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The Spanish State’s illicit war with ETA

Until relatively recently, democratic Spain has been plagued with serious campaigns of political violence. Between the end of the Francoist regime in 1975 and the announcement of a ceasefire in 2010, the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi (e)Ta Askatasuna, Basque Country and Freedom) unquestionably played a central part in this deadly process. In response to ETA’s increasingly violent actions, Spain adopted a determined counter-terrorist stance, establishing one of the most formidable anti-terrorist arsenals among Western democracies. Less well known were the extra-judicial strategies Spain used to eradicate ETA. In the 1980s, initiatives to reopen channels to ETA by the Spanish government were twinned with an astute strategy of enhanced police and judicial co-operation with France on the one hand and a covert campaign of assassination of ETA members on the other. Between 1983 and 1987, mercenaries adopting the pseudonym GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, Antiterrorist Liberation Groups) paid by the Spanish treasury and relying upon national intelligence support were at war with ETA. This establishment of unofficial counter-terrorist squads in a liberal democracy was a blatant detour from legality. More than thirty years later, the campaign of covered-up assassinations continues to grip Spain. Counter-terror by Proxy assesses the political and institutional context of the inception of Spain’s resort to covert and illegal counter-terrorist strategies, which predate the current global fight against terrorism by decades, going on to examine the wider implications of the use of such strategies in a liberal democracy.

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Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

One of the key foundations of the modern liberal democratic State is the requirement that government safeguards the security of its citizens by enacting and enforcing laws designed to protect their interests. In the name of security, however, and in particular in the context of the ‘war on terror’, this political obligation has been largely undermined by a common yet ultimately dangerous set of claims: necessity knows no law and, hence, one must fight fire with fire. Operations beyond legal boundaries have very often been legitimised by sweeping claims about global dangers and the necessity to derogate from the rule of law. Why and how a democratic government in a liberal society could turn to a ‘dirty war’ and go down the route of clandestine extra-judicial killing is a serious question. Spain’s war against ETA offers a fascinating case study that sheds important light on this fundamental and topical issue.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Euskadi Ta Askatasuna
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The Basque militant organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom, ETA) emerged in Franco’s Spain in the late 1950s. Since embracing armed struggle in 1968, ETA has been a thorn in the side of the Spanish state. The Basque group entered the Spanish national consciousness on 20 December 1973 with the spectacular assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco, the designated political heir of Francisco Franco. Since then and despite the democratic political transition following the death of Franco in 1975, ETA has carried on its violent campaigns across Spain. Furthermore, the organisation’s seemingly endless ability to regenerate itself in the face of ongoing police repression has contributed to the production of a performative representation of ETA as one of Western Europe’s most virulent clandestine movements. This chapter reflects upon how such representations of ETA as the arch-enemy, whose simple existence endangers the nature of Spain and its democratic future, could have unleashed the desire for agencies of a democratic State to imitate ETA’s unlawful violence and enact an extra-judicial campaign of assassination against ETA.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Francoist legacy and transition to democracy
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

From the inception of ETA in the 1950s until the end of the authoritarian regime in the 1970s, any actions and words from the Basque militant group were met with the brutal might of the Francoist security and intelligence forces who could always draw from the immense reservoir of European extreme-right activists living in Spain to carry out clandestine actions. Such counter-insurgency techniques did not end with political transition to democracy. Rather, they continued, albeit in different forms. This chapter examines how this institutionalised military culture inherited from the Francoist period served to shape the mindset and policy of early democratic governments in Spain. It suggests that, following the death of Franco in 1975, the linchpin of the Spanish transition from authoritarianism to democracy was a voluntary and stubbornly unwritten agreement among the political elites to repress the memory of the past. This very particular process of democratisation left the former Francoist intelligence, military and security forces almost unchanged and still influential over policy-making.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Extradition, political offence exception and the French sanctuary
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The desire to secure French co-operation in the fight against ETA had been a preoccupation of every Spanish government since the end of the Franco regime. During the late 1970s and 1980s, however, France and Spain were embroiled in diplomatic spats over requests for the extradition of ETA militants who found a comfortable refuge beyond the reach of Spanish law in south-west France. The French reluctance to extradite was perceived in Spain not only as tacit support for the clandestine organisation’s activities but also as an affront to Spanish national identity and prestige and a frustrating hindrance to its endeavour to be seen as a modern and forward-looking European nation. The essence of a decision to protect, to grant asylum or to extradite a person pertains to political matters, and that argument constitutes the background of this chapter. Drawing directly upon French archives, it closely examines the controversial and delicate issue of extradition of Basque refugees to Spain. It provides a thorough review of the progression of French jurisprudence on extradition and asylum, which shifted uneasily between political sympathy, core judicial principle and pragmatism.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Actions and actors of the Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The ambition of the GAL, expressed in a single and unique communiqué released in 1984, was twofold: avenging victims of ETA by killing members of the Basque organisation who found refuge in France and pushing French authorities to reconsider their generous political asylum and extradition policy and engage in greater co-operation with Spain in its fight against ETA. In the name of GAL, between 1984 and 1987, petty criminals, far-right Italian activists and Spanish pro-Francoist groups, as well as Spanish police officers and members of the ‘sharp end’ of the state military and security infrastructures, tortured or killed for relatively small amounts of money. Nearly thirty people were killed in a campaign of torture, kidnapping, bombing, targeted and indiscriminate assassinations of suspected ETA activists, Basque refugees and sometimes ordinary citizens, mostly carried out on French territory. Through a careful reading of Spanish and French court records, this chapter offers a detailed examination of the different actions and perpetrators involved in the GAL campaign, and the collusions and complicities it entailed.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Code of silence, political scandal and strategies of denial
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

