A botched bombing three weeks ago continues to blow open an organization long regarded as Europe's most elusive terrorist group.
Sunday, police said they had arrested two more alleged members of the ultra-leftist November 17 group, which had evaded arrest for more than a quarter century and had claimed responsibility for 23 murders, including the slayings of five American officials. Police now have nine suspects in custody, including an alleged founder who is charged with 13 murders but has denied involvement.
Police are now hunting for other November 17 founders, believed to be a small group of three to five and known as "the grandfathers of November 17." Finding them may prove the greatest challenge, says E. Wayne Merry, a retired US foreign service political officer who served in Athens and is an expert on Greek terrorism for the American Foreign Policy Council. "They must look in circles of '70s revolutionaries, which includes much of Greece's political elite," he says.
Until this month, next to nothing was known about November 17, which is named for the date of a bloody 1973 student uprising against the US-backed military junta governing Greece at the time.
But a series of recent developments including a shift in Europe's political climate, a change in investigative techniques, and an accident in which a bomb went off prematurely on an Athens street June 29 led to the first-ever November 17 arrest last week. The arrest of Paris-born intellectual Alexandros Giotopoulos, the group's alleged ideological leader, led in rapid-fire succession to five other arrests, including those of three men who confessed to many of the group's crimes, among them its most recent murder, the shooting in 2000 of British military attaché Stephen Saunders. Arrests continued in a week dubbed by the Greek press as "a rendezvous with history."
Greece had come under harsh international criticism for failing to make any arrests in connection with the radical anti-American group, which has been on the US State Department terrorism list since the '80s. The pressure has increased as Athens prepares to host the 2004 Olympic Games, which some officials say it may have lost had there been another anti-American attack. Some American officials had suggested keeping American athletes from the games.
November 17 is among the last remaining extreme-left groups of Europe, ranked with Italy's Red Brigade and Germany's Baader-Meinhof. The November 17, 1973 student uprising gave birth to the Pan-Hellenic Socialist movement (PASOK), which has governed Greece for 18 of the past 21 years. Many of today's prominent Greek politicians were among the student revolutionaries. Because of their common roots with November 17, PASOK has long been dogged by allegations of shielding the terrorist group.
In the years after the US-backed junta fell and PASOK rose to power, anti-Americanism remained strong in Greece. November 17 made its first appearance in 1975, with the murder of the CIA's Athens station chief Richard Welch, and more attacks followed. While no one publicly supported terrorism, there was often little sympathy for the group's victims: American diplomats and military officials, right-wing politicians, and industrialists.
But in the past 10 years, the tide of public opinion began to turn, which analysts say was the first step toward finally bringing November 17 down. "The end of a bipolar system [of ideology] has seen the ending of those Marxist, leftist terrorist groups all over Europe. It was the ending of the cause. November 17 was the only one still continuing," says Mary Bossis, a professor of international security at Athens University.
Decreased tolerance for the group and rising international pressure for arrests were compounded with fears about Olympic safety. But a turning point after the 2000 murder of Mr. Saunders, the group's first British victim. "I think they made a huge mistake in that case," says Mr. Merry. The killing of a citizen of a European Union state brought to Athens British law-enforcement officials, who declared they would not leave until arrests were made. While the FBI had participated in investigations of Americans' deaths, "the British government has shown a tenacity of purpose on this that puts Americans to shame," says Merry. "They resolved to push on this not just for a few months, but for as long as it took."
Greek police sources say Scotland Yard overhauled the way investigations were conducted. Instead of investigating the crimes on a case-by-case basis, British police conducted a methodical investigation beginning with the first evidence.
"Before, each packet of evidence was just filed away somewhere. The British came in and said, 'We need to go back to day one, to collate it all, to proceed on this as we would if we were studying multiple homicides'," says Merry. Greek Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysoidis has said publicly that the new techniques were essential in the latest breakthroughs.
Greek and British officials also credit Saunders's widow, Heather, with raising public awareness. She helped create a victims' lobbying group to further pressure the government. "I wanted the world to know that we, the family, the women and children were the victims," she says, adding that she is happy with current progress in the investigation.
After using the new methods for a little more than a year, police got an unexpected break: On June 29, Savas Xiros, an icon painter and son of a Greek Orthodox priest, allegedly attempted to plant a bomb in the port of Piraeus. But it blew up prematurely in his hand.
Police said that a handgun found next to the painter had been stolen from a police officer during a November 17 attack in 1984, and used in six subsequent murders by the group. Xiros allegedly was carrying other weapons and documents, which led police to two of the group's hideouts, both of which contained massive caches of weapons which had been used in November 17 attacks, as well as documents outlining the group's activities. They also found Giotopoulos' fingerprints. Xiros began cooperating with police and remains under heavy guard in the hospital.
On Wednesday, police captured Giotopoulos on the tiny island of Lipsi. Greek police said he matches the profile they had created of the group's leader: an intellectual with a connection to France who had received training in Cuba. Giotopoulos was active in student street riots in Paris in the '60s, and had also traveled to Cuba. His father was a Trotskyist theoretician in the '30s.
On Thursday, police arrested two of Xiros' brothers and a family friend, whom they described as the group's "foot soldiers" and "executioners." Police say that Christodoulos Xiros, a musical-instrument maker; Vassilis Xiros, an unemployed advertising worker; and their friend Dionissis Georgadis, a musician in an obscure rock band, have together confessed to participating in attacks from 1984 to 1992. The attacks killed a total of 10 people, including two US military officials U.S. Embassy defense attaché Capt. William Nordeen in June 1988 and Air Force Sgt. Ronald O. Stewart in March 1991 as well as Saunders. Police say they also confessed to participating in two bombings of buses carrying US servicemen in 1987, the theft of antitank rockets from a military base in 1989, and a rocket attack against the home of the German ambassador in 1999.
Police say that Giotopoulos has confessed nothing, but that the brothers' confessions have led them to other suspects. Currently police are hunting for another alleged "foot soldier," Dimitris Koufodinas, a 44-year-old beekeeper who was living with Savas Xiros' former wife.
Merry says he is not surprised that the group seems linked by a family. "The family is the way every business in Greece is organized. Why should terrorism be any different?" he says.
Prime Minister Costas Simitis says investigations and trials will continue methodically and Scotland Yard says it will remain active in the investigation. "The United Kingdom is not here solely because of the tragic death of Stephen Saunders," Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner David Veness said at an Athens press conference. Referring to the Olympics, he added: "We intend to be engaged ... at the very least until the summer of 2004."