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Why Is Greece Such a Hot Spot of Left-Wing Terrorism?

It's not as dangerous as the country's right-wing violence. But a romantic history of resistance has led to a strange culture of normalizing anarchist bombings.

AFP/Getty Images

The posh Athenian neighborhood of Kolonaki is a hilly expanse of high-end boutiques, jewelry shops, museums, and art galleries. It’s an area of relatively untouched wealth, and even at the tail end of the Greek financial crisis, there’s enough to celebrate during the holiday season that the neighborhood is adorned with glittering lights and festive wreaths. Those decorations were still up last month when, two days after Christmas, a bomb exploded in front of the district’s Agios Dionysios church.

The bomb, which was hidden inside of a small metallic box placed at the church’s entrance, lightly injured a police officer and a church employee.

Relative to other European countries, Greece has little to fear from religious extremists: The jihadist style of attacks that have rocked most Western and Central European countries in the past years is conspicuously absent. Instead, according to Europol, Greece is the only EU member state that faces an actual threat from left-wing terrorism. In 2017, of the 24 left-wing attacks that occurred across the EU, eight happened in Greece; of the 36 suspects arrested in connection to left-wing terrorism, 12 were charged in Greece. 

But “this is a new kind of attack,” Mary Bossis, an associate professor of International Relations at University of Piraeus and an expert on left-wing militancy, told me, referring to the Kolonaki bomb. “We never had attacks against churches before.” The attack—suspected to be the work of anarchists—came just a few days after a powerful blast caused extensive damage to the shared building offices of Skai and Kathimerini, two of the country’s largest media outlets. A little over a week later, on January 7, the American embassy was vandalized with canisters of red paint.

Responsibility for the Skai/Kathimerini bomb was claimed by the Group of People’s Fighters (OLA), one of an unknown number of anarchist-styled groups that utilize showy violence for convoluted reasons. In a statement published online, OLA claimed the bomb was meant to “social-counter violence to the media’s effort to reproduce a xenophobic, far-right and neo-liberal narrative.” That Kathimerini is a left-leaning network critical of the far right did not seem factored in. “It’s violence as performance art,” Brady Kiesling, former U.S. diplomat and author of Greek Urban Warriors told me.

In 2017, the largest left-wing attack in recent years was orchestrated by the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (SPF), who claimed responsibility for a series of letter bombs sent to International Monetary Fund offices in Paris and to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in Berlin. While the international community was disturbed—the U.S. considers SPF a terrorist organization—the reaction within Greece was muted, apart from the country halting its mail system for 48 hours. “The general public isn’t afraid of [these groups],” said Bossis. “You won’t see the Greeks being altogether against them, they don’t care.”

Semi-regular bomb attacks are woven into the fabric of everyday life in Athens. They tend to fade in the background, partly due to cultural romanticization of the left wing that blurs the lines between activists, urban guerillas, and terrorists—but also because Greece has suffered at the hands of its own corrupt politicians, the so-called European troika, and the IMF: Attacking symbols of imperial or capitalist power (banks, embassies) can seem more acceptable than it might be in another country. Physical violence against individuals who seem to represent that power (police officers, industrialists) can seem justifiable. The public firmly draws the line at violence against ordinary citizens. 

This tacit acceptance of left-wing terrorism has deep historical roots. “The crucial point is that the major Greek terrorist groups arose out of a very specific moment—armed resistance to the military dictatorship,” explained Kiesling. Following World War II, over 100,000 people were killed during a devastating civil war between the strongly anti-communist Greek government army backed by the U.S. and Britain, and the communist Democratic Army of Greece. “The right won the war,” said Ioannis Michaletos, a Greek security analyst, “but the left won culturally ... they have a martyr notion because they lost the war.” A brief period of relative stability gave way to a coup d’etat and military dictatorship that lasted from 1967-1974, which gave birth to several armed resistance groups, most notably 17 November (17N) and Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA).

