Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 7–29 | Cite as

Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Terrorist Attacks by ETA 1970 to 2007

  • Gary LaFreeEmail author
  • Laura Dugan
  • Min Xie
  • Piyusha Singh
Original Paper


Rational choice perspectives maintain that seemingly irrational behavior on the part of terrorist organizations may nevertheless reflect strategic planning. In this paper we examine spatial and temporal patterns of terrorist attacks by the Spanish group ETA between 1970 and 2007. Our analysis is guided by a public announcement by ETA in 1978 that the group would shift from emphasizing attacks in the Basque territory to instead launch attacks more widely in the hopes of exhausting the Spanish government and forcing it to abandon the Basque territory. This announcement suggests that prior to the end of 1978 ETA attacks were based mostly on controlling territory in the Basque region that they hoped to rule; and after 1978 the organization decided to instead undertake a prolonged war of attrition. Accordingly, we argue that before the end of 1978 ETA was mostly perpetrating control attacks (attacking only within the Basque territories) and that the diffusion of attacks between provinces was mostly contagious (spreading contiguously). After the 1978 proclamation, we argue that the attack strategy shifted toward attrition (attacking in areas outside of the Basque territories) and that the attacks were more likely to diffuse hierarchically (spreading to more distant locations). As predicted, we find that after ETA moved toward a more attrition based attack strategy, subsequent attacks were significantly more likely to occur outside the Basque region and to target non-adjacent regions (consistent with hierarchical diffusion). We also find that hierarchical diffusion was more common when a longer time elapsed between attacks (a likely consequence of the fact that more distant attacks require more resources and planning) and that attacks against Madrid were unlikely to be followed immediately by more attacks on Madrid or surrounding provinces. After ETA announced a shift in policy, they maintained a highly dispersed attack strategy even during their period of decline. Using information about where and when prior attacks occurred could provide useful information for policy makers countering groups like ETA.


Terrorism Spatial data analysis Rational choice Spain Control and attrition attacks Contagious and hierarchical diffusion 



Support for this research was provided by the Department of Homeland Security through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), grant number N00140510629. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect views of the Department of Homeland Security. We want to thank David McDowall for his assistance with the analysis and Erin Miller and Brandon Behlendorf for database support.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary LaFree
    • 1
    Email author
  • Laura Dugan
    • 1
  • Min Xie
    • 2
  • Piyusha Singh
    • 3
  1. 1.University of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  2. 2.Arizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  3. 3.Excelsior CollegeAlbanyUSA

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