The Pandora’s Box of Antiterrorism

Operation Pandora

When three social centers were raided and 11 anarchists, from Barcelona to Madrid, were taken away in handcuffs early on December 16, the Spanish media howled about anarchist terrorism. The bogeyman of choice was a bit confusing for many audiences. “What anarchist terrorism?” they might well have asked. Sure, anarchists were identified as participants in the recent riots in the city of Burgos, where neighbors successfully stopped a development project, as well as the riots in Barcelona last May that successfully reversed the eviction of the 17-year-old squatted social center, Can Vies. But tens of thousands of people participated in those uprisings, winning widespread social support. Anarchists haven’t killed anyone in Spain, nor blown up any buildings or airplaines (nor carried out torture, aerial bombings, genocide, mass displacement, or any of the things that governments regularly do but never classify as “terrorism”).

In fact, the police accusation states, there have been a handful of bombings (“at least nine”) claimed by anarchists in the last couple years. This accusation bears scrutiny. After all, Spain is no stranger to terrorism. When police talk of bombings, people think of bombs placed in the metro or in crowded supermarkets, like the attacks in 2005 and 1987 respectively.

When the judge finally made the accusations against the 11 anarchists public on January 29, it became clear that the nine “bombings” in question were of a different caliber. Some were “simulated” explosives (which is to say, not explosives), and others were merely arsons. The most dangerous were small gas canisters capable of little more than shattering a bank window or damaging a cash machine. No one was hurt in any of these attacks.

Whatever one thinks of property destruction, or this particular method of property destruction, the ambitious expansion of the label of “terrorism,” and all the police powers that entails, warrants suspicion.

In this case, a studied skepticism—exactly the kind that the mass media never engage in—brings immediate results. It turns out that the evidence against the 11 people arrested in what the police called “Operation Pandora” is remarkably weak, a fact reflected in the judge’s decision to release them on bail as soon as the police files were made public. There is an embarrassing scarcity of physical evidence linking them to any of the supposedly terrorist acts the state accuses them of. Instead, while raiding their houses and the three social centers, the police turned up an abundance of books, posters, and pamphlets affirming what they call a “terrorist ideology,” along with the usual menagerie of “elements for the fabrication of artifacts” that even the most obtuse cop can find in any unassuming supply cabinet. Bleach, matches, a propane canister (common in the older houses, which don’t have gas lines), all of it is evidence of terrorism.

(In fact, three weeks after arriving in Barcelona in 2007, I was arrested and obliged to await trial for two years, accused of an “urban guerrilla” action that involved shooting off a “mortar” in a crowd. Finally, at trial it was acknowledged that the “explosive device” was just a firework, that I hadn’t even been the one to set it off, nor was I an organizer of the protest in question as police had alleged. A similar thing happened to the anarchist Eric McDavid in the US: accused of an explosive that was never built, in a plot cooked up by an FBI informant. The difference is, the US being the country that it is, Eric was locked up for nine years before the truth came out.)

The pamphlets, books of matches, and bleach all become more sinister when you consider the government’s allegation that the accused use, a volunteer-run, activist email provider that encrypts its data and works hard to keep governments and corporations from reading people’s private correspondence. Demand for riseup email accounts has skyrocketed since Edward Snowden’s revelations proved that no, we aren’t paranoid, and the government is indeed spying on us. Perhaps these hundreds of thousands of people who want privacy—which is to say, who have something to hide—are all part of some greater terrorist conspiracy? No fear: Big Brother is surely looking into it.

A Terrorist Book

The strongest evidence against the 11 people accused in Operation Pandora links them not to a bomb but to a book. Contra la DemocraciaAgainst Democracy—is a small book published in 2013 and signed by “Grupos Anarquistas Coordinados”— Coordinated Anarchist Groups (GAC).

This is where it gets interesting. The judge, Javier Gómez Bermúdez, gives credence to the police claims that Against Democracy is a manual for destroying the government. I would like to say in print that Bermudez is a big fat liar (under Spanish law, he could lock me up for that, but then at least I could say it to his face). I have read Against Democracy and in fact it’s a bit dry. I would like to find a manual for destroying governments, because we’ve been plagued by them for millennia and it’s getting a bit old. Against Democracy, sadly, is not such a book.

