a future behavioural radicalization. The nationalism from which ETA would emerge later on shifted the primacy of race towards the primacy of language for historical reasons- as euskera was harshly repressed during the Francoist regime, yet the cause remained the same since its establishment by Sabino Arana: the building of an independent Euskal Herria[iii].

The years that preceded the Spanish Civil War witnessed some moves towards autonomy under the authority of the Arana-founded PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), however, all hopes shuttered with the outbreak of the struggle. Reaching this point, it is necessary to make clear that the Spanish Civil War was not merely the clash between the two antithetical visions of politics -right or left- under two cohesive fronts, but a war in which a multi-layered set of identities determined the motivations of people to take sides and fight. Among these causes, nationalism and the goal of independence were the main mobilizing causes in the Basque territory.[iv] The Nationals reacted to this merge of forces with a heavy-handed repression that went on for the almost 40 years that the dictatorship lasted. During these decades, none of the responses to Franco were as lasting and violent as they were in the Basque region.[v]

Although, it would be mistaken to trace the origins of ETA as far back as to the Civil War, this essay holds that this was a determinant turning point when considering Basque nationalism, as it was the first time Basques took up arms for the sake of independence. The tyrannical figure of Franco and the traumas caused by his ruthless repression during and after the war would definitely influence ETA’s legitimacy.

ETA, as many with other insurgent movements, started to take shape in 1959 as informal clandestine meetings by politically curious boys (in this case called cuadrillas) unsatisfied by the performance of the PNV. However, it soon went through fast political development –focusing on education and propaganda- and within the first year it had established its military wing.[vi] It wasn’t until 1966, during its fifth assembly, that ETA adopted violence as its fundamental pillar after a series of internal clashes over prioritization of the communist of independence cause for the armed struggle. As history reveals, ETA left the ideological debate and focused on what they all agreed, violence. In 1968 it claimed its first victim. Yet this was not the only step towards violence by the organization as it broadened its targets including civilians, something that would reach its peak level during and in the aftermath of the Transición. This is an interesting feature to bear in mind, as violence might appear to be the result of one step in the radicalization process in which the individual leaps from cognitive to behavioural radicalization. However, ETA continued the process of radicalization after justifying violent means by broadening the legitimate targets, a complex development in which many elements- such as socialization and the changing profile in terrorists- interacted. The practical application of this to the context nowadays is that, on their return, Islamist foreign fighters are considerably more radicalized than when they left. Hence, this is also the result of a socialization process they experience while fighting abroad which has as main consequence that they are more willing to support global jihad instead of the local jihad they first supported.[vii]

The Birth of ETA

When delving into the group’s ideology, it is worth remarking that even if sharing the main cause with the Basque nationalist movement that Arana initiated, ETA’s doctrine evolved from it. First, it was no longer a reaction against the miseries of modernization and capitalism and therefore, it did not source its popular support on economic inequality.[viii] Conversely, the movement focused on oppression, and gave its struggle the character of a third-world national liberation insurrection by likening the Basque territory to a colony.[ix] Furthermore, it was the experience of the Fascist regime that legitimized ETA and shaped Basque popular attitudes towards revolutionary war positively. Second, it also left behind the theological and racial aspect of Basque classical nationalism and substituted it by revolutionary leftist ideology focused on feelings of ethnos.[x]

The constituency of ETA as an anti-Francoist movement who targeted Fascist authorities for the sake of liberty mobilized national and international public opinion in its favour. Indeed, the 1969 Burgos Trials, in which 16 ETA members were facing death penalty, provoked large demonstrations across Spain and even led the Pope to side with the Basques.[xi] The New York Times stated: “The Basques, who live in the green hills and smoky towns quite differently from other Spaniards, are independent, passionately democratic and devoted to choir singing”[xii]. ETA members were by then moral victors, more a legitimized armed opposition than a terrorist organization.[xiii] This is a very important point as, in the 60s and 70s, ETA had two major causes: the nation-wide goal of the end of fascism and the regional, narrowly focused the independence of the Basque country. In a climate of oppression and deep social polarization along centre-periphery lines, it managed to justify violence and to gain adherents among a wide victimized group for the fight against the common enemy: Franco, something that was going to change with the transition to democracy.

