Massive bomb in Spain signals a militant group determined to fight on

Basque militants seek relevance with violence as car bomb guts building filled with sleeping families.

Felix Ordonez/Reuters
Investigators view damage to a Civil Guard barracks after a car bomb exploded in Burgos, Spain, on Wednesday morning.
Felix Ordonez/Reuters
Spain's Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba speaks at a news conference in Burgos, Spain, after a carb bomb attack at a Civil Guard barracks on Wednesday morning. Mr. Rubalcaba promptly blamed ETA, a Basque movement that has used terrorist tactics to press its cause – an independent state – for much of its 50 years in existence.

A powerful car bomb ripped through a building housing Spanish paramilitary policemen and their families just before dawn Wednesday morning, injuring 65 people and sparking worries that the country's Basque separatists are veering in a more deadly direction.

Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba promptly blamed ETA, a Basque movement that has used terrorist tactics to press its cause – an independent state – for much of its 50 years in existence. But it's been years since a mass-casualty attack on civilians. Only one murder in Spain was blamed on the group last year, which compares with 100 killed in 1980 and 21 killed in a 1987 supermarket bombing, the group's last mass-casualty attack. Though ETA continues to plant bombs, they are generally small and accompanied by a call with advance warning on when they are to explode.

This one was different. There was no warning call about the stolen van packed with 450 pounds of explosives and parked in front of the building in Burgos, a small city 150 miles north of Madrid. Mr. Rubalcaba said the bombers' intent was to kill the maximum number of people. "This was a great failed attempt," he told reporters in Burgos. "Almost 120 people slept in the apartments – 41 of them children – which exposes the especially gutless nature of the attack." The van was apparently stolen in France, which also has a Basque minority.

And ETA activity has been on the rise – a policemen in Bilbao was murdered in June. Some in Spain see the uptick in violence as the inevitable consequence of ETA's current position. The group is desperately seeking relevance as it has lost support within its ethnic Basque base and military leader after military leader has been hunted down. Its remaining operatives, hemmed in and unwilling to surrender, may be turning to the only tools they know.

"This is typical of an organization in [its] terminal stage," says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a sociology professor at Madrid's Complutense University who has written extensively about ETA. "The state and society in general are against any type of negotiation, but they don't know how to end this." Sánchez-Cuenca warned that ETA terrorism will likely increase as the group's influence dwindles. Rubalcaba made the same point, albeit more dramatically. "We know today they are savage and maddened killers, which doesn't make them stronger, but undoubtedly more dangerous."

ETA – its name, Euskadi ta Askatasuna, translates to Basque Homeland and Liberty – has killed more than 825 people in its history, and its bomb targets in the past have included universities and airports. But Spanish and French police have improved at penetrating the organization's networks – 18 alleged operatives have been arrested since June – and average Basques have moved away from supporting the cause. Earlier this year, Basque nationalist parties also lost control of the region's autonomous parliament for the first time since Spain's return to democratic rule three decades ago. The winners? A coalition supporting Basque unity with Spain.

"What ETA wants is to raise its profile, like it has always done when it's weak," says Oscar Elía, an analyst with the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group. "It wants press, and it urgently needs high-profile attacks."

Ultimately, it wants to force the government into another peace negotiation, he says. The last round of peace talks ended in December 2006, when ETA violated a permanent cease-fire with the bombing of a parking lot in Madrid's new airport that killed two people. Since, the Spanish government has insisted that surrender is the group's only option.

"ETA has never lost hope for a negotiated way out, and I get the impression with this attack they are pressuring for another negotiation," Mr. Elía says. "And the only way they know how to do that is ... by accumulating victims." But the strategy is unlikely to work as there is almost unanimous political and social consensus here that ETA should not be negotiated with.

"They are just struggling to survive," Professor Sánchez-Cuenca sums up. "There could be a stalemate for many years. The state will keep its security efforts up, and ETA will insist the only way out is through a negotiation. And the only way to prove it will be by maintaining their terrorist attacks."

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