- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

Militant Basque separatists have proven over the decades they are ready to kill to preserve their unique language and culture, but yesterday’s deadly Madrid attacks would mark a sharp break with past practice.

Spanish authorities immediately named the violent Basque terrorist group ETA as the prime suspect in the bombings. But the discovery of a stolen van containing detonators and Islamic literature late yesterday raised the possibility of al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist involvement.

ETA — “Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna” in the unique Basque tongue — stands for “Basque Homeland and Freedom.” The group came into being in 1958 as a student resistance movement to former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who tried to centralize political control in Madrid by suppressing the Basque culture and imprisoning its leading political and intellectual figures.

Violent resistance began a decade later, persisting despite the establishment of democracy in Spain in the mid-1970s. The ETA has been blamed for more than 800 deaths over the past three decades.

Joseba Zulaika, an anthropologist at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno, said yesterday’s attack did not fit the pattern of past ETA operations, and would likely prove politically counterproductive even among ETA sympathizers in Spain’s Basque provinces.

“ETA has never targeted innocent bystanders on this kind of scale before,” he said, noting that the majority of the terrorist victims in past attacks had either been federal police officers or politicians opposed to Basque independence.

“As a political act, this would be folly, even among those Basques who are ready to support ETA,” he said.

But Spanish politicians and experts said they still believe ETA was responsible, mainly because the explosives used yesterday were of the same variety as a cache found two weeks ago in a vehicle carrying two admitted ETA cadres.

The two men, identified to The Washington Times as Irkus Badillo and Gorka Vidal, both 28, are Basques and belong to families known to have a long history of involvement with ETA.

Andrew Garfield, an expert from the International Center for Security Analysis in London, conceded that the ETA usually has been more discriminate in its killings, but said this had been purely for pragmatic reasons.

“In the past these groups have done a very cynical cost-benefit analysis: Will this further our cause, or alienate us from our own support base?” he said.

“If they have determined that they will gain what they want by carrying out these attacks, they can do so as well as, if not better than, al Qaeda.”

In Washington, a U.S. counterterrorism official said it was too soon to say for sure who carried out the bombing.

“If it was an ETA operation, this is a much larger scale attack than what they’ve conducted previously,” the official said. But the claim of responsibility by al Qaeda is suspect, the official said, because the group is not know for issuing statements after its attacks.

“We’re not ruling out” an al Qaeda link to the blast, the official said. “U.S. intelligence is exploring the possibility it was done by al Qaeda, at this point.”

ETA attacks, which at their peak in the 1970s killed more than 100 people a year, have fallen off in recent years. The government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, which has boasted of its hard line against Basque separatism in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections, said ETA attacks killed only three persons last year.

But Richard Evans, an analyst with London-based Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said there is little doubt ETA has the “engineering expertise” to carry out the coordinated bomb blasts in Madrid.

Basque operatives have received technical assistance from the Provisional Irish Republican Army, as well as foreign training over the years in Libya, South Yemen, Lebanon and Nicaragua. Some experts yesterday raised the possibility that the ETA could also be receiving assistance from al Qaeda.

ETA in recent years has moved to a decentralized operation, with cells of four members or fewer manned by younger ETA operatives not known to French or Spanish investigators, according to Mr. Evans. Younger, more radical cadres may have moved into positions of responsibility as authorities arrested many of ETA’s older leaders in recent years.

In one sense, the violent resistance to outside control repeats an ancient pattern for the Basques, a linguistic and ethnic island in the Indo-European sea that dominates Europe today.

Described as Europe’s “oldest nation,” Basques speak a tongue completely unrelated to any other European language. They are physically distinct from their French and Spanish neighbors, and have the highest concentration of type O blood in the world.

They have distinctive farm tools and cuisine, and have developed their own special breeds of cow, sheep and pig.

Basques tolerated Roman rule — the Basque city of Pamplona derives its name from the Roman general Pompey — but fiercely resisted subsequent forces, from Visigoths and Muslims in the post-Roman era to Napoleon and Franco in modern times.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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