May 7, 2006

Intelligence Briefing:
Revolution & Terrorism

Derailing Spain’s 3/11 Investigation

Part 3: Architects of Terror
– Continued from Part 2 –

ETA bomb attack on a Barcelona shopping center, 1987
Striking at Children: Young victim of an ETA bombing attack on Barcelona’s Hipercor shopping center, July 19, 1987. Twenty were killed, including several whole families, and 45 wounded.
Spanish and American authorities alike had good reason to suspect the Basque ETA of the March 11, 2004 coordinated train bombings in Madrid. It fit the group’s decades-old pattern of murdering civilians to throw fear into the hearts of the population, especially using multiple time bombs to ratchet up the casualty counts. In the months leading up to the latest attack, ETA bombings had been steadily increasing in size and audacity, and intelligence data indicated the group was planning a new attack on a drastically larger scale than ever.1

Even the bombs themselves fit the profile. “The type of timers and the explosives used in [the 3/11] attacks closely resembled some of the material used in past strikes by ETA, investigators said.”2

ETA denials of responsibility didn’t persuade authorities; the Etarras had been caught trying that before, too. Their last-minute attempt to shift blame to unnamed Arabs or phantom “Al Qaeda” networks relied entirely on pointing out the scale of the attacks; never before had the ETA killed so many at once.3

Yet over time, the organization had certainly spilled an enormous amount of blood — over 800 dead, not counting the 191 new bodies on 3/11, plus hundreds or even thousands injured — in its four decades of revolution.4 Its many allies on the Left also had good reason to help ETA evade a destructive backlash, for the group has played a significant role not just in Spain, but in the world revolution as a whole.

Officially, the ETA aims at breaking away a northern region of Spain as an independent, Marxist homeland for the Basque ethnic group. The Basque people themselves do not want the revolution; 95 percent neither speak the ancient Basque language nor care about its Medieval culture, considering themselves entirely Spaniards. Even the ETA guerrillas only use the “Basqueland” propaganda as cover, rather openly admitting their true objective of spreading violent revolution throughout all of Europe as a prelude to Communist takeover.5

The revolution’s roots go back to the 1930s, when the Communist-controlled Popular Front used fraudulent elections to seize power over Spain and began imposing a reign of terror. During its three years of existence, the Red regime sent agents to stir up nationalism among the Basques and created Acción Nacionalista Vasca and Basque Solidarity, front groups whose members actively participated in the revolutionary terror nationwide. So tightly controlled were those organizations that the Soviet Union sent officers of the GRU (military intelligence) to direct the Basque nationalists personally.6

Spanish liberation forces under General Francisco Franco brought the chaos to an end in 1939, but the Communist underground survived and began reorganizing. By 1959, the exiled Spanish Communist Party was joined by the new ETA, followed by a second Communist Party, the ruthlessly violent GRAPO, in 1975.7 Beginning in 1964, ETA guerrillas were sent by their Soviet masters to Cuba for paramilitary training consisting of “kidnapping, subversion, and sabotage techniques.”8 Before long, Etarras were working together with Communist revolutionaries in South America, Europe, and the Middle East while being trained in Communist Libya and Algeria under Soviet Russian and Cuban instructors. ETA remained closely tied to the Spanish Communist Party and GRAPO, which supplied leadership and coordination.9

The Soviet KGB directly controlled ETA, assigning it in 1971 to form a close relationship with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), also an arm of the KGB. The following year brought a formal alliance with the IRA, the Breton Liberation Front of France, the Tupamaros of Uruguay, and both the Fatah and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) wings of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). As the 1970s progressed, ETA participated heavily in the international terror network with the Red Brigades of Italy, the Red Army Fraction of West Germany, and dozens of other groups. For that matter, Soviet KGB officers were caught in Spain giving orders and shipping hundreds of weapons straight to their ETA foot-soldiers, not even bothering with intermediaries.10 In more recent times, ETA terrorists were trained in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Nicaragua — all Communist countries under Soviet Russian control — and continue now to be hosted and sponsored in Cuba while in turn giving assistance to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party.11

ETA logo
Symbol of Death: The ETA logo, a snake around an axe.
The enormous Soviet investment in the ETA eventually paid abundant dividends in terror. The group attempted an early murderous assault by train derailment in 1961, but failed;12 within a few years, it was stepping up the pace of attacks, carrying out “bank robberies, bombings, and sabotage,” but was prevented by the strong hand of the anti-Communist Franco government from being able to kill more than five people up to the early 1970s.13 Under Franco, its one major success was the car-bombing assassination of Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973.