In the first section, the authors simply apply a class analysis to the history of democratic government, from Ancient Greece through Cromwell and the liberal revolutions in the US and France. In the second section, they analyze different aspects of today’s democracies, including the concept of the majority, electoral laws, the ease with which elites can manipulate both, the idea of rights and liberties, and the relationship between media and government. They name the corporate connections of various Spanish politicians, and list the corporate owners of all the mass media in Spain. In the final section, they discuss how the powerful can use the concept of democracy to renew faith in the existing government or trick people into supporting a new authority. But to avoid being dogmatic, they also name a variety of social movements from multiple continents that use the term “democracy” to describe their aspirations for freedom and self-organization.

The judge is clearly counting on the book’s small print run, because anyone who reads it will immediately see how unscrupulously he is trying to pull our legs. That is why anarchists across the country are preparing to distribute the book—in many cases for free or for donation—this coming February 14. The pdf of the book is also available for free on the internet. I suppose distributing the writings of a terrorist organization and advocating that people read it can also be prosecuted as terrorism, but if enough of us do it, maybe for once the technocrats of Public Safety will figure out where to stick their accusations.

Innocence and Guilt

Another thing the 11 arrested anarchists have in common, aside from their alleged publication of such a dangerous book, is that they have all been active in supporting Monica and Francisco, two anarchists who had emigrated from Chile and who are still locked up after being arrested in November 2013, also accused of terrorism. The media convicted them in advance, their principal proof being the fact that the two had been accused of carrying out bombings in their home country. Their failure to mention that Monica and Francisco were acquitted—in fact, that the whole case against them fell utterly apart, disgracing not only the prosecutor but also leading politicians—shows just how little respect the champions of democratic institutions have for their own principles. Another damning factor that both the media and the police made much of is that they are foreigners, a necessary ingredient in the profile of the evil anarchist agitator.

The 11 detainees of Operation Pandora also bear this black mark: three of them are foreigners. A document released by the Catalan regional government (as it was the Catalan police who conducted most of the arrests) emphasizes with thinly veiled political correctness the “transnationality of the members of the criminal organization”.

In stark contrast to the hypocrisy of the forces of law and order, the 13 arrested anarchists have stuck to their principles even in the jaws of State. Since anarchists do not believe that people should be locked in cages or that elite bodies should draft the rules for the whole society, the 13 have refused to pay homage to the terms or the logic of the justice system. Despite all the manipulations and the flaws in the case against them (what might be called “irregularities” if they weren’t so damned regular), none of them are claiming innocence, because they reject the categories of “guilt” and “innocence” used by the government to justify torture and punishment, when it is the perfectly legal crimes of the government itself that cause the most harm.

Monica and Francisco were accused of terrorism, and they did not claim to be innocent victims of a frame-up, although they easily could have. Other people were supposed to have shied away in fear rather than raising their voices in solidarity. It is no coincidence that the next wave of antiterrorism arrests targeted Monica and Francisco’s circle of support.

And just like this case isn’t about the mistaken punishment of the innocent, it is also not about the repression of ideas per se. In fact a part of the anarchist idea, one of anarchism’s most important criticisms of democracy, is that freedom of expression is meaningless without freedom of action. If society is already constructed in an oppressive manner, words alone will never be enough to change it. And if those with more wealth and power can control what opinions get reproduced on a massive scale, who can be elected or appointed to government, what laws can be passed, and in the rare case of a disobedient government, what country receives foreign investment and what country is driven into bankruptcy, effective means of resistance will be criminalized. Legality is a meaningless category; it only reflects what the powerful think we should be permitted to do.

The Ley Mordaza—the Gag Law—recently approved by the Spanish government reflect this dynamic perfectly. The new law prohibits ten kinds of protest, all of which have been used effectively by a growing portion of the Spanish population in the last few years. The list includes: gatherings in buildings where basic services are provided, at a time when people have been occupying and running hospitals and clinics; protests in religious sites, a clear response to feminist protests against the Catholic Church in response to the anti-abortion law; protesting in banks and private offices, which has been carried out with increasing frequency to halt foreclosures; protesting at government buildings, a reaction to the massive blockades of Congress that have become almost a normal occurrence; and videotaping cops, at a time when police murders caught on camera have been inciting popular anger.

So Operation Pandora is intended to punish a group of people who put their ideas into action (though the detainees have not been convincingly connected to any specific actions). But this case and others like it also serve to suppress dissident ideas, because people who put their beliefs into practice and try to live by their ideals will inevitably have different perspectives and experiences than those who do not.

