Jessica Stern, author of The Ultimate Terrorists and, most recently, Terror in the Name of God, may be the only Harvard lecturer who's had tea with an Al Qaeda member and been profiled in Vogue. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Spain, Stern talked with The American Prospect's Heather Bobrow about the roots of terrorism and the possibility that Al Qaeda members have infiltrated the Basque separatist group known as ETA.
What do you currently work on at the Kennedy School of Government?
I have an academic background in chemistry, and my main area of interest is terrorism and chemical weapons. I currently teach a course on terrorism, and each year I change the syllabus depending on my current interests. My book, Terror in the Name of God, is based on my interviews with terrorists around the world.
Have you ever studied or taught about ETA (the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna)? Did you have much prior knowledge of them and their objectives before the attacks on Thursday?
I haven't covered ETA recently, but in the past I have talked about them. They have achieved quite a bit of autonomy in the Basque region, but the group has persisted despite the having accomplished many of its goals.
Has there been a pattern to their prior terrorist attacks in Spain?
ETA tends to send out warnings prior to an attack, and the organization has never carried out a large-scale attack like this before. The most people ever killed in an ETA bombing was 21. One of their previous bombings was in a shopping mall that killed 20 people; afterwards, ETA issued an apology. As you can see, the attack in Madrid does not at all match their standard operating procedure.
Does ETA typically target a specific demographic? There is speculation that ETA was not likely to have been involved in this attack because so many working- and middle-class individuals were killed.
That's true. ETA usually targets officials or academics that have studied their organization. They don't target working-class groups, because this is the demographic from which they hope to recruit.
What's the likelihood that the terrorist attacks in Madrid are connected to ETA? And what about the chances that they're connected to Al Qaeda?
The dynamite used on the train is the same type of dynamite used by ETA in previous bombings; plus, alleged ETA members were captured with this type of dynamite just last month. It's also right before the elections in Spain. This all seems to support the argument that ETA is behind the bombings.
In support of the argument that the bombings may have been the workings of Al Qaeda, there was no warning for this attack; as I mentioned earlier, ETA always issues a warning. Plus, the scale of devastation is much greater than ETA's normal attacks. The attacks occurred within ten minutes of each other, which is typical of Al Qaeda. And back in October 2003, Osama bin Laden publicly targeted Spain. Spain's support for the United States in the Iraqi war might be an important factor. This could also be a message from Al Qaeda that the while the United States is ramping up against Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda is ramping up as well.
Do you think that there is a relationship between the two groups?
I have to wonder whether there's cooperation between ETA and Al Qaeda, and what this relationship might consist of. Al Qaeda is pragmatic and likes to avail itself of local operatives, expertise, and languages. They especially like to recruit locals. Al Qaeda has a large presence in Spain, so looking for partners like ETA would be at the top of their list.
We know that the majority of people in Spain oppose the war in Iraq, so it makes me wonder whether some members of ETA have been infiltrated by the Al Qaeda network. There's also the chance that Al Qaeda might be recruiting within ETA.
I think the pragmatism of terrorist groups is emerging as they mature, as is a willingness to cooperate with organizations that would seem to be promoting completely different agendas. Also, sometimes we see that as possible terrorist organizations get closer to achieving their ostensible objective, zealots remain and carry out unprecedented attacks (as happened with the IRA). It's not impossible to imagine that ETA could have done this even though it would be unprecedented for them.
Reports have said that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for this bombing. Are these reports credible?
No. The group claiming to speak for Al Qaeda is notoriously unreliable -- they even claimed responsibility for last summer's blackout. Intelligence officials really don't know anything about the group.
How do you think this will affect the global war on terrorism?
This will strengthen international resolve and resuscitate the enthusiasm for participating in the war on terrorism. I think it will instill a greater fear of riding trains, and it will mean that security efforts on transportation will be amplified (at a high financial cost), especially if this attack proves to have had Al Qaeda involvement.
Heather Bobrow is a freelance writer who lives in New York.