Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Children of the Revolution

Why does Greece still have left-wing terrorists?

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The letter bombs sent to embassies in Athens and heads of state throughout Europe last week halted Greek mail and international delivery services and sparked opportunistic street demonstrations. Bomb squads cordoned off streets, choking Athens with apocalyptic traffic jams. Militants have staged about one attack per month over the past 14 months, but the embassy bombings marked a broader, more coordinated level of violence -- and the first time in the history of Greek terrorism that foreign leaders have been targeted, lending credence to the theory among terrorism experts that Greek militants are looking for collaborators outside the country, as well as to enhance their reputation internationally.

Athens police have questioned two Greeks suspected to be responsible for the latest bombings, both unemployed men in their early 20s and alleged to be members of a Greek terrorist group that also committed several nonlethal attacks last year. A suspicious package delivered to the Hungarian Embassy on Tuesday was found to have contained only documents, and Athens has by and large returned to normality. Meanwhile, jaded Athenians grappled for explanations: Why is it that disaffected French students go on strike while middle-class Greek students bomb embassies?

Although Greek terrorism has been occasionally erupting for decades, its inchoate ideological inspiration has made it difficult for many Greeks to understand what motivates the increasing violence of the country's militant youth. At times accompanied by anti-capitalist sloganeering and anarchist proclamations, Greek terrorism has also been perpetrated with no defined message at all.

The letter bombs sent to embassies in Athens and heads of state throughout Europe last week halted Greek mail and international delivery services and sparked opportunistic street demonstrations. Bomb squads cordoned off streets, choking Athens with apocalyptic traffic jams. Militants have staged about one attack per month over the past 14 months, but the embassy bombings marked a broader, more coordinated level of violence — and the first time in the history of Greek terrorism that foreign leaders have been targeted, lending credence to the theory among terrorism experts that Greek militants are looking for collaborators outside the country, as well as to enhance their reputation internationally.

Athens police have questioned two Greeks suspected to be responsible for the latest bombings, both unemployed men in their early 20s and alleged to be members of a Greek terrorist group that also committed several nonlethal attacks last year. A suspicious package delivered to the Hungarian Embassy on Tuesday was found to have contained only documents, and Athens has by and large returned to normality. Meanwhile, jaded Athenians grappled for explanations: Why is it that disaffected French students go on strike while middle-class Greek students bomb embassies?

Although Greek terrorism has been occasionally erupting for decades, its inchoate ideological inspiration has made it difficult for many Greeks to understand what motivates the increasing violence of the country’s militant youth. At times accompanied by anti-capitalist sloganeering and anarchist proclamations, Greek terrorism has also been perpetrated with no defined message at all.

"We have problems with authority," said Paraskos Mantagos, a senior investment manager at a large Greek bank, from his home in Athens. He paused, and then let out a long breath. "I haven’t grasped what is going on, to be honest. It’s almost like a fashion."

Elaine Papoulias, director of the Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, notes that it’s a byproduct of Greece’s unique political culture. "In France, political parties do not permeate every social and economic fabric in life as they do in Greece," said Papoulias in an interview. "The turn to violence in some ways can be seen as a rejection of this system where politics is ubiquitous and dictates what job you have, what cafes you frequent, what football teams you support, what newspapers you read. Violence has become a means of political expression and a way to clearly reject participation in traditional modes of political life, be it voting, joining a party or trade union."

And with the country in a deep financial crisis that has led to belt-tightening austerity measures (imposed in exchange for $150 billion in emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union), Greek middle-class youth have been especially inclined to reject politics as usual. But Greece’s 20th-century history also has a role to play in the turn to violence.

"Greek resistance goes back to the fight against the Germans in World War II and the Greek dictatorship in the 1970s," says Aristotle Michopoulos, director of Greek studies at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass. "And who are going to resist? The middle class and the upper class — these people are the losers in this financial crisis. Don’t forget Che Guevara was middle class."

But neither the financial crisis nor Greek history fully explains why homegrown terrorism has failed to surface elsewhere in Europe.

Kostas Bakoyannis, the newly elected 32-year-old mayor of Karpenisi, a small town in northern Greece, compared last week’s violence to the Columbine High School shootings. "These are middle-class kids who have lost hope. It’s a little like the Bowling Alone concept" — referring to the idea, promulgated in a book by Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam that societies markedly decline when citizens retreat from civic organizations. "Institutional life doesn’t touch them." Unemployment among Greek youth is the highest in Europe, and traditionally Greek youth have looked to government for job growth. Meanwhile, Greece has few mainstream social organizations to engage its youth.

And, in fact, leftist and anarchist terrorism has continued in Greece while largely having been snuffed out in the rest of Europe. Homegrown, ideologically inspired terrorist acts by groups like Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang and Italy’s Red Brigades were common in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, but these organizations closed shop by the 1990s due to effective policing, robust economies, depoliticized university cultures, and changing political currents. Greek’s militants, however, seem to receive a different message.

