A Terrorist "Second Front" in France?

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Monday's arrest of 13 Basque nationalists suspected in a 2006 French hotel bombing is a reminder that European security services continue to view violent Basque separatists as potentially as dangerous as al-Qaeda. That doesn't mean there's anything to speculation in European media of any cooperative links between the Islamists and the separatists. Counter-terrorism officials tell TIME, however, that they have recently noticed parallels in the profiles of recruits now joining both movements.

"They both involve the embrace of a radical ideology affirming an identity they feel their parents abandoned in favor of integration," a French security official — referring simultaneously to the European children of North African immigrants who embrace radical Islam and to many French-born Basque youths whose parents had long since abandoned the struggle for independence from their native Franco-era Spain. "It offers the passion and righteousness of an identity and struggle they think society forced their parents to give up as the cost of living in France."

While the phenomenon is well documented among Muslim immigrants, a small but growing number of alienated young French people of Basque origin don't share their parents' Spanish nationality but don't feel French, either. Some are beginning to identify as Basque, with a nationalist passion that inspires them to reach out to separatists on Spain's side of Euskal Herria, as they call the Basque country. That nascent cross-border youth movement is a potential long-term terror threat, says the security official.

What makes the Basque case different from that of alienated Muslim immigrant youth is that while the latter retreat into a global militant religious identity, many alienated Basque youth in France retreat into an alternative national identity. "With Basque youths feeling adrift, the question of ‘Who am I, anyway?' is answered by looking at the ground below, realizing 'I am Basque, and this is my land,' and reaching out to other Basques struggling to take control of their land," the French official says. "The jihadist wants to conquer the world for Islam; the Basque nationalist wants to conquer his backyard. But both are ready to use violence to attain their goals."

New signs of radicalism among younger French Basques follows an extended period largely free of the nationalist violence that continues to plague the Spanish side of the border. Many of those living in France recognized the futility of a violent independence struggle, and its negative consequences on the local economy. But the calmer, violence-averse atmosphere in France allowed ETA, the Spanish Basque separatist group, to conduct logistical work, procuring materials, and occasionally preparing attacks to be carried out in Spain.

New evidence of France's importance as a rear base for Spanish-bound terrorism came with the Sept. 2 bust of a house in southwestern France, where four ETA commandos were arrested and 350 kilos (770 pounds) of explosives seized. According to the French official, hollowed-out water heaters had been filled with explosives for use in car bombs in Spain.

Although one of the men arrested, 50-year-old Luis Ignacio Iruretagoyena, is a high-profile ETA figure previously arrested in 1992 when explosives were found in his Paris apartment, his three accomplices aged between 25 and 31 suggest ETA is rejuvenating its ranks. "They're finding young people to step up and take baton in Spain," said the official. "And we're starting to see a new generation of Basque nationalist awake in France, too. A cycle is ending, and unfortunately, another cycle seems to be beginning."

French security sources also fear that ETA is starting to rely less on France as a sanctuary, in favor of increased underground activity in Portugal. Indeed, they fear that if the long-standing logic — shared by al-Qaeda — of refraining from attacking countries that are predominantly used as staging grounds, then the move to Portugal may suggest that France may be facing a stepped-up Basque terror campaign on its own soil.