Panicking About Terrorism?

Richard English

Professor of Politics at Queen?s University Belfast

Terrorist attacks dominate headlines in seemingly endless fashion. The Palm Sunday suicide bombings in Egypt embody merciless violence of a kind for which ISIS has become well known. Before this, the brutal assault in Stockholm was in its own way equally shocking, again targeting utterly innocent victims in a manner capable of generating publicity and revulsion in equal measure.


Less prominent than either of these atrocities, but coinciding none the less with them, was the news that the Basque separatist group ETA, founded in 1959, had put its weapons beyond use. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Euskadi And Freedom, or Basque Homeland and Freedom) had killed over eight hundred people in its decades-long campaign to bring about an independent Basque state. In 2011 the organization declared a permanent ceasefire. This was followed by the suggested decommissioning of some of its weapons in 2014, a gesture now more fully brought to fruition.


Jihadist violence of the twenty-first century is in some ways, of course, very different from the nationalist terrorism of ETA. The contexts generating the different kinds of violence have varied, and the aims of the two sets of terrorists are far from identical. But the quiet ending of ETA’s long campaign, accompanying as it does the louder noise from ongoing jihadist violence, should prompt us to think in a more long-term and careful manner as we react to shocking images from Sweden or Egypt.


For let’s not forget that ETA violence was utterly shocking also at the time of its being carried out. A June 1987 car bomb in Barcelona saw the group kill twenty-one civilians, including several children; later in the same year ETA bombed Saragossa, killing eleven people (again, several of them being children).


For the group, describing itself in 1959 as a ‘political organization that practises the armed struggle’, believed that the precious goal of Basque independence justified a violent campaign, one which would force the Spanish government to yield to their nationalist demands.  ‘The only possibility we have of gaining our liberty,’ one of their most famous members, Yoyes, once proclaimed, ‘is through violence’.


Yet one of the most common aspects of the long history of terrorist groups is that they end their campaigns, in fact, without securing their central, strategic goals. In the immediate wake of suicide bombs, or of traffic-based terrorist attacks in Stockholm or London, we should keep an eye also on the historically suggested likely outcome: namely, that the central causes for which ISIS (and al-Qaida before them) have been carrying out their violence are unlikely to produce strategic victory. 


So ETA’s recognition that their violence has failed to generate the victory that they had anticipated is in truth a political development of real significance. Here was an enduring and committed organization, with enough support and skill to maintain a terrorist campaign for several decades, and yet its violence has failed to deliver political victory. And they know it.


Even at lower levels of terrorist achievement, ETA’s record is far from impressive. True, great progress has been achieved in the Basque region of Spain in terms of local autonomy and cultural rights. But the means for achieving such progress have been emphatically those of more peaceful engagement with the Spanish state, and increasingly Basque nationalists have adopted this peaceful approach with real effect.


So ETA’s brutal methods, and their uncompromising demands, proved to be at odds with the more complex reality and the more moderate politics of most people within their supposed community. What ETA distinctively did – deploy merciless violence, often against the defenceless – gained them great publicity, but also much public hostility.  And here is the ultimate paradox of terrorism: yes, it generates fame for your organization, and publicity for your cause but in doing so it associates the group and the cause with a form of politics which generates increasing revulsion.


The former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, whose recent death was another terrorist-related headline, eventually helped to lead the Irish republican terrorist group away from violence and towards a more peaceful mode of political struggle. He also, incidentally, worked to persuade ETA to follow the same path. But the key reason for his moving the IRA from war to peace was that their violence was not yielding victory. That is the most significant aspect of the Provisional IRA story, and it is one to be kept in view when we think about other, different, kinds of terrorist groups today.


For one of the ironies of the present-day politics of Europe is that the parts of the United Kingdom or Spain that are most likely to secede from those states, are not the ones where a major terrorist campaign was pursued in order to bring about secession. It is Scotland, not Northern Ireland, that is most likely to leave the UK; and it is Catalonia, not the Basque Country, which seems to have more chance of departing from Spain. Long campaigns of terrorist violence by the IRA and by ETA have not proved the most effective means of securing independence, as it turned out.


Of course, there are tactical successes for terrorist groups, and even if these do not yield strategic victory they must still be recognized as serious accomplishments and real threats.  Al-Qaida’s 9/11 atrocities did not achieve the group’s strategic goals; but at a tactical-operational level it was, tragically, a great success for the organization. Likewise, at a lower level, the recent attacks in Stockholm, London and elsewhere have seized publicity, exacted revenge on supposedly enemy targets, and perhaps even brought about some desired fame or redemption or apotheosis for the agents of the attacks themselves. These last, inherent rewards of terrorism cannot be ignored when we assess why people persist with such means.


But, despite the depressing horror of the news stories in recent weeks, despite the unthinkable suffering of the victims and their friends and relatives, and despite the fact that versions of such attacks will outlive us all, the central truth about terrorism remains that it tends for the most part not to achieve its central, strategic goals. The more we focus on that truth, the less undermining the blood-stained phenomenon of terrorism will seem, and the more effective, balanced and proportional a response we can generate in reaction to it.

Richard English is the author of Does Terrorism Work? A History (2016) and Terrorism: How to Respond (2009). 

He is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, where he is also Distinguished Professorial Fellow in the Senator Gorge J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.

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