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Experts worry that Greek unrest will spread

Some see Greece as “soft underbelly of Europe” and an entry point to the rest of the continent for weapons and radicals.

A protester throws a stone at riot police during a march in central Athens Dec. 6, 2009. Police fired tear-gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters during a march in Athens to mark the killing of a youth by police last year, which prompted Greece's worst unrest in decades. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — On the first anniversary of the most serious rioting in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974, European police forces and intelligence agencies are concerned that the country is particularly vulnerable to destabilization.

Lethal guerrilla bombings, the fall of an unpopular right-wing government and indications that Greece may be about to follow Dubai in defaulting on its debt have marked a year of significant social unrest.

That unrest mounted Sunday as protesters took control of Athens University and hoisted an anarchist flag there. Last year's riots protested the police shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15. Police fanned out across Athens in anticipation of violent demonstrations on the anniversary of his death.

Greek experts warn that a tanking economy, an abundance of black-market weaponry and the unchecked inflow of maltreated Muslim immigrants on the traditional fault-line between Christianity and Islam are coming together in a perfect geopolitical storm in Greece.

“Greece is the soft underbelly of Europe and there is the possibility that radical elements are coming through it and moving onto other European countries,” said Ioannis Michaletos, an Athens-based terrorism analyst.

U.K. anti-terrorism officials are concerned that the next step in the year-long campaign of violence is for guerrilla groups to target foreign nationals in copycat assassinations of the type practiced by the now-defunct November 17 terrorist group. In October, unknown gunmen opened fire on a police station, injuring six officers and seriously testing the new government.

“The British are more interested in preventing a new terrorist problem from gaining strength because they don’t want to get to the point where these groups move from bombings to assassinations,” said Greek security expert Thanos Dokos.

Greece is a point of particular concern for European intelligence organizations. Aside from being the exposed southeastern flank of the European Union, it has a past of inspiring European leftism. The 1965 riots in Greece, known as the "Iouliana", were stomped out domestically but inspired the events of 1968 in western Europe.

Terrorism returns to Greece

About 10 new homegrown guerrilla organizations sprang up following the December 2008 nationwide student riots that erupted after a policeman shot Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old schoolboy. The groups bombed private businesses and television stations, performed drive-by shootings and triggered car bombs.

“We have a new generation of terrorists showing its presence and teeth over the past couple of years and now they have a new pool of possible recruits,” said Dokos, the director of Greek think tank ELIAMEP. “Growing numbers of people are saying that if the politicians cannot understand (that change is necessary) with other means, then targeted violence might shake them out of their stupor.”

Greeks voted the Panhellenic Socialist Party into government in October but the violence has not abated.

“They come from different ideological directions,” said George Kassimeris, a lecturer in Conflict and Terrorism at the University of Wolverhampton, speaking of Greece’s radicals. “They are sophisticated, well-read people drawn from revolutionary leftism and anti-Westernism. The revolutionary groups want to attack the Greek state because they want it replaced with a more leftist government while the anarchists don’t want it replaced with anything, they just want to cause chaos.”