Hunting Down a Greek Terrorist Organization

Greece: November's Fall?

November 17 suspects, Greece
Police handouts released July 30, 2002 in Athens, Greece, show suspected members of the November 17 terrorist group. 

The days of Europe’s last remaining urban guerrilla group, the Athens-based radical leftist November 17, finally seem to be numbered. Since its emergence in 1975, this small, shadowy, anti-American, anti-European Union, anti-NATO, and anti-imperialist gang has terrorized the continent. And while authorities elsewhere in Europe had succeeded in neutralizing similar organizations, such as Germany’s Baader-Meinhof, France’s Action Direct, and Italy’s Red Brigades, members of November 17 have eluded Greek police—until now.

On June 29, a strike by November 17 in Piraeus went awry. Savvas Xiros, an alleged member of the group, was injured in a botched bomb attack. When he was taken into custody at the hospital, police searched him and found the keys to his apartment. There they found a weapons cache and a 1911 Colt .45-caliber revolver the group is said to have used in as many as seven killings. Publicity about Xiros’s arrest and the raid produced tips that led to the discovery of another November 17 safe house containing a huge arsenal. Then, two of Xiros’s brothers admitted to taking part in several murders on behalf of the group. And on July 18, Greek police announced the arrest of one of the alleged November 17 ringleaders, its reputed founder Alexandros Giotopoulos.

“This is the first time since 1996 that the [Prime Minister Costas] Simitis government has categorically claimed, ‘We have begun to unfold the mystery of November 17,’ ” George Karelias wrote in Eleftherotypia (July 2). But “the minister of public order has been restrained in making any predictions regarding the outcome of this issue. There is more than just a political cost at stake: There is also the fear of disappointment.”

The media greeted the news with caution. Writing in To Vima (July 7), Stavros Psiharis mocked the government’s self-congratulation: “What cannot be continued is the bombardment of public opinion with unsupported information, that is disregarded the next day, and the creation of false expectations regarding the speedy conclusion of the investigation.” Kathimerini (July 11), however, believed, “Law enforcement seems to have a complete picture of the current structure of November 17.” Nevertheless, the unexpected breakthrough in nailing the gang is probably the biggest news in Greece since the fall of the military junta in 1974. The country is now caught in “an atmosphere of waiting,” said Ta Nea (July 5). “An atmosphere of restrained optimism prevails within the country’s political leadership.”

Hunting down members of November 17 has become especially relevant in the post-Sept. 11 world and the war against international terror: Under the headline “Dark Connections,” Kathimerini reminded its readers (July 7) that Savvas Xiros “had connections to Islamic fundamentalists in the [Egyptian] Muslim Brotherhood.” “[November 17] is held at gunpoint,” cheered Dh. K. Psikhoyios in To Vima (July 2). But the struggle is anything but over: “The Greek police have cried ‘wolf’ so many times that we are justified in keeping our distance from their findings. The most important thing is whether our stance toward terrorism has changed or not. For decades, terrorism was met with incomprehensible tolerance.”