The imminent shift in the political landscape exacerbated tensions within the group in 1974, in the eve of Franco’s death. Some of the members- ETApm- gave up arms after the approval of the Amnesty Law, the recognition of Autonomies under the 1978 Constitution and the legalization of ETA’s political branch (Herri Batasuna) as a party. When the rest of ETA -ETAm- not only continued employing violence but broadened its legitimate targets and intensified its action, they became a terrorist organization.[xiv] Indeed, despite international acclamation for the so-called Spanish Transición, the truth is that 665 perished as a result of political violence; 24% were the result of state violence, the remaining percentage was caused by terrorist violence, mostly perpetrated by ETA.[xv]

Hence, to summarize all of the above, some inferences can be drawn from the study of the trajectory of Basque nationalism and the context in which ETA emerges. The first observation is that, historically, Basque nationalism has been defined in negative terms, that is, Basque identity and the cause of independence have been framed in opposition to one another. During its emergence, it was grounded on the sense of racial superiority against the Spaniards. With the outbreak of the Civil War and throughout the Francoist regime, the Basque v. State relation adopted some elements common at that time to legitimize its cause: it encompassed leftist ideology in opposition to the fascist dictatorship and, in a context of revolutionary insurrections in past colonies, it also linked its fight to this global trend. These dichotomies, even if largely ideological, were matched by the physical grievance of the Basque population. This was in first place due to the affliction of the population as a result of capitalism and, during the Francoist regime, due to the political oppression of the regime.

This leads us to the second observation in the dynamics Basque of nationalism: throughout its development, it has served a practical purpose, that is, it has provided a relatively deprived population with a cognitive framework to channel their feelings of anger against one another. When Franco passed away and the new democratic Constitution granted the “historical communities” with an unprecedented degree of self-government, the us v. them dichotomy became less clear and violence less legitimated for the majority of the population. The fact that ETA split over its strategy in the aftermath of Franco’s death evidences this point.

From Armed Resistance to Terrorism: The Loss of ETA’s Legitimacy

As mentioned above, during the early years of democracy, ETAm conducted a war of attrition with the objective of weakening the state and coercing the population to make the war as protracted as possible[xvi]. Two explanatory aspects shall be remarked regarding this turn: first, ETA strategy was designed to exploit their relative advantage and target the contradictions of the central state. Hence, when still under the dictatorship, ETA took advantage of its mobilization capability and international sympathy to attack the weakest point of the regime: legitimacy. However, after Franco’s death, it deliberately tried to erode the new order by targeting the not-so-firm foundations of democracy. Second and complementary, Sánchez-Cuenca argues that, once ETA failed to impel and lead a revolutionary movement based on the masses during the dictatorship, it was no longer realistic to believe they could rely on this strategy after the transit to democracy. Therefore, the terrorists focused on the maximization of their power to hurt, because it was their only alternative.[xvii] Hence, in the aftermath of the Francoist regime, ETA opted for an approach inspired and supported by the IRA.

The strategy to exceed the threshold of violence that a State can sustain was, however, a double-edged sword for terrorists. Indeed, at the beginning, from 1978 to 1980, ETA was able to inflict mass casualties -reaching its peak in 1980- yet this also provided the government with information about the terrorists. Thus, in 1981 arrests increased dramatically, causing, in turn, a sharp fall of ETA-caused fatalities.[xviii] Although, J. Jordan concluded, after carrying out a study on the effectiveness of decapitation strategy, that generally decapitation resulted in more deadly attacks,[xix] the argument here is not about the effectiveness of the removal of a certain leader but about the progressive de-professionalization of ETA as a result of the neutralization of its elder cadres and about the impossibility of the organization to replace them.

In order to support this idea, it seems necessary to pay attention to the evolution of the organization’s militant bases, a topic in which an empirical analysis carried out by Fernando Reinares[xx] on the terrorists’ profiles offers significant insights. The most important to the issue at hand is age assessment, which reveals a pattern of age decreasing among militants: throughout the late years of the dictatorship and early transition only 9% were 20 or below while by the mid-eighties this figure had increased to nearly 60% of the total.[xxi] According to Reinares, the shift in the political landscape offered new channels and delegitimized violence in the eyes of many, thus hastening the decline of potential militants and making it difficult for the organization to be as selective as during its early years.[xxii] In addition, the proportion of skilled industrial workers sharply declined in favour of vocational or secondary school students.[xxiii] Both trends represent a decline in the quality of ETA members. At first, since youngsters tend to be more radicalized, the age shift contributed in driving ETA to be more reckless in the use of force and to target civilians.[xxiv] Nonetheless, it gradually restricted ETA’s activity to kale borroka (street violence or low intensity terrorism) which increased especially during the last period of the organization’s history.[xxv].