But upon Franco’s death in 1975, the new, democratic government of Spain immediately turned around and opened the doors wide for ETA revolution. Its terrorists were given amnesty, released from prison, and allowed to return to the country, and police backed off from aggressive prosecution of terrorism. The result was disastrous. Overnight, the gleeful ETA-Militar faction unleashed waves of bombings and shootings, assassinating anyone from high government officials to mayors and police officers to taxi drivers and randomly selected men, women, and children — many of them ethnic Basques. ETA members “machine-gunned the Paris-Madrid express, set packed hotels ablaze in Majorca and Saragossa, bombed Madrid’s airport and railway stations… and took to killing once a day, every day.”14

They financed the terror spree through terrifying extortion methods: “abductions, killings, beatings, a bank robbery a day, a steep ‘Revolutionary Tax’ extracted on threat of death and payable monthly into ETA’s Swiss bank accounts.”15 The chaos drove industry and capital out of the Basque region, reducing it from the wealthiest to one of the poorest areas in Spain.16

The kidnappings, robberies, murders, and bombings have continued to the present day, with the ETA seeking to strike with unprecedented deadliness. Shooting assassinations have claimed the lives of a judge, police officers, and at least one town council member,17 but the primary objective has been to use ever larger bombs. Police efforts foiled a plot in 1999 to destroy the tallest skyscraper in Madrid with tons of explosives, defused a bomb in the stock exchange in the Basque city of Bilboa in March, 2002, and prevented a car bombing in September, 2002, but other attacks have been more successful, including a car bombing that injured 95 in Madrid in November, 2001; a car bombing in Bilbao, injuring two in January, 2002; a car bomb that damaged buildings in Madrid in April, 2002; two car bombs in Madrid on the same day in May, 2002, injuring 17; three car bombs in different parts of Spain on June 21, 2002, injuring seven; and a car bomb on August 4, 2002, that killed a six-year-old girl and a middle-aged man and injured several others in a small town.18

Police stumbled across an ominous warning of something big in the works when they discovered a truck carrying 1,100 pounds of explosive chemicals on February 29, 2004 — just eleven days before the train bombings. It was part of an ETA plan to “generate a massacre in coming days, if possible, in the center of Madrid,” announced authorities.19 Since the ETA had been known to transport its bomb materials in multiple vehicles, this implied one or more other trucks with the rest of the consignment could be making their way into the city. And the national elections were just two weeks away, consistent with the ETA track record for striking right before votes.

Unable to catch the other truck (or trucks), police were worried, and braced for impending danger. But nothing could prepare them for the ten-bomb attack on March 11 and its staggeringly high casualties. It wasn’t the first time the Etarras had attacked trains or train stations, but it was the largest.

Law enforcement authorities knew very well how many years of Soviet training, armament, and logistical support had been invested in the ETA, whose several hundred members constituted the only force in Spain capable of pulling off those Madrid attacks. To blame the bombings on a tiny, loosely organized network of untrained “Al Qaeda” foreigners struck experts as absurd, and with good reason.

It was political pressure, not forensic evidence, that ultimately diverted police off the ETA trail. And the key man to save the terrorists was none other than the incoming prime minister — who rode into office through an electoral upset produced by those same Madrid bombings.

– Continued in Part 4 –


1. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda link is one possibility,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2004, pp. A1, A14.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Wilkinson, T., “Basque separatist group ends four-decade war with Spain,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2006, pp. A1, A5.

5. Sterling, C., The Terror Network, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, pp. 172-201.

6. Attorney-General’s Office, The Red Domination in Spain: The General Cause, Gráficas Aragón, Madrid, 1953, pp. 7-9; Radosh, R., Habeck, M.R., & Sevostianov, G., Eds., Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001, pp. 263-265, 377.

7. “Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) (Basque Fatherland and Liberty),”, profile updated March, 2006; Sterling, C., Op cit., p. 178.

8. Ibid., p. 192.

9. Ibid., pp. 192-199.

10. Ibid.

11. “Basque Fatherland and Liberty,”, Oct. 6, 2004; Pons, E., “Castro and Terrorism: A Chronology,” Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies,, June 10, 2005.

12. Wilkinson, T., Op cit.

13. Sterling, C., Op cit., p. 174.

14. Ibid., p. 179.

15. Ibid., p. 181; “Basque Fatherland and Liberty,”, Op cit.

16. Sterling, C., Op cit., pp. 180-181.

17. Associated Press, “Judge killed in Spain; Basque separatist group is blamed,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8, 2001, p. A35; “2 Basque police officers slain; separatists blamed,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 2001, p. A28; “Political slaying blamed on Basque separatists,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2002, p. A11.

18. Associated Press, “Spain tower was terror target,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 9, 2001, p. A22; Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2002, p. A12; “Police defuse bomb, break up Basque protest,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 2, 2002, p. A6; “Car bombing in Spain,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 2001, p. A17; “Car bomb wounds 2 in Spain,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 13, 2002, p. A7; “Spain soccer fans defy ETA bombers,”, May 2, 2002; Associated Press, “Car bombings rock 3 sites in Spain amid EU summit,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2002, p. A6; “Bombing in Spain leaves two people dead,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 5, 2002, p. A5.

19. “Chemical seized, ETA suspects held,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2004, p. A5.