A rash of far-left militant groups rooted in Greek universities with comic-book names like the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, Rebel Sect, and Revolutionary Struggle, have mounted increasingly sophisticated attacks on police, government officials, diplomats, and prominent business leaders since a violent street riot erupted in Athens in 2008 after a police shooting of an unarmed teenager.

Most of these student-led organizations spun out of the November 17th Group, or N17, named after a student uprising in Athens on that date in 1973. Linked to a number of bank robberies, N17 was fiercely anti-American and anti-Turkish and claimed allegiance to a revolutionary Marxist dogma. The group was perhaps best known for gunning down a CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, in 1975, but claimed responsibility for more than 20 murders, including those of U.S. military officers, Turkish diplomats, and Greek industrialists. A muscular investigation led to Greek police arresting most of the N17’s leadership in the beginning of the 2000s, largely putting an end to the organization.

But other radical groups sprang from N17, the most lethal being the Sect of Revolutionaries, which claimed responsibility for the murders of a policeman and a journalist in 2009, in retaliation for the 2008 police shooting. This August, the group promised to turn Greece into a "war zone" in response to government austerity measures and the prevalence of big corporations in Greek society, a threat still hanging over the country.

Student life in Greece is extremely politically engaged. While the financial crisis has shredded the Greek economy, homegrown terrorism is deeply rooted and continually incubated in the country’s public universities, where a violent student revolt in 1974 helped overthrow Greece’s authoritarian governing junta.

"Students continue to believe in 1974 ideals and tactics even though the world has shifted," said Kyriakos Pierrakakis, the 27-year-old chairman of the Institute for Youth, a department of the Greek Ministry of Education responsible for shaping and coordinating youth policies for the government.

Pierrakakis points to the structure of the public universities (private universities are prohibited in Greece) where political clientelism is encouraged and campuses enjoy immunity from police jurisdiction. He also cites Article 16 of the Greek Constitution, which enshrines a political role for student organizations. The result has been a perpetuation of the violent anti-establishment mindset grounded in the radical ideologies of the early 1970s youth movements.

"The law mandates student participation in politics, and the moment students enter the university they know they must play a role that is widely understood — because of Greek culture — to be a radical one. This is a university system where entrepreneurship is vilified, a culture against the private sector," said Pierrakakis.

Greek authorities have promised swift police action against last week’s terrorism and also have focused on changing policy, in particular Article 16 and structural problems in the university system. Prime Minister George Papandreou, emboldened by his ruling PASOK socialist party’s slew of victories in this past weekend’s slate of local elections, dropped threats for an early federal election and has promised to move ahead on austerity measures that reverse his 2009 election promise to boost welfare spending. This means the Greek government has the task of eroding the appeal of Greece’s terrorism networks at precisely the same time the Greek economy is likely to offer fewer opportunities for its disaffected youth. Meanwhile, its European neighbors, already skeptical of Greece’s financial management, have cause for more concern about eruptions of violence in the country now that bombs have reached some of their own heads of state.

Domestic Greek terrorism has largely flown under the international media radar. The throwback anti-capitalism dogma, the relatively few number of casualties, and the more dynamic and pernicious threat from Islamist terrorism networks originating outside Europe all make Greek terrorists seem somewhat anachronistic.

But there are reasons to take these groups seriously. While targets have generally been limited to individuals or single buildings — and explosives have typically used over-the-counter technologies — Greek terrorists "are quite amateur, but very inventive," European security expert Mary Bossi told the Associated Press. She predicted anti-capitalist groups will gravitate toward greater use of violence in Europe in response to the Greek parcel bombings.

There is a danger, terrorism analysts note, that Greek radicals might find among the country’s underemployed youth many more adherents attracted to leftist ideologies, or the stylish flourishes like the hollowed-out books used to deliver last week’s letter bombs. At a base level, there is widespread anger among Greeks at their government; there’s little debate that, to date, the Greek economy is the biggest European loser of the financial crisis.

"There is a prevailing underdog culture in Greece," said the Kennedy School’s Papoulias. "which has for decades been indifferent in many ways to violence, as is evidenced in the way many Greeks felt solidarity with groups or figures who were seen to have stood up to perceived imperialism — with Slobodan Milosevic, the PKK, even with the domestic terrorist group November 17."

Bakoyannis, the newly elected mayor, goes further: "There is a culture of, let me say, permissiveness. Violence is more accepted here than in other countries, and we could have a very long discussion about why this is — you could take it back to the 1830s when the Greek state was established, for example — but it is a fact." Bakoyannis, whose father, a member of parliament, was assassinated by the N17 group in the 1980s, has founded a group to bring together children of Greek terrorism victims.

But for Pierrakakis, the Institute for Youth director, there’s a greater fear than the threat of new, leftist terrorism: "The one thing I think about before I go to sleep is whether Greek youth will migrate. My number one fear is not radicalization … but whether young Greeks will stay around to change the mode of Greek cultural expression away from violence."

With Greece now aggressively confronting its financial crisis head-on, it’s unlikely Pierrakakis will have to wait long to find out.

Ilan Greenberg is an independent journalist based in New York and has reported from Kingston, Jamaica, for the New York Times Magazine.

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