To conclude, it’s relevant to remark that the militants’ profile that Reinares observed among ETA members remains true for Western jihadists, in which young males are overrepresented among foreign fighters and women’s roles are equally restricted as in ETA[xxvi], although the marital status changes as a consequence of religious nature of jihadism. We can observe also similar individual motivations in militants joining both Islamist terrorist groups and ETA, such as hatred, a quest for identity or the pursuit of revenge which are also common among foreign fighters joining al Qaeda and ISIS[xxvii]. A last interesting parallelism to observe is that both Western jihadists as well as the later generations of ETA members interiorized the feeling of repression without experiencing it, as their lives developed in parallel with ETA’s decline.[xxviii] Similarly, there is evidence of the importance of videos depicting mistreatment of Muslims for the radicalization of home-grown jihadist, such as the ones involved in the London airplane plot.[xxix] Noticing these similarities in such different movements is important for the understanding of radicalization and the drawing of general principles to help identify the constant features in terrorism.

The State: Spain’s Counter-terrorism Strategy

As remarked above, during the dictatorship, the regime faced the challenge of undermining the legitimacy of an organization which enjoyed more sympathy abroad and at home than the government itself. The main repercussion of this in counter-terrorist strategy was the difficulty in reaching the leadership of the organization based overseas, especially in France, where the organization planned its attacks and had its logistical bases, as well as training camps. As stated before, the progressive stabilization of democracy was accompanied by the de-legitimization of ETA’s violence, something which provoked a shift in other states’ willingness to cooperate. Although the restricted length of this essay does not allow to enter into much detail, it is worth remarking the vital improvements in the bilateral cooperation between France and Spain, which proved decisive especially in the 90s, as well as the multilateralization of the fight against terrorism after the 9/11, that enhanced transnational cooperation to fight ETA members abroad.[xxx]

At the national level, decades of antiterrorist policies have achieved mixed degrees of success. The paragraphs below will examine only how some specific policy blunders launched by the Spanish state interacted with the ideological and structural developments of ETA described above. Since ETA terrorism was long-lasting and counterterrorist measures went through a long way of development, this part is focused exclusively on the examination of the ones explanatory of ETA’s ideology and legitimacy during the democracy.

First, the strategy of indiscriminate repression, which was prevalent during the Francoist regime, proved not only illegitimate but counter-productive, as it damaged even more the image of the central state.[xxxi] Additionally, this helped support ETA’s strategy for mass mobilization as it was based on principle of the “action-repression-action” spiral, that is, instead of deliberately impelling the revolution, it followed an indirect approach through which ETA, as a disciplined minority, inflicted damage on the central state so that authorities would react with harsh repression. ETA leadership considered this was going to result in the awakening of the masses and the increasing legitimization of the band through the cycles of action-repression-action.[xxxii]

The arrival of democracy did not however, prevent violent and illegitimate counterterrorist action. To some extent the socialist administration followed a continuity with this approach which was even aggravated by the illegal creation of the GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups) by Spanish socialist officials. The GAL was founded in 1982 and operated until 1987, a period known as the Dirty War. GAL mercenaries followed orders of a mysterious Mr. X –whose identity has not yet been revealed but is likely to be the by then prime minister, Felipe González- and had as the main objective of forcing French collaboration to destabilize ETA sanctuaries in the region. The GAL was responsible for bomb attacks, kidnappings and the assassination of over two dozen people. It was a contradiction itself: a terrorist organization fighting terrorism. Given ETA’s approach to mobilization, it is not surprising that the GAL, although achieved French collaboration, it also served ETA to regain some degree of legitimacy and discredited the value of the recently achieved democracy.[xxxiii] The GAL definitely represented a propaganda gift that the organization exploited to convince Basques that, de facto, an inclusive democracy had not been established. Hence, the existence of the GAL also sheds some light on ETA’s raison d’être and source of legitimacy during the 80s.

The galvanization of Spanish public opinion against the state terrorism of the GAL, led Aznar to adopt a policy of “within the law, but with all of the law”[xxxiv]. Yet the independence of the judiciary during these years as well as the legality of the measures employed are still questionable, as officials’ actions resulted in the alleged ill-treatment of prisoners and even in some cases of illegal killings.[xxxv] Moreover, the attempt of Aznar to destroy ETA network by illegalizing newspapers and banning parties, became another propaganda gift that reinforced ETA’s narrative about the farce of the newly established democracy.

