Note: Newsweek has established that this article does not meet editorial standards. It borrows extensively from UPI without proper attribution. Newsweek acknowledges the error.
Does it matter whether the carnage in Madrid last week was the act of the Basque terrorist organization ETA or of Al Qaeda? Of course there are important differences between the two. ETA is a local organization, Al Qaeda a global one. The former is secular, the latter religious. But they have something in common that is revealing about the nature of terrorism. Both groups had a political agenda, but as their political cause has lost steam, they are increasingly defined almost exclusively by a macabre culture of violence.
"The purpose of terrorism," Vladimir Lenin once said, "is to terrorize." Like much of what he said, this is wrong. Terrorism has traditionally been used to advance political goals. That's why a rule of terrorists used to be: "We want a few people dead and a lot of people watching." Terrorists sought attention, but didn't want to make people lose sympathy for their cause. Yet with many terrorist groups--like ETA, like Al Qaeda--violence has become an end in and of itself. They want a lot of people dead, period.
Some in Spain have argued that if indeed Al Qaeda proves to be the culprit, then Spaniards will blame Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. It was his support for America and the war in Iraq, they say, that invited the wrath of the fundamentalists. But other recent targets of Islamic militants have been Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, not one of which supported the war or sent troops into Iraq in the afterwar. Al Qaeda's declaration of jihad had, as its first demand, the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden does not seem to have noticed, but the troops are gone--yet the jihad continues. The reasons come and go, the violence endures.
The Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel makes an analogy between communist groups and Islamic fundamentalists. In the 1940s and 1950s, communist groups were popular and advanced their cause politically. By the 1960s, after revelations about Stalin's brutality, there were few believing communists in Europe. Facing irrelevance, the hard-core radicals turned to violence, hoping to gain attention and adherents by daring acts of bloodshed. Thus the proliferation of terror by groups like the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Similarly, for decades Islamic fundamentalists tried to mount political opposition in Arab countries. Frustrated by failure, they have become terror machines and nothing more.
ETA follows this pattern. Having been founded to protest the brutal suppression of the Basques under Franco's reign, it floundered as Spain became democratic and provided the Basques with increasing levels of autonomy. Almost every demand of Basque nationalists has been met over the past decade. Basques run their own region, collect their own taxes, have their own police, speak their own language, broadcast their own television and radio programs. As a result, support for ETA is down to 5 percent at most. In fact, support for Basque nationalism has waned considerably.
It is in this context that ETA announced in 2000 the "reactivation of armed struggle." In the next two years it launched 87 bombings and assassinations, in which 38 people were killed. But because of effective police work by Spain and France, ETA's attacks dropped to 20 in 2002, with five deaths, and so far this year there have been 17 hits, in which three people were killed.
In the past ETA hit only Spanish politicians, policemen and other symbols of Spanish rule. Now it indiscriminately targets civilians. In its region, it murders Basques who dare speak out against secession, creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear. "Violence has become ETA's main rationale," a former separatist who renounced ETA long ago told the Financial Times last year. "The exercise of violence creates antibodies. ETA's new recruits can digest barbaric acts that would have been unthinkable under Franco: the torturing of town councillors, the killing of children, of traffic wardens and local policemen. ETA is now led by its most extreme elements, those who are prepared to go furthest in all this senseless killing."
ETA's goal--the creation of a single Basque nation--is not as fantastical as is Al Qaeda's dream of a restored Islamic caliphate. But given that part of the Basque lands it wants to unify are in France, and none of the French Basques has any interest in this plan, it is utterly unrealistic. The goal is a charade, an excuse for bloodletting.
Spanish authorities have estimated that the number of diehard ETA activists is well under 100. Most estimates of active Qaeda operatives are in the hundreds. Technology means that small numbers can still do great harm--as last week's tragedy amply illustrates. But that should not obscure the reality that the violence is a sign of weakness.