Chasing Almacigas

I'm Camino Mortera, and I think and write on the EU, internal security, migration, counter-terrorism, Sundays in Berlin, yellow skirts and blue skies. In English, Spanish and (sometimes), French

Understanding and responding to public reactions to home-grown terrorism- the case of Spain (Workshop at King’s College)

A couple of weeks ago, precisely at Kings College, I attended a seminar bearing the very unsexy title of ‘Transnational Law colloquium: Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: Beyond Law?.’ The idea of these series of discussions was to bring together academics and practitioners working in different areas of law, and explore, not only their contribution on substance, but their inner motivations in choosing the topic they have now became experts on. I found this approach utterly interesting and, naturally, began thinking on my very own inner motivations to have specialised on the EU area of Justice and Home Affairs, and, more precisely, on the EU’s approach to counter-terrorism and internal security issues. I am telling you all this because the invitation to speak in this workshop came right when this process of self-questioning was developing, and it could not have been more timely: for that I eventually came to realise that my interest on the public and legal management of terrorism and other forms of organised crime comes, precisely, from a very early personal experience on how my country deals with the deeply enrooted fear of terrorist activities. Let me explain myself. Back in University, a couple of years before the attacks in Madrid and still when ETA was up and running, I had a friend who was a member of several anti-globalisation, radical left, anarchist organisations. He was politically very engaged and was close to people who were openly supporting the political branch of ETA, although comdenmed violence as a means to what they regarded as a legitimate end: the independence of the Basque Country. This was the early 2000 and it was the North of Spain, were anti-capitalists, anarco-socialist movements used to mix, in a bizarre manner, with football hooligans groups and pro-Basque independency organisations. Law enforcement bodies did not do much of a differentiation between all these different groups, and used to take the high road by labelling them all as ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist supporters’. Then again, these were the times were ETA would kill hundreds per year and the Basque country, and its surroundings, would be a hotbed where the police would be confronted, on a daily basis, with violent ‘Kale Borroka’ (literally ‘Street Fight’) groups.  One evening, my friend called me in distress: I was the only law student he knew, and he needed legal advice. He had been served with a court sentence declaring him as member of a pseudo-terrorist group who had been making repeated and intimidating late-night calls to several members of the regional parliament, in order to threaten them into agreeing with some very radical demands coming from pro-independence organisations. The court order specified that my friend had been identified thanks to the work of the secret police (!) who, after reviewing several videos of calls made from a public phone to the said politicians, had unanimously agreed that the 1,70cm, brown-haired, jeans-clad young man making these calls could be no other than him. He would be judged under anti-terrorist laws and had no access to most of the fundamental procedural rights he would be entitled to would he had been only considered as a ‘normal criminal’. He could not choose his own lawyer, but would be assigned one- a practice established to avoid lawyers close to ETA giving trialled members of the group any information while they were waiting to be judged. In a very impressive turn of the right to be presumed innocent, he was to prove that he had not been making those calls, not the other way around. He was not entitled to know who was accusing him, what evidence was held against him and the precise charges he would be facing. Everything I was studying, at that very same moment, on my criminal procedural law course, did not apply to his case, apparently. I was, as every young, passionate law student would be, outraged. And then it hit me: as a society, we had embedded terrorism so deeply in our day-to-day lives that we never thought about the other side of it: the consequences of our very own ‘War on Terror’ that we had initiated back in the late 70s, when ETA went from being an anti-Franco organisation to a full-blown terrorist group. My friend’s story has a happy ending: he was able to prove that he could not have been the one making these calls, got acquitted and, eventually abandoned all political activism. He is now a happily married father, an engineer, and I suspect he votes conservative now. However, I could not get over this story, and began focusing on the relationship between security and civil liberties. Because I had always been interested in European affairs, I turned my focus from the national (Spain) to the supranational (EU). And that is partially why I am here with you today.

Fast forward two years and the Spanish experience of terrorism would take yet another dramatic turn. In the early hours of March, 11th, 2004, ten explosions aboard four ‘commuter trains’ in Madrid killed 192 and left 1430 injured. It was the biggest terrorist attack ever suffered by Spain. And it came at a crucial moment in the Spanish electoral cycle: only three days later, the country was due to hold general elections, with the polls showing a clear victory of the conservative party, which had been in power since 1996. The Madrid attacks changed everything. On Sunday, the 14th of March, the Socialist party won the elections by a comfortable difference of 8 points (43% vs. 36%), a large distance for Spanish electoral standards. Participation was also at an all-times high, with 76% of Spaniards going to vote that weekend.