With the GAL, Spanish authorities were deeply concerned by the possibility of being caught red-handed. The overall rule, therefore, was to operate under a strict policy of silence and official denial. Until the mid-1990s, GAL remained a mysterious organisation until it became the biggest political scandal of the post-transition years and by far the darkest page in the contemporary history of the Spanish Socialist Party. This led to the arrest and condemnation of no fewer than 14 high-ranking Spanish police and Guardia Civil officers and senior government officials, including the then Minister of the Interior. When denial was not possible any more, justifications took over. This chapter examines the strategies of duplicity, maximum plausible deniability and evasion of responsibility that were employed and mobilised. It reflects further on the controversial yet somehow successful efforts deployed by Spain up to and including the present day to gloss over and rewrite the brutal history of the GAL.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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Diplomatic embarrassment and European democratic identity
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The scandal surrounding GAL exposed deep-rooted problems in Spain’s security and counter-terrorist structures, which were eagerly exploited by the opposition in Madrid and by Basque nationalist groups and parties. It became not only a political embarrassment for the Spanish socialist government but also a diplomatic issue with France. Spain has always been strongly determined to develop EU-wide procedures capable of proving effective in the ongoing struggle against ETA in particular and terrorism in general. What this chapter suggests is that, in choosing to go even further in its demands for stronger and swifter mechanisms of police and judicial co-operation among its European peers, Spain found itself a convenient veil behind which GAL’s operations could be hidden and their political and diplomatic consequences rewritten. In promoting greater pan-European co-operation in the fight against terrorism as a collective democratic expression, Spain succeeded in drastically reducing the potentially disastrous impact of the GAL affair as a source of embarrassment.

in Counter-terror by proxy
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State terrorism, deceptive organisation and proxy
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The GAL scandal undoubtedly constituted a major departure from accepted liberal democratic constitutional principles of law and order. It was a campaign of violence used in pursuit of a specific diplomatic agenda. The violence used and the victims were instrumentally directed at French authorities with the expectation that they would alter dramatically their attitude towards more police and intelligence co-operation with their close neighbour and new member of the European community. Equally importantly, the perpetrators, recruiters and leaders were either in cahoots with or simply part of Spanish State agencies. For all these reasons it would be quite reasonable to argue that GAL was a form of State terrorism. Yet this chapter argues that the use of the concepts of camouflage, deception and proxy enables a better understanding of the strategies employed by contemporary liberal States to obfuscate their responsibility in the context of controversial actions taken in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism.

in Counter-terror by proxy
Lessons for critical security studies?
Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet

The epilogue makes an effort to close the bracket that this introduction has opened. Arguing from the disciplinary perspective of critical security studies, it takes a step back and evaluates which lessons can be learned from an agenda of security/mobility. The epilogue underlines the need for critical security studies to incorporate the notion of mobility more strongly, particularly with regard to its theoretical underpinnings and empirical and material manifestations. Moreover, it calls to take into account the multiplicity of actors that shape and influence any politics of movement, and to pay attention to (globalised) narratives of mobility and risk.

in Security/ Mobility