End of a Greek myth on terror

It has taken a generation of often faltering police work, and both pressure and help to make it happen. But it appears Western Europe's last leftist terrorist gang – Greece's self-styled Revolutionary Movement of November 17 – largely has met its demise.

For Greece and all of the West, this is enormously good news. The gang, stamping its windy and threatening communiqués with a red star, named itself for the date in 1973 of a suppressed student uprising. The decisive break for the Greek police came at the end of June, when gang member Savvas Xiros accidentally blew himself up as he tried to plant a bomb in Piraeus.

Meticulous forensic and investigative police work, supervised by Justice Minister Michalis Chrysochoides and aided behind the scenes by friends, especially Scotland Yard antiterrorist officers, paid off. The injured Mr. Xiros soon confessed his own role and those of fellow conspirators in 23 murders of Americans, Greeks, Turks, and Britons, and in more than 150 other attacks since November 17's first act, the killing of US CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975.

Police and prosecutors have unmasked, charged, and jailed at least 14 gang members, seizing their arsenals. They captured the suspected leader, Alexandros Giatopoulos, a Paris-educated academic, who denies involvement.

As November 17 dissolved, so did many illusions. Only Mr. Giatopoulos, whose father was a Trotskyite, fit the romantic stereotype of the "revolutionary." As for the rank and file, Greeks scratched their heads at their banality: Xiros, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, is a painter of church icons. Others include a beekeeper, an electrician, and two real estate salesmen. All led double lives as gunmen and robbers. Their stolen weapons were found, but police are still tracking millions of vanished dollars they stole from banks, post offices, and shops.

Even more shocking to many Greeks was how quickly the super-secret "band of brothers," mainly from two families, informed on each other. They sought deals, like the penitenti in Italy who implicate former Mafia comrades in exchange for lighter sentences.

Urgent questions remain. Several top guns and perhaps two leaders of the gang, including a woman called "Anna," are at large. In a new declaration, real or pretend, November 17 militants warn that although "our center has been hit hard, we still fight on." The statement threatened the taking of hostages to free those jailed, and called "American national imperialism our main target." On Aug. 3, the Greek Army revealed new looting of a military arsenal on the island of Kos. The terrorists, their imitators, or other criminals were variously blamed in the media.

The Greek experience has illuminated a truth that may apply to other terror movements: The foot soldiers are often ordinary people who want to relieve the monotony of their lives by carrying out "missions" that serve a "cause," such as getting NATO and US military out of Greece. Over time, the terrorist boss or bosses discover that they could profit personally from the robberies. In other words, the motives of terrorists are always mixed.

There is another lesson in this Greek drama: Contrary to criticism, Greek Socialist governments did not shelter November 17, nor were their members involved, by all indications. Greece, as a European Union member and host of the 2004 Olympic Games, is proving worthy of its ancient democratic values and Western culture.

• John K. Cooley, author and former Monitor correspondent, has covered the region between Morocco and Pakistan since the 1950s.

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