When separatists use violence they become terrorists

When you look at what is happening around the world these days – riots in France, Brexit, anti-immigrant feelings, a general feeling of being pissed off at the status quo – it should come as a surprise to no one that there are groups of people who want to get away from it all.  The grand experiments of the post-WWII world – the European Union, NATO, the WTO – all seem to be becoming very unpopular as increasing numbers of protesters and activists want to undo this ‘progress’.

Sometimes this desire takes the form of independence campaigns.  Brexit is an example; so is the Scottish referendum.  Parts of northern Italy have at times expressed a desire to leave the rest of the country.  And let’s not start with the Balkans where we are still dealing with the split of 1992 and efforts to keep splitting.

To this list of wannabe new states we have to add Catalonia.  The northeastern part of Spain held a referendum in October 2017 in which 92% of voters cast a ‘yes’ in favour of an independent state (albeit on a 43% turnout of eligible electors).  The central government in Madrid did not take this well, declaring the whole exercise illegal (it was called a ‘coup’) and using police to shut down polling stations with the inevitable outbreaks of violent clashes.  A month after the vote Spain issued an arrest warrant for the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, who had fled to Belgium .

So, Catalonians did not get their republic and the issue goes on and on.  The new question now is: will the independence movement become violent?  This is the hypothesis of Matthew Bennett, the creator of The Spain Report, who wrote today that the development of so-called ‘Autonomous Quick Action Groups’ (GAAR in Catalan) presages the possibility of extreme methods.  A communique by these activists promised “boicot and sabotage… because we voted for independence, not regional government”. The list of things to be sabotaged includes “cars and roads, railways, the underground and trams, industrial areas, forces of order (police) [and] cable communications”.

This sure sounds like violence to me.

We in Canada of course have seen when separatist movements get nasty: the FLQ (Front de Liberation de Quebec).  That group killed 8 civilians over an eight year period in the 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in the kidnapping and assassination of provincial Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in the ‘October Crisis’ of 1970 which led to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s declaration of martial law.  The FLQ did indeed morph into a terrorist group and the killing of Laporte led  to its demise.

Will we see something similar in Catalonia?  Only time will tell.  Make no mistake though: if Catalan separatists embrace the violence option they will become a terrorist entity.  Recall that terrorism is usually defined as any act of serious violence that is perpetrated for a political, ideological or religious reason.  Separation would qualify as political in my books and sabotage of infrastructure would be a serious act of violence.  In this instance we would be forced to reclassify the independence movement, or rather the small subset of actors that use violence, as terrorists.

Let’s hope it does not come to that. Both sides need to take action to prevent it however.  Catalans desirous of further autonomy have to negotiate in a legal framework and the central government has to acknowledge that there are issues that have led to the current state of affairs. Cooler heads need to prevail.

We already have enough terrorists and terrorist groups to worry about: let’s not create more.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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