We’ve all heard about “Muslim terror attacks” in European countries, and all the countries which are supposed to be sponsoring terrorism. We are even being told there is an end result to all this terrorism – ISIS has established various caliphates, which are supposed to represent the new world order under the banner of terrorism, although no one recognises them and the populations in these areas seem under no greater imposition than before.
It is all the more surprising therefore that we do not hear more about the long string of successes Europe has enjoyed in its battle against terrorism. On April 7th ETA, the Basque group which is one of the few remaining internal European terrorist organisations, declared that it was about to disarm after nearly 50 years of violence. It has led French police to its remaining arms dumps in that country, after it had given up most of its weapons in Spain in five previous ceasefires, tacit acknowledgement that its attempts to bomb its way to an independent Basque homeland were no longer likely to succeed.
There was a time when people would quake if someone shouted the name ETA, more so than if you say ISIS now, as ETA was operating a lot closer to Westerners’ homes. Europe should be rejoicing that yet another once-powerful terrorist group will no longer be threatening civilians and state institutions. It should also be using the defeat of ETA as evidence that the Western War on Terror works, and that the Muslim terrorists now in the news will inevitably be defeated the same way.
Yet while the elimination of Osama bin Laden was front page global news, ETA’s voluntary disarmament has merited only a passing mention outside France and Spain – and even there, talk about what the Muslims might do looms much larger. Apparently the defeat of this group has no relevance to current circumstances. It seems that no matter how many home grown terrorists you defeat, the new superhuman enemy is impervious to long and expensive anti-terror campaigns, and the same methods used to save Europe until now will have no effect in the new reality.
One obvious reason the game is different now is that there is considerable evidence that these new terrorists and being directly funded, armed and trained by the West. If they are serving Western geostrategic interests Western governments aren’t likely to stop them until they have served their purpose. But every country which has seen domestic terrorism has its own story to tell about how it has been addressed.
There has been a long history of collusion between Western governments and domestic terrorist organisations, even though the two sides have allegedly been engaged in all out war. Northern Ireland provides many examples of the UK and US governments actively working with terrorist groups to achieve their contrary ends. The kidnapping of Aldo Moro in 1978, and the disturbing lack of interest this aroused amongst his political colleagues, tells you all you need to know about the relationship between the Italian state and the Italian Red Brigades at the time.
All this begs the questions: Who are terrorists really working for? Why do their campaigns begin and why do they end? Who actually benefits from the death and destruction they cause? When we can answer these questions we can see why victories in the War on Terror are not trumpeted like those in other wars, but glossed over to instil even greater fear in unwilling populations, the opposite of usual wartime practice.
Two sides but one coin
In the 1970s and 80s terrorism was a fact of life in Western countries. The US had groups like Black September and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which famously kidnapped and then recruited newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. South America had groups like the Tupumaros in Uruguay, while West Germany had the Red Army Faction, funded by the East German Stasi, “Stadt Sicherheit”, as an extension of the Cold War.
All these groups were leftist, and claimed to be fighting the injustices which the urban poor, or certain sections of them, were suffering as a result of capitalism. In many cases, they looked to each other for inspiration: for example, both the Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades are known to have studied works produced in their countries about the Tupumaros, as well as the standard fodder of Marx, Lenin, Mao and any other variation on communism they could read without falling out amongst themselves.
In this, these groups were identical to the Muslim radicals of today. Despite their generic treatment by the mainstream media, each of these groups has a local origin and was originally a response to how they saw a local situation. Likewise, they have a number of theoretical conflicts amongst themselves, each having a different interpretation of radical Islam, but treat each other as tacit allies: just as every leftist terrorist group furthered the cause of international socialism, each Muslim one considers the others part of a global jihad.
Just like today, these groups ultimately had great contempt for the people they claimed to be serving. The urban poor never appointed leftist murderers their saviours, any more than Muslims made ISIS or Al-Qaeda representatives of Islam. The poor had had every chance to vote for the solutions the terrorists were proposing, just as they have the opportunity to practice radical distortions of Islam now, but had consistently failed to do so. So rather than empower the people, like Mahatma Gandhi, these groups took to trying to destroy the systems they lived under because only the group members could be correct, not the ignorant people they claimed to love who broadly supported those systems.
Just like today, all the Western terrorists of generations past maintained they were only doing what they were doing out of necessity, as the only way to achieve the changes their people needed. They had seen this work during the era of decolonisation, when groups regarded as terrorist at the time, such the Mau Mau in Kenya, had succeeded in gaining independence for their homelands despite being pariahs to the governments they were fighting against. But what did any of these later terrorists actually achieve with their bombs and bullets?
The Basque country is still not independent, and still divided between France and Spain, the hated “colonial oppressors”. West Germany has not become a Marxist state run by the workers but remained a capitalist society, and now includes former communist East Germany. Italy has done the same, despite the high historic support for its Communist (or rather, Protest) party. Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, and its Republican politicians are part of the same political structure they once vowed to overthrow.