17N was the most notorious of the groups, launching themselves into the public eye by killing Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, in front of his wife in 1975. During their twenty-seven-year reign, which ended with the leadership’s arrest in 2002, the group orchestrated over one hundred attacks that killed twenty-three individuals. They worked to position themselves as a truly leftist, progressive political force, and generally took pains to minimize what they deemed to be civilian casualties by calling in their bombs. “They had a hyper obsessed, diseased sense of morality,” Kiesling said, “and therefore acted in places where [they thought] society had failed.”

Unlike the groups of the 1980s, the new terror groups that emerged in the mid-aughts lack any ideological vision and are more careless, analysts say. On the bright side, the preference for low-intensity violence and IEDs “anyone is capable of fabricating” (as one SPF manifesto boasted) means fewer deaths. “It’s really easy to kill people if you want, so the good news is that they don’t want to—because they have no political message to convey by killing,” says Kiesling. Unlike clear and accessible communiques by other far-leftist groups, like The Coming Insurrection by France’s Invisible Committee, available statements by today’s Greek terrorist groups are deliberately open-ended, often rambling, pseudo-intellectual, and designed for a very small, like-minded audience.

But while less lethal, the attacks are also less targeted. Many small bomb attacks are so-called initiation, or recruitment bombs, by new members eager to show off their revolutionary chops and bomb-making skills. The Kolonaki church bomb was a recruit bomb and was likely placed by an individual who had a personal vendetta against the church. Earlier this month, a bomb went off outside a butcher shop in the working-class neighborhood of Kypseli. It was apparently an animal rights statement, but it severely injured a passerby.

Nor are the groups uniformly low-tech: They have years of training and a decentralized power structure, which has led to enhanced operational capacities as well as access to military-grade weapons, often bought through organized-crime ties forged partly through the prison system. In Greece, there isn’t a separate prison facility for individuals charged with terrorist-related activity. Instead, members of N17, SPF, and other groups are housed in the country’s biggest maximum-security prison, Korydallos. Within EU countries, left-wing terrorist offences get an average of ten years jail time—significantly more than the average five for jihadist offences, or four for right-wing terrorist offences. In Greece, it’s even higher. According to Europol, the average prison sentence for a left-wing terrorist is 17 years.

Outside of prison, groups congregate in the anarchist-stronghold of Exarchia, a so-called ‘no-go zone’ that serves as a recruitment ground, cache for weapons, bomb-building, and safe house location.

The mystery of Greek left-wing terrorism, however, is that it persists at all. Fewer than 400 terrorists operate within the country, according to Michaletos, among a population of around eleven million that possesses the third-highest ratio of police officers to civilians worldwide. After the assassination of Welch, the CIA poured millions of dollars into counter-terrorism and training operations in Greece; U.S. financial support continues. “Greece is a small country,” says Bossis. “It’s not very difficult [for] the know who these people are, to understand them in depth, and to solve the problem.”

Regardless of whether a left-leaning party, like the current ruling Syriza, or a center-right party, like the main opposition New Democracy, is in charge, left-wing political violence continues. “What is lacking is political will,” says Michaletos. The right accuses the left of inaction; the left accuses the right of political exploitation.

Distorting the discussion of left-wing terror in Greece is an uncomfortable reality, as a much more immediate and tangible threat comes from right-wing violence. Racist hate crimes in Greece tripled in 2017, impacting more people than left-wing terrorism. The state has proved woefully slow to address this, too: A trial of 69 members of the far-right political party Golden Dawn, for various criminal activities including racial violence and murder, that began in 2015 drags on to this day, with lawyers in the trial having been attacked by right-wing gangs. Ultimately, Greece faces an issue in checking extremist political violence across the spectrum. A bloated, inefficient, and selectively violent police force hasn’t responded effectively to extremism. 2019 is an election year for Greece, but it’s unlikely that attacks on either the left or the right will abate by the time Greeks head to the polls in the fall.