A botched bomb attack appears to have unraveled one of the most mysterious terrorist organizations in Europe. The Nov. 17 group had operated with impunity in Greece for 27 years; it seemed impenetrable and untraceable. But the premature detonation of a bomb last month gave police the leads they needed to roll up the leftwing group.
The arrests go a long way toward restoring the credibility of the Greek security forces — a necessity in the runup to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But suspicions about Nov. 17’s connections to the Greek government must also be cleared up. Nov. 17 has been a scourge for decades. Athens’ political credibility depends on discovering how and why it survived.
Nov. 17 took its name from the day in 1973 when the Greek government sent tanks into the Athens Polytechnic to crush a student uprising against the military junta; dozens of students were killed. The group debuted with the 1975 murder of Richard Welch, the U.S. CIA station chief in Athens. From then, it combined anti-Americanism — payback for Washington’s support for the rightwing junta that governed Greece from 1967-1974 — with nationalism. It launched hundreds of attacks against government offices, firebombed foreign businesses and assassinated foreign diplomats as well as Greek politicians and businessmen.
In addition to the murder of Welch, its other notorious killings include the murder of U.S. naval attache William Nordeen in 1988 and that of British military attache Stephen Saunders in June 2000. In total, the group is thought to be responsible for 42 crimes and 23 killings. In recent years, its ferocious anti-Americanism has been supplemented with attacks on European Union offices.
Despite its activities, little was known about Nov. 17, and the authorities could not crack the group. That changed late last month when a bomb that religious icon painter Savas Xiros was planting exploded prematurely. Police seized the opportunity; their investigation led them to two Athens apartments that the group used to store weapons, including a gun used in seven of Nov. 17’s assassinations.
Among the individuals arrested were two of Mr. Xiros’ brothers, who have confessed to nine of the 23 killings and several other crimes. Eight others have been arrested, including Mr. Alexandros Giotopoulos, who is thought to be the leader of the group, an accusation that he has denied. Police reportedly say the safe houses they raided contained documents in Mr. Giotopoulos’ handwriting that referred to murders committed by the group as well as his fingerprints.
Mr. Giotopoulos has long been suspected of being involved with Nov. 17, but proof has been hard to establish. The son of one of Greece’s most prominent Trostkyites, Mr. Giotopoulos was a member of the generation of 1968 that took to the streets in protest throughout Europe. In addition to being considered the group’s “ideological leader,” the police have accused the former university professor of being actively involved in Nov. 17’s attacks.
The government’s inability to make any headway against Nov. 17 had generated suspicions that the group enjoyed some relationship with ranking officials in Greece’s socialist party. The ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist movement, or PASOK, which has governed Greece for 18 of the past 21 years, was born during the same student movement and appeared to support the group’s anti-American stand.
Although Nov. 17 is thought to have only a few dozen members, it is believed that an older generation founded the organization and is still at large. Those individuals will have to be tracked down and questioned if doubts about the group and its relationship to the governing left are to be eliminated, according to reports.
Thus, the arrests are a mixed blessing for Prime Minister Costas Simitis. They relieve some of the anxiety over Greece’s ability to provide security during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The Greek government has come under criticism for its failure to crack down on domestic terrorism, and there were fears that reflected both an unwillingness on the part of the ruling party and an inability to do so on the part of the security forces. The recent arrests put the second set of concerns to rest. Reports say the prime minister must now address the first set, especially by answering questions about ties between the first generation of Nov. 17 