The difference might be explained by the fact that the Western powers actually wanted decolonisation, but not the destruction of their domestic institutions. They don’t want to become Muslim states either, another reason why the defeat of ETA is part of the same war, and should be celebrated as such. But the fate of some individual terrorists explains what purpose terrorism actually serves, and for whom, and that terrorists themselves eventually know this is the case.
Long but brutal leashes
ETA began as a cultural institution during the days of de Gaulle’s France and Franco’s Spain. These two leaders had supported opposite sides during World War Two. Though broadly similar in outlook each was suspicious of the other: de Gaulle did not want his nationalism associated with fascist dictatorship, Franco didn’t want his dictatorship threatened by the democracy he had overthrown.
To the Basque nationalists of ETA the two countries were a common enemy. But the differences between them also made ETA a common enemy to them. With both leaders wanting the population to rally round the flag and the state, ETA provided a convenient smear for anyone: Social Democrat? Liberal? Don’t like signing the national anthem? You could easily be associated with the politics of ETA, and therefore be a terrorist and not allowed to be part of the political process.
In the 1950s Robert Menzies, the right wing Prime Minister of Australia, called for the Communist Party to be banned. A national referendum he had sponsored didn’t succeed, but the voters saw all the similarities between communist practice and the internal workings of the Australian Labor Party. This association kept Menzies’ party in power for 23 years. De Gaulle and Franco were hardly going to turn down the chance to use the same tactics to neutralise opposition, even if lives were lost.
All these various terrorist groups had the same effect: removing the greatest threat to the dominant ideology from the political process. West Germany’s Social Democrats had to be seen to be strong against communism as their whole country had been built on enforced Western alliance. Branding everyone further left as a potential terrorist, and themselves as moderate by comparison, served them above all.
The Italian Communist Party did not support the Red Brigades, or vice versa, but the Christian Democrats were able to stay in power there for 40 years by making the connection. It is no coincidence that both the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction emerged in 1970, when Western governments had begun to rally round de Gaulle’s France following the Paris Protests of 1968, which had challenged all governments to take a position on the continued existence of his neo-corporatist, personality cult republic.
As today, the combination of violence and publicity demonises not only those who commit terrorism but all those who can be associated with it. All Muslims, all local politicians the West doesn’t like, all those who don’t like what the West is doing can be removed from any part in finding solutions by being connected with the crimes of a very few. Democracies may not agree with one party states, but this is their way of creating something very like them.
Dead from the backbone up
ETA has been on the downward slide ever since Spain entered the EU. With both countries now liberal democracies and part of the same political bloc, they had no need to associate each other with terrorists. ETA found it a lot more difficult to recruit new members when it became obvious they had actually been working for the colonial oppressors all along.
Now France and Spain want to show how inclusive they are to combat the new threats to their existence. Indigenous groups must be brought into the fold to put the supposed foreign origins of these new Muslim radicals in sharper focus. If all native groups are part of the political system, regardless of their pasts, it just shows how necessary it is to act against those who can be associated with outsiders.
Uruguay’s government was urged to take military action against the Tupumaros rather than engage with them politically. To do this it created a civil-military alliance, in which the form of democracy was kept but the army actually ran the country. That army soon routed the urban guerrillas, so that should have been the end of the end of that. But that alliance endured for twelve years, almost as if the government had wanted it all along, and simply sought an excuse for doing so.
Before Justin Trudeau came along everyone’s favourite world leader was Jose Mujica, the Uruguayan president who gave away most of his salary and drove a battered old Volkswagen. Mujica is a former Tupumaro who spent three years imprisoned at the bottom of a well. He served the state’s purpose then, he serves it now. The poor have the same system of government they had when he started, but this is a new, democratic Uruguay, as his presence indicates, so can be trusted, and paid, to take part in the War on Terror against new enemies suddenly greater than he.
Incapacity from the jaws of victory
While the West wonders what to do about all these Muslim terrorists ISIS members are publicly making the same complaints the defeated Western groups once did. In Syria they are fighting alongside the Infidel, under his protection and using his weapons, which is not what genuine jihadists signed up for. If they want to change the world there isn’t any point in joining ISIS to do it. They are simply continuing the same world, in which the same old methods are being used, by being there.
But just as we were once told about radical leftists, radical Muslim terrorists are seemingly unstoppable and supposedly very large in number. All the Western successes against its own terrorists, who were used for the same purposes, have been wilfully forgotten. Europe has used the same methods to defeat many other terrorist groups, and they work. But now they mean nothing, because no one wants to use them.
ETA has gone out with a whimper, martyred by the fact it was used to destroy its own cause. Some of its members will reinvent themselves as respectable citizens. Others will wonder whether all the loss of life was worth it, but those will not be the ones given an avenue of rehabilitation. Terrorism continues as long as it serves narrowly interests and usually not that of the designated terrorists and their lost causes.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.