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.”
Illegal guns and discontented immigrants
With the exception of Revolutionary Struggle, a far-left paramilitary group, these new guerrilla groups emerged after the December riots. They have exotic names such as "Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei" or "Gang of Conscience" and target policemen and journalists. Investigators believe that several are merely fronts for the same groups of operatives using separately procured firearms.
Greek and foreign anti-terrorism experts point to Greece as a transit point in international arms-smuggling routes between the Middle East and the Balkans and believe that the emerging terrorist groups may even possess light anti-tank weapons in their arsenal
Given its location, Greece is exposed to a surfeit of unprovenanced weapons originating from diverse geopolitical events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disbanding of the Albanian and Iraqi armies as well as the regular international arms trade. A plethora of weapons have washed up in the Greek terrorist underworld.
The security situation has so deteriorated that riot squads are permanently stationed in central Athens, packs of police motorcyclists cruise the streets and the government is considering placing snipers around police stations. Legislation banning the wearing of hoods, a favorite accessory of anarchists seeking to obscure their identity from police spotters, was introduced in early 2009. In April, Scotland Yard was invited back for the first time since the Athens Olympics to help quell the violence.
“They’re hoping they can get some breakthroughs like activating close circuit video cameras, and collecting DNA databases of suspects,” said Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat living in Greece. “When you implement such measures, political violence gets much more difficult.”
Up to 150,000 immigrants flow annually into the country from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Aside from festering resentments encouraged by a policy of purposeful neglect fostered by the Greek government, French intelligence has highlighted Greece’s porous sea and land borders as potential access points for terrorist infiltration of the continent.
“The war on terrorism has turned Greece into a key entry and transit point for Islamic fundamentalist networks,” wrote Panos A. Kostakos, a researcher at the Department of European Studies in the U.K.’s Bath University. “The establishment and expansion of Islamic communities throughout Greece suggest that the country is rapidly evolving as a logistical and recruitment base, with terrorist networks becoming increasingly able to provide financial support for recruitment and propaganda purposes.”
In May 2009, Muslim immigrants rioted in reaction to a Greek policeman’s violent handling of a suspect’s Quran, conjuring the specter of a Muslim insurrection among Greece’s immigrant population. Muslim organizations moved swiftly to defuse the crisis but half a million illegal immigrants living in appalling conditions in the Greek capital are widely-viewed as a ticking time-bomb.
Alongside the growing racism that has seen far-right-wing parties improve their performances at the polls in recent years, fascist groups and leftists increasingly clash in the immigrant ghettoes of central Athens.
“There’s an uncertainty about the future,” Dokos said. “This will be the first post-World War II generation that will be worse off than the previous one. Young people are concerned that they’ll pay for their parents’ mistakes.”