The Rough Road Away from Terrorism

The Rough Road Away from Terrorism

Most terrorist groups—vide the ETA, IRA and Hamas—have strategic incentives to get out of the terrorism business. Easier said than done.

 The Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) declared in a video released Monday a “permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community.” The statement did not impress the Spanish government. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the group must take “more forceful and definitive steps.” Zapatero had earlier said, when such a move by ETA was rumored, “All we want from ETA is a definitive end to violence. A total and absolute end, forever.” A spokeswoman for the opposition People's Party agreed, saying, “This is a pause, not a renunciation. ETA has not asked for pardon, nor does it repent of its crimes.”

ETA has not been high on Americans' list of terrorist concerns (although one of the excuses for keeping Cuba on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism is that it provides a retirement home for some has-been ETA militants). But the group has been one of the most significant European terrorist groups over the past half century, killing more than 800 people in operations that began in the 1960s. The announcement appears to have a genuine basis in the pressure to which ETA has been subjected by Spanish and French security forces and the desire by leaders of the group's affiliated party, Batasuna, to discard terrorism and to pursue Basque goals through peaceful politics. So the declaration might seem worthy of more than a brush-off. Nonetheless, the reaction in Madrid is understandable, given the long history of failed truces involving ETA. Zapatero in particular has good reason to feel burned by that past. Four years ago, he publicly expressed optimism that a truce then in place would lead to peace; the next day, ETA bombed a parking garage at Madrid's airport.

The impasse between ETA and Madrid illustrates a situation in which a strategic basis exists for a group to get out of terrorism once and for all, but neither the group nor the government can find the tactics and techniques to make that happen. (No such strategic basis ever exists with a group such as al-Qa'ida, whose objectives are outside the realm of political feasibility and which never can have an identity other than a terrorist group.) The history of violence, anger, and well-founded distrust is too potent. Attitudes and strategies may have changed, but the past gets in the way of the present. ETA may be providing another example following that of the IRA and Sinn Fein, which eventually made the transition to peaceful political player but only after many more years of distrust and stumbling over issues such as the decommissioning of arms. It is no accident that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has evidently been counseling Batasuna on how to make a similar transition.

It would be great if every terrorist group could get out of the terrorism business the way the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Germany did in 1998 (after not carrying out an attack for five years), when it issued a press release declaring that it was “stuck in a dead end,” was ending operations, and was now history. That kind of clear and unequivocal break is the rare exception. The waging of a clandestine war for many years fills the ranks of a group with “hard men” who know no other life than one of violence. Their leaders are constrained from making clean breaks by pressure from the ranks and by their own reluctance to part with what they see as their only means of leverage, including munitions.

Outsiders who pass judgment on such conflicts or try to influence them need to distinguish between fundamental strategic incompatibility, on one hand, and anger and distrust from the past getting in the way of the present, on the other hand. The former situation cannot be overcome; the latter can, with considerable effort and difficulty. Outsiders need to realize that a group getting out of the terrorism business will much more likely sound like ETA (or the IRA) than the RAF. The conflict between Israel and Hamas is another one that comes to mind where there is a strategic basis for a group to get out of terrorism once and for all, but where much anger and distrust, rooted in history and in that sense understandable, is getting in the way on both sides.

The objective in such a situation of each side—a group, a government, and outsiders—ought to be to get the group out of terrorism. Sometimes every side has to swallow really hard to make that happen.


(Photo by Zarateman)