It turns out, the Catalan police and the high courts began their investigation that culminated in Operation Pandora two and a half years earlier, as admitted in the government’s own press release. The motive for the investigation was the publication of two texts in which the Coordinated Anarchist Groups (GAC) announced its foundation and explained its objectives and principles of unity.

In another bold-faced lie, the government press release claims that the GAC espoused sabotage as one of their methods. Nowhere does this position appear in any of the GAC texts.

In other words, the cops and the courts started with the culprits and subsequently began looking for crimes. The GAC publicly announced its intentions to coordinate anarchist campaigns and activities, and for the government that was enough motivation to spy on them and search for reasons to lock them up.

The conclusion of the article, “Why Attack Democracy?”, [] signed by the Coordinated Anarchist Groups, gives a good sense of the style and the content of their writings, which the government has denounced as “terrorist” and “criminal” in the hopes that no one reads them.

We have all been silent witnesses of how the government has injected millions of euros to the banks while most people do not have work or are suffering from evictions. We are also accustomed to hearing how the webs of corruption directly tie together economics and politics. Without mincing words and with little concern to hide the reality from the population, Emilio Botín [chairman of Santander bank, died of a heart attack in September 2014] says: “above certain levels the relation between business and politics is direct, much more than people suspect, a direct phone call from mobile to mobile without any secretaries in between”. When it comes time to legislate, democracy is based not on common interests but on company interests.

For these reasons we conclude that democracy is not the government of the people but the masquerade behind which hides the dictatorship of capital.


First They Came for the Basques

Government manipulations don’t end with the arbitrary declaration that the GAC is a terrorist organization. Throughout their press release, the government claims that the GAC have “ascribed to the objectives of the FAI-FRI” or “taken the postulates of […] the FAI-FRI as a reference”.

The FAI-FRI is not an organization per sé—in fact it is based in part on a rejection of formal organization—but a name (FAI stands for “Informal Anarchist Federation,” originally in Italian, and intended as an ironic dig at one historical and one contemporary anarchist organization, both of which were highly formal) that people can attach to illegal actions. FAI actions have most frequently been arsons, although a couple cells in Italy went so far as to kneecap the director of a nuclear engineering firm and to injure the director of the state tax-collection agency with a letter bomb.

However, none of the GAC texts express any adherence to the “postulates” of the FAI, and in fact, any informed reader can see that the coordinating group in Spain and the “informal federation” represent two very distinct currents of anarchism, less alike than liberals and neocons. The GAC foreswear unitary and centralized organization, but they propose the creation of a formal organization to coordinate anarchist efforts, and they openly embrace participation in social movements, something the FAI disavows and often sneers at.

Beyond the brazen stretching of the truth, the Spanish government’s willful conflation of the GAC with the FAI is eery for another reason. It suggests that they can accuse any anarchist they choose to arrest as being an adherent to the FAI, and trust that no one will pay too much attention.

And this maneuver is reminiscent of something else that has been going on a long time in the Spanish state, and something that also has relevance to antiterrorism politics in the US.

Euskadi—the Basque country—has long been the Spanish government’s testing grounds for new repressive measures. Every nation-state in existence has had to stamp out regional differences to create the illusion of a homogenous nation, but the Spanish state has largely failed, where the Basques are concerned. It’s no surprise: Euskera, the Basque language, can’t be downplayed as a “dialect” of Spanish, given that it’s not even an Indo-European language. The Basques have long struggled for their independence, and they played a major role in the fight against the fascist dictatorship under Franco. In fact, it was a bombing by ETA in 1973 that killed Franco’s carefully groomed successor ended the fascist regime’s hopes of continuing after the Generalísimo’s death. In later decades, ETA went off the deep end and began carrying out indiscriminate bombings. It remains to be seen whether police infiltration played a role in this turn towards maniacal violence, similar to how British government infiltrators in the IRA were involved in some of the worst of that organizations bombings.

In any case, the Basque movement has always been more diverse than ETA, including many currents that never supported placing bombs in public areas. Over time, however, the Spanish government developed a dirty trick. Whereas before, having your name listed in the wrong person’s address book was enough to get you arrested as a member of ETA, the Spanish courts began to develop a new tactic whereby Basque activists—or journalists, lawyers, artists, and so on—could be imprisoned for terrorism, even if they were in no way connected to ETA, if they took action in the furtherance of ETA’s aims, which is to say Basque independence.

