Spain is on high alert for a possible terrorist attack following the arrest on Nov. 17, of the head of the Basque terrorist group, ETA. Mikel Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, known by his nom de guerre, Txeroki (Cherokee), was detained along with another ETA suspect in a pre-dawn raid by French police in the southern French Pyrenées region, near the Spanish border.
Aspiazu, 35, who is believed to be behind several recent attacks, including the bombing of the Madrid airport in 2006, is the second key ETA leader to be captured within the last six months. In May, Spanish and French police arrested ETA's then top commander, Francisco Javier López Peña (alias Thierry), in Bordeaux. Since then, dozens of lower level ETA figures have also been detained.
Spanish authorities initially said that Aspiazu was ETA's top military chief, the one in charge of ordering attacks. But Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba now believes Aspiazu was also in charge of policy, and thus in charge of overall strategy. "Txeroki was in charge of everything, the political apparatus, and the so-called military apparatus. The one who ordered the killings was Txeroki," Rubalcaba said in an interview with SER radio.
Aspiazu's arrest is a serious setback for the armed separatists, especially for its hardliners, who believe violence is the only way of achieving an independent Basque nation. In March 2006, ETA declared a "permanent ceasefire" and said its new objective was "to promote a democratic process in the Basque country." At the time, ETA's unilateral move was viewed by many as giving Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero a unique opportunity to negotiate a permanent end to more than 40 years of violence in the restive Basque region.
However, a hard-line faction within ETA, led by Aspiazu, was believed to have been bitterly opposed to peace talks with the Spanish government. They ended up wrecking the cease-fire by bombing the Madrid airport on Dec. 30, 2006. Even then, ETA issued a statement saying its cease-fire was still in force, leading many observers to conclude that ETA was undergoing an internal power struggle between the hardliners on the one hand, and those seeking to lay down their arms on the other.
It was not until June 2007, that ETA formally called off its unilateral cease-fire. But the Spanish government considered the cease-fire to have died with the Madrid bombing and subsequently launched an unprecedented crackdown on ETA. Since then, ETA has retaliated by killing five people and setting off dozens of car bombs across Spain. Spanish authorities say Aspiazu was the mastermind behind all of the recent violence.
What will happen now is difficult to predict. Like any paramilitary organization, ETA has a chain of command and 31-year-old Aitzol Iriondo (alias Gurbitz) is believed to already have replaced Aspiazu as the overall leader of ETA.
Both Aspiazu and Iriondo represent a younger generation of ETA militants that has far less training than the older generation, which in 1980 alone killed nearly 100 people. The older generation received training in explosives, guerrilla warfare and urban terrorism in countries like Lebanon, Libya and Nicaragua. By contrast, the younger generation of militants has received its training mainly through Basque street violence, known as the kale barroka, which involves the destruction of public and private property, such as the burning of buses, trash bins and ATM machines.
A big question is whether Aspiazu's arrest will discourage the hardliners within ETA and thus neutralize that faction, or whether Iriondo will be able to impose his will over the group and initiate a new cycle of violence. Nothing would rally the hardliners as much as a successful terrorist attack, which is why Spanish law enforcement has been put on high alert.
What is clear is that the government's crackdown is having a measurable effect on ETA's operational capabilities. Although ETA is by any definition still very dangerous, it is a mere shell of what it was only a decade ago. More than 50 ETA suspects have been arrested in Spain and France since the Madrid bombing alone, and there are now some 600 ETA convicts or suspects in Spanish jails, with 150 others in French jails.
Many of the recent arrests are clearly due to better counterterrorism cooperation between Spain and France, which has improved markedly since French President Nicolas Sarkozy took office. Indeed, Sarkozy and Zapatero have announced that they will convene an "extraordinary bilateral summit" on terrorism in early 2009.
But Spain is getting help from other countries too. The U.S. National Security Agency, which intercepts and analyzes foreign communications, tipped Spanish authorities off to two email addresses used by Aspiazu, which led to his capture. Says Rubalcaba, "It's not a big surprise that ETA uses cybercafés."