A second and softer approach to counterterrorist strategy was focused on negotiations. During the Transición, negotiations fuelled divisions within ETA that resulted in the split between ETA-pm and ETA-m. However, many condemned the negotiation initiative that the PSOE administration started in the 2000s, during the last years of ETA, as not appropriate to a liberal democracy or as facilitating the terrorists’ task of confusing and dividing the State.[xxxvi]

To summarize, the disruption of the ideological underpinnings in which ETA justified violence progressively resulted in the deterioration of their recruitment capability and altered its structure and strategy. Similarly, as Spain strengthened its newly established democracy, international sympathy for ETA vanished, thus isolating the terrorists, especially in the context of the War on Terror.

Regarding the counter-terrorism measures, though this section has mostly focused on the adverse effects of some of the policies in order to illustrate how ETA exploited these propaganda gifts to build a narrative that justified the prolongation of the struggle, the fact is that successful and non-repressive practices contributed to the disarticulation of the organization’s structure and support. This is evidenced by the fact that ETA had to lower the profile of its militants due to its inability to replace its professionalized cadres. Similarly, the depiction of counter-terrorist measures as the continuation of the dictatorship under the façade of democracy reveals its necessity to continue framing its narrative in such terms as during Francoist regime to mobilize population. Therefore, even if it took time become apparent, the fact is that the fall of ETA started with Franco’s death.

What Happened to ETA During the Transition?

The ETA specialist journalist Josep Ramoneda expressed in an interview with Teresa Whitfield -the author of Endgame for ETA- a perception that was shared among Spaniards: that ETA was going to end with Franco and that “the fact that it didn’t happen showed that we all got our analysis wrong”[xxxvii]. However, this essay has argued that such analysis were not entirely wrong. It’s impossible to omit in this study that the history of ETA under democracy was violent and brutal, yet the argument here is that the Transición supposedly delivered a decisive ideological and structural blow to ETA that isolated and destabilized the organization. Though ETA did not end overnight in the aftermath of Franco’s death, it progressively declined as a result of the shift in the political landscape. It is true that this process was slow and complex but so was the consolidation of democracy, as reflected by the difficulties in establishing coherent antiterrorist policies that conformed with the principles of liberal democracy or by the attempted coup d’état on February 23, 1981.

Similarly, this essay has argued that, for popular mobilization, a legitimate ideological framework is necessary but not sufficient, as it is also crucial that the population experiences physical relative deprivation in order to channel its grievance through the channels the terrorists offer. After Franco’s death, ETA still presented its cause as one of liberation against an oppressive state and based such claims in the propaganda gifts that misguided counter-terrorist policies offered. In other words, it tried to convince the population that the newly established democracy was only a façade, which was a poor strategy in the long-term that reveals the deficiencies of framing identity in opposition to another.

Hence, though ETA didn’t end with Franco, the fact is that the fall of the regime decisively contributed to its slow though painful decline. Indeed, its shift towards a war of attrition is in part a strategy for survival that came in some measure as an acknowledgement that its mobilization capacity in a democracy that had had granted the autonomy of the Basque Country was going to be limited. The lack of ideological appeal of ETA’s cause was also reflected in the profile of the terrorists who were increasingly younger and therefore less disciplined and qualified, a shift that at the same time contributed to shape the future trajectory of the organization.

In short, expectations on the rapid impact that the change in the political regime would bring were so high that the fact that ETA did not announce its dissolution after Franco’s death was considered a miscalculation. However, the fact that it did not occur overnight shall not overshadow the real repercussion that the alternation of the political system supposed for ETA.

End Notes

[i] Jose Luis de la Granja Sainz, “Ángel o demonio: Sabino Arana. El patriarca del nacionalismo vasco” review by Guillermo Sanchez Recio, Pasado y Memorias, 2016.

[ii] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, (London 2002: Free Press): 20

[iii] Antonio Rodrigues, “Sabino Arana y Hegel: el nacionalismo y la libertad”, Revista de Relaciones Internacionales no. 15,

[iv] Xosé M. Núñez Seixas “Los Nacionalistas Vascos Durante La Guerra Civil (1936-1939): Una Cultura De Guerra Diferente”, Historia Contemporánea. N. 35 (2007):596

[v] Macko, Kalyna, "The Effect of Franco in the Basque Nation", (Thesis, Pell Scholars and Senior Theses 68, 2011)

[vi] Paddy Woodworth, “Boys Become Giant-Killers: the making of ETA” in Dirty War, Clean Hands, Yale University Press. (2001). Accessed August 19, 2017. Stable URL:

[vii] Marco Nilsson “Foreign Fighters and the Radicalization of Local Jihad: Interview Evidence from Swedish Jihadists”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38:5, (2015):348, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2015.1005459

[viii]  Ludger Mees, “Between votes and bullets. Conflicting ethnic identities in the Basque Country”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 24:5, (2001): 801, DOI: 10.1080/01419870120063981

[ix] William A. Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, “On the Interpretation of Terrorist Violence: ETA and the Basque Political Process”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1990): 244, Stable URL:

[x] Francisco Letamendía, “Basque Nationalism and the Struggle for Self-Determination in the Basque Country” in The National Question, ed., Berch Berberoglu, Temple University Press. (1995): 183. Stable URL:

[xi] Teresa Amiguet “El proceso de Burgos, el principio del fin del franquismo”, La Vanguardia, December 30th, 2015 in:

[xii] Richard Eder “Trial Of Basques Starts In Burgos”, The New York Times, December 4, 1970, in:

[xiii] Renske Westerhof “La ETA: ¿un grupo terrorista o una oposición armada?”, University of Groningen, p. 185 accessed August 20, 2017, in

[xiv] Jusé M. Sabucedo, Mauro Rodríguez and Concepcion Fernández, “Construcción del discurso legitimador del terrorismo” Psicothema vol. 14, (2002): 73

[xv] Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca “La Violencia Terrorista En La Transición Española A La Democracia”, Historia del presente, 14, (2009): 10

[xvi] Luis de la Calle and Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “La selección de víctimas en ETA”, Revista Española de Ciencia Política. Núm. 10, (April 2004): 56 in

[xvii] Ignacio Sànchez-Cuenca, “The Dynamics Of Nationalist Terrorism: ETA and the IRA” Terrorism and Political Violence, 19:3, (2007): 295, DOI: 10.1080/09546550701246981

[xviii] Ibid, 300

[xix] Jenna Jordan “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” Security Studies, 18, (2009): 749, DOI: 10.1080/09636410903369068

[xx] Fernando Reinares, “Who Are the Terrorists? Analyzing Changes in Sociological Profile among Members of ETA”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 27:6, (2004): 474, DOI: 10.1080/10576100490519741 

[xxi] Ibid, 476

[xxii] Ibid, 476

[xxiii] Ibid, 483

[xxiv]Paddy Woodworth, “The war against terrorism: the Spanish experience from ETA to al-Qaeda”, International Journal of Iberian Studies vol. 17 no. 3 (2004): 174 doi: 10.1386/ijis.17.3.169/7

[xxv] Mikel Buesa And Thomas Baumert “Dismantling Terrorist’s Economics: The Case Of Eta”, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Accessed September 5, 2017, in:

[xxvi]Jessica Stern And J.M. Berger “ISIS and the Foreign-Fighter Phenomenon”. The Atlantic, March 8, 2015., in:

[xxvii] Rik Coolset, “What drives Europeans to Syria, and to IS. Insights from the Belgian Case” Royal Institute for International Relations, Egmont Paper 75, (March 2015): 10

[xxviii] Fernando Reinares, “¿Qué motivaciones han tenido los terroristas?”, El País, July 26, 2009,

[xxix]  Bruce Hoffman, “Radicalization and Subversion: Al Qaeda and the 7 July 2005 Bombings and the 2006 Airline Bombing Plot”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 32:12, (2009):1106 doi: 10.1080/10576100903319896

[xxx] Ignacio Cosidó, “Spanish Policy Against Terrorism: The Guardia Civil and ETA”, Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos, October 23, 2002,

[xxxi] “El declive de ETA” Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos, January 23, 2003,

[xxxii] Paddy Woodworth, “A Basque spiral that has to be addressed”, The Irish Times, November 11, 2000,

[xxxiii] Peter Chalk, “The Response to Terrorism as a Threat to Liberal Democracy”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vo 44, No 3, (1998): 381

[xxxiv] Paddy Woodworth “The war against terrorism”, 175

[xxxv] Ibid, 175

[xxxvi] Rogelio Alonso, “¿Qué Política Antiterrorista Frente A Eta? Lecciones desde la perspectiva comparada”, Fundación Faes, (October-December 2007): 119

[xxxvii]Teresa Whitfield. Endgame for ETA: elusive peace in the Basque Country. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 45


About the Author(s)

Cristina de Esperanza Picardo graduated in International Relations from the Rey Juan Carlos University and is currently a Master student of Strategic Studies in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (Nanyang Technological University).