I have previously argued that every democracy has some fundamental ground rules that can never be questioned, whether that is the legacy of colonialism, the enclosure of the commons, or the suppression of distinct cultural groups. The Spanish government came to punish the questioning of those fundamental rules, in this case the domination of the Basque people by Madrid, under the rubric of antiterrorism.

And they have gotten away with this for a long time. Basque journalists and writers have sat in prison for years for supporting independence. Young activists are locked up as terrorists for participating in protests. I once had a Basque roommate who one day got hit with the news that nearly all the kids he had grown up with—over a dozen in a small village—were simultaneously arrested and imprisoned for things like organizing demonstrations, putting up posters or graffiti, and blocking the streets. Just the other week, on the 12th of January, a dozen Basque lawyers were arrested as they showed up at court to defend their clients, 35 activists from the independence struggle. One of those lawyers had been instrumental a year earlier in discrediting a Spanish policy by which Basque activists were illegaly held in prison past the completion of their sentences.

Now the Spanish government is applying its “state of exception” logic to the anarchists. Given the courts’ brutish—some might say illiterate—handling of theory, any anarchist who is not a Tolstoyan pacifist can now be arrested as a member of the FAI (not a membership organization, nor even an organization, but I’m sure that distinction will be lost on all the geniuses who make bank locking other humans up in cages, covering up police torture, and turning a blind eye while those with more power than them regularly break their hallowed laws).

Similarly, across Europe, “anti-jihad” laws have already been passed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, making it easier for any radical Muslim to be arrested as an accomplice of al-Qaida. The racial fear alone, provoked by the phrase “radical Muslim” is enough to keep most people from asking whether in this day and age Muslims might not have a right to get a little radical, with the Christian world bombing Muslim countries on a daily basis for over a decade now. In any case, the polarization benefits the far right and the Muslim fundamentalists simultaneously. The liberal cartoonists, some of them dead, are the big losers in all of this, in more ways than one. At the cost of making a passé point—that the fundamentalists have no sense of humor—they have taken their staid principle of “tolerance” and that mythical, egalitarian world in which it might have any meaning, into the grave with them. Meanwhile, the march of antiterrorism—a cure for the very monstrosities it has unleashed—leaves no room for addressing the underlying prejudices and conflicts in a humane way.

Almost uniquely, Spanish antiterrorism predates the September 11th paradigm shift by decades. Perhaps the first two countries to develop a far-reaching politics of anti-terrorism were Germany and Spain, both in the turbulent years of the 1970s. These two countries served, at least in part, as models for the antiterrorism politics that the US government unleashed after the attacks on September 11th, 2001 (though the chicken came before the egg, in this case, as steps were already taken in this direction years earlier under the Clinton administration).

Up until that point, antiterrorism was largely the domain of Germany and Spain. And what do Germany and Spain have in common? Not only fascism, but an unrepentant fascism. While the charismatic Nazis were sent to the gallows and the technocratic Nazis were recruited by the US for its space program and war effort, Nazi judges and lawyers largely kept their posts. In fact, the German judiciary that developed a politics of antiterrorism to combat an increasingly popular and radical anticapitalist movement in the 1970s was in part a Nazi judiciary. In Spain the transition was even more seamless. The fascists simply constituted the conservative Popular Party and held onto power, rotating back in regularly in what has been until now a stable, bipartisan system. The Audiencia Nacional, the very court that is trying Operation Pandora and Monica and Francisco, was the replacement for a fascist tribunal used to prosecute political crimes, and it still functions in much the same way today.

The fascist heritage of antiterrorism is not a coincidence or a red herring. Central to the very idea of antiterrorism is the “state of exception,” a danger so great that standard democratic protections do not apply. And the “state of exception” was the fundamental tenet of fascist jurisprudence. Its most famous proponent was Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi juror that the US government whisked away from the gallows so he could teach at the University of Chicago, where he coincided with other luminaries that left their bloody marks on the world.

An anarchist would argue that exceptionalism is in fact a systematic component of every democracy; that in order to offer grandiose freedoms, democracies must also invent evil enemies so they can take those freedoms away as needed, a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the monster is democracy itself.

But criticizing democracy can be a dangerous undertaking, these days. Thirteen anarchists in Spain, two locked up and 11 on supervised release, are paying the price. Couldn’t they have just contented themselves with freedom of speech?

Peter Gelderloos has participated in various initiatives to support prisoners and push the police out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and The Failure of Nonviolence.

Peter Gelderloos has participated in various initiatives to support prisoners and push the police out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and The Failure of Nonviolence.