The aftermath of the bombings illustrates greatly the Spanish approach to terrorist attacks and our relationship with the fear that ensues. Spain, a country routinely accustomed to deal with separatist terrorism, found itself completely lost in the management of a full-scale incident which went far beyond ETA’s traditional killing methods. Through the years that followed 9/11, Spain, and the Spanish authorities, remained conveniently strange to any form of international terrorism. And yet, the government’s support to the Iraq war, and our military operations in the former Spanish colonies in North Africa had rendered the country a very obvious choice for Islamic-inspired terrorism.

That weekend was frenetic. The attacks took place on a Thursday. The country stopped. I remember going to University, where lectures were replace by collective sessions of radio-listening. Then, gathering with friends to follow the developments on TV. The government hinted, from very early hours, to ETA’s ownership of the bombings. In their 8 years in office, the conservative government had followed a very tough strategy on ETA. Prime Minister Aznar had been himself victim of a failed attack with a bomb attached to his car. The fight against terrorism was one of the main lines of electoral strategy for the conservative party. Mr. Aznar called for a nation-wide demonstration, to be held on Friday, that aimed at rallying Spaniards around the flag of ‘Constitutionalism and unity’. The motto of the demonstration hinted, very clearly, at the need for national unity against regional terrorism. Namely, it was implied that ETA had been behind the attacks. This thesis was difficult for many to believe: ETA’s modus operandi was far away of what had happened in Madrid. The organisation itself reached to their go-to Basque newspaper to deny any ownership of the attack. Dissonant voices started questioning the official line. And leaks from the investigation began showing that Islamic-inspired terrorism may have been behind the killing.

This did not sit well with the government’s strategy: the possibility of an Al-Qaeda related authorship of the attacks suggested, well too much, a potential retaliation for Mr. Aznar’s (very unpopular) support to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This would then put the blame in the government and give a head start to the Socialist party in the upcoming elections. Hence, the government’s line remained clear: in their public appearances, both Prime Minister Aznar, Spokesperson Eduardo Zaplana and Home Secretary Angel Acebes insisted that all clues pointed out to ETA, and that there was no evidence of the intervention of Islamic groups, such as Al Qaeda. Those were very tense days: Spaniards increasingly felt cheated, manipulated, lied to. On Saturday evening, spontaneous ‘flash-mobs’ were organised in front of the Conservative party’s local and regional headquarters, all across the country. Spanish electoral law prohibits any sort of demonstration, campaigning or rally the day right before the election. Therefore, these concentrations were illegal. I was part of them. It did not have anything to do with my political ideas, and I would do it again.

I would do it again because my government did not know how to manage fear. Because, for too long, terrorism was used as a political tool rather than as a national tragedy that needed to be solved, in peace and unity, and from a wide national consensus. And I would do it again because, as odd as it sounds, I rather fancy to be told the truth. I guess it was a generalisation of that feeling what shifted the stakes, bringing about a Socialist victory that was never predicted for.

As a Spaniard, this is the part of the story that interests me the most. As a researcher, though, I am keener in exploring the answers to the following two questions. Ever wondered why Spain, even after a horrible Islamic-inspired terrorist attack, even in the midst of a heart-breaking financial crisis, does not seem to have space for xenophobia in politics? Let’s consider whether the popular attribution of the ultimate ownership of the Madrid attacks to the conservative government, and its subsequent defeat in the electoral battle had something to do with it. Is it possible that, by using Mr. Aznar and his government as a sort of ‘scapegoat’ for the attacks, Spain spared itself a series of xenophobic incidents and civil unrest which could have led to even deeper problems?

And, perhaps more importantly, was the defeat of the conservative party a consequence of public fear (i.e., precisely the outcome the terrorist were after)? Or was it a consequence of the mismanagement of public fear (and hence an outcome that could not have been foreseen by the terrorists)? Did Spain pledged to fear or did the government made us to? Would the electoral results have been different had the conservative party followed a different course of action? Even more ambitiously, would the 2011 ETA’s ceasefire had happened under the ruling of the conservative party? And what does this all teach us about crisis management?

These are all complex questions, which require a multidisciplinary approach. As a lawyer and political scientist, I am used to focus on the legal side of things, on exploring how can law and policy better be used to prevent and repress terrorism while ensuring a fair balance with civil liberties. But, when a tragedy of this dimension strikes a country, and when a whole community is in a state of shock, but still needs to make a decision on who do they chose to lead them through, the law is not enough. We need psychology, anthropology, sociology and many other ‘ologies’ to understand, process, respond and move on.

That is why I hope we can try to answer some of these questions together. That is why I am here, with my ears and my eyes very open, to learn how to be less of a lawyer and more of a humanist, if that was ever possible.


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