Act of Desperation

Anticipating a New Year's travel crush, Valerie Miles arrived at Madrid Barajas Airport early on December 30. As her taxi pulled into Terminal 4 -- the award winning architectural marvel that travelers here love to hate -- it was stopped by police officers. Moments later, the parking garage blew up. Two men were killed and 26 others were injured as 40,000 tons of rubble collapsed and chaos sparked across the massive terminal campus.

"At first everyone speculated that it was Al Qaeda because of Saddam's execution," Valerie e-mailed me, describing the panicked drivers and passengers held in limbo in those first hours after the attack. "Nobody knew anything, why they had stopped us... We were one of the first cars to be stopped. Then the smoke was started so heavy and black it was clear that something had happened. But we couldn't believe ETA would actually do something that big because of the peace process." Within a few hours it was clear: the radical Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Homeland and Freedom") had breached the "permanent" cease fire declared last March, killing the 818th and 819th people in the in 30-year struggle for Basque independence -- the first deaths in that battle in over three years.

But rather than signifying a resurgence in power, ETA's action was the act of a flailing nationalist movement. By bombing Barajas, the group seriously misread the public's capacity for sympathy. Since 9/11 and 3/11 (the Atocha commuter train bombings that Spaniards simply call "11-M"), tolerance for terror in Spain is non-existent. Madrileños, Spaniards, and the government were understandably horrified by Saturday's bombings. But so were those ETA intended to “help”: Basques who want full independence from Spain. Even Batasuna, the banned political arm of ETA, was taken aback by the crushing of Terminal 4's parking garage and feebly announced that the peace process will continue.

That looks unlikely any time soon. On January 3rd, interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba declared the cease fire "liquidated.” And now the opposition Popular Party (PP), longtime critics of Zapatero's peace plan, are in a stronger position to rally support against further negotiations with ETA. Indeed the PP's leader Mariano Rajoy, a vocal opponent of the peace process, visited the bomb site even before Zapatero. Worse, another blow came as the president toured the wreckage Thursday morning: The discovery, in the Basque country, of a massive car bomb packed with 220 pounds of explosives, parked and ready for detonation.

While images of the smoking wreck at Terminal 4 and the victims' crying relatives continue to lead almost every newscast in Spain, few are more dismayed than the Basques themselves. For years now, an overwhelming majority of Basques, including most nationalists, have been vocally unsupportive of terror. The reaction to ETA's continued low-grade violence campaign -- in the last few months a series of small bombs have blown up empty buses – has been a sense of "deception and perplexity," says Francisco Llera, director of the "Euskobarometer," a sociological survey of Basque sentiment, and a political science professor at the University of País Vasco. He notes that "the strategy of violent intimidation has not ceased at any time" and predicts a "growing mobilization against the terrorists and their friends."

By using violent tactics in its war to secede from Spain and return political prisoners to the Basque region, ETA also misreads the current political climate. The airport bombing was the "illusion of power out of proportion to reality," says Yonah Alexander, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and the author of several books on terror, "but they were successful of course in doing a great deal of damage because the public is losing confidence in the government's ability to protect them."

The Popular Party (PP) has spent months attacking Zapatero and the Socialists for negotiating with ETA. El Mundo, the moderately conservative large daily newspaper, has kept alive the PP-fueled conspiracy theory that ETA was connected to the “11-M” bombing, even as El País, the rival paper, continues to detail the stories of Islamic terrorists arrested and charged in the attack. (PP politician José Maria Aznar, the president at the time of “11-M,” infamously spent days refusing to acknowledge that al-Qaeda was behind the attack on Atocha, pinning the blame on ETA. Aznar's party lost the presidency in the wake of the cover-up.)

The conspiracy theories play on the fears of a public uneasy with ETA and the slow pace of negotiations. The PP has already exploited Zapatero's inability to push the group to turn over its weapons cache. In the coming months, the conservative opposition's effort to pin the renewed violence on Zapatero's peace plan could discredit the current government enough to set the peace process back for years. The looping debate would continue over the question: Why would ETA have blown up its own peace process?

"A group that is losing support and credibility may escalate violence in a desperate attempt to regenerate, or a faction that opposes the majority's compromises may try to derail the process," says Dr. Martha Crenshaw, an expert on terror at Wesleyan University. "Sometimes an action is designed to attract a new support base, to appeal to a new constituency from which to recruit. This doesn't mean that such acts will be successful, and they can be a mark of a final decline -- especially if the public rejects them decisively." Few in the Basque region support ETA's choice to explode the peace process. As University of País Vasco's Llera notes, this bombing "is a step more toward [ETA's] political and strategic sinking."

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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