Bombers and bunglers

December 15, 1995

After 20 years of spectacular failure, Greece is at last starting to get to grips with its terrorism problems. George Kassimeris reports.

Twenty years ago this month the history of Greek terrorism began. On December 23 1975 three gunmen stalked Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, shooting him down at point-blank range in front of his wife. A previously unknown group called Revolutionary Organisation November 17 claimed responsibility for the assassination. It was the first serious terrorist attack against the country's dramatic attempt to wipe away the legacy of its seven-year dictatorship and establish the foundations for an effectively functioning democracy.

Since 1975, Greece has endured one of the most protracted and intransigent of all indigenous terrorist campaigns in western Europe; a vendetta pursued by the November 17 and ELA revolutionary communist groups, which has resulted in several deaths and serious injuries, hundreds of bombings and billions of drachmas of damage to property. So far the Greek state has failed to make a correct diagnosis of what has become over the years a problem with no solution. After two decades of episodically bloody experiences the Greek security services have failed to capture a single terrorist.

The fall of the colonels in 1974 was met with popular enthusiasm and a widespread feeling that a new democratic spirit had finally loosened the grip of a long-standing authoritarian tradition in Greece. The desire for radical political change, however, was soon frustrated. The transition from a military-authoritarian rule, in which numerous elements from the former fascist regime played an important role in the direction of political change, had wide-ranging implications for the country's progress towards democracy. The first years of the transition, the so-called metapolitefsi, were marked by a curious mixture of continuity and change. The symbols, the rhetoric and even the constitution changed; but without any systematic purge of the bureaucracy and the police apparatus, key sections of the state continued in the hands of the old order.

The consequences of all this were far-reaching. When the first democratically elected government after the collapse of the junta proved itself unable to deliver its emphatic promise of "irreversible change", the credibility of the new republic was seriously weakened in the eyes of many ordinary Greeks, especially those students whose resistance to the dictatorship had been catalytic to its destabilisation. Their disillusionment was to become a major source of instability in the years to come. This was expressed in the form of protest movements, aggressive anti-establishment journalism and, ultimately, political terrorism.

After two decades of bombings, assassinations, kneecappings and shootings in broad daylight, one might assume that Greece would have been able to resolve the problem as most other European countries have done. Yet any study of Greece's counter-terrorism effort quickly reveals it to be ramshackle. Indeed, governments in other countries afflicted by terrorism have their shortcomings but the ineptitude of the Greek state has been unparalleled. Not only have the Greek authorities been unable to apprehend even one terrorist; they possess no names, no confirmed fingerprints for members of either group, no blood samples, no strands of hair or scraps of clothing - not a single item of forensic evidence that could bring them closer to an arrest.

One important reason for the state's astonishing failure to rise to the terrorist challenge almost certainly lies in the nature of the Greek security and intelligence agencies. For many decades, the main thrust of the state's security and intelligence activities was aimed at stopping the country from becoming communist rather than at the prevention and investigation of crime. Although reforms were made in the first years of metapolitefsi, the methods, the tactics and the ethos of the entire police apparatus remained virtually unchanged. At the same time, government security forces were structurally weak.

For most of the subsequent 20 years anti-terrorist strategy was carried out by an under-resourced, under-trained and under-equipped police force that lacked the motivation and the expertise to wage an effective war against professional terrorists. This inefficacy was brutally exposed in August 1988 when an Athens police station was taken over by November 17 commandos, who tied up the police officers and made off with a number of weapons and other police paraphernalia. On another, equally farcical occasion, when the Greek police came face to face with November 17 terrorists, a combination of amateurism and panic allowed the terrorists to escape in a taxi.

Since its inception Greek terrorism might have been more easily contained had the governing elite and the security authorities acted decisively against the extremists. But their apparent downgrading of events, their inadequate and dilatory response, their deliberate manipulation of left-wing violence to their own political advantage and, above all, their outright failure to grasp the nature and dynamics of terrorism - all these factors can be seen to have contributed significantly to the growth and consolidation of serious revolutionary violence in Greece.

When a terrorist war begins, there is a reason for every bombing and each shooting. In Greece, at first there was a failure to recognise what November 17 and ELA were, what they wanted and how dangerous they could become. During the mid-1970s, a remarkably broad range of ministers, mainstream politicians and journalists preferred to advance - with no solid proof - oversimplified conspiracy theories. They sought to explain Greek terrorism as a "foreign plan" aimed at destabilising the nation's fragile new democracy, thus conveniently ignoring the general climate of popular dissatisfaction with the chronic immobility of the political system.

Today, 20 years on, there is a growing feeling among Greeks that a crucial point has been reached which calls for drastic changes in the state's overall approach to counter terrorism. So far, Andreas Papandreou's socialist government, now in its third year in office, has been unable to cope with the problem any better than its predecessor. It has to be said, though, that over the past year genuine efforts have been made to modernise the security services. Last September, Papandreou pushed terrorism to the top of his agenda, announcing the country's most ambitious campaign since 1975 to tackle the problem. A crack commando force and a specialist think-tank have been set up as a part of a Pounds 17 million package of counter-terrorism initiatives. Antiquated equipment has been replaced by new technology, two police helicopters were recently bought and teams of senior officials have been sent abroad for training.

"We are not in the least proud that after such a long time terrorism remains intact," says Mary Bossi, director of the think-tank and chief strategist against November 17 and ELA violence, "but for the first time in recent history Greece has a major opportunity to reverse such a disgraceful record and eradicate this cancer once and for all."

George Kassimeris is based at the centre for the study of terrorism and political violence, St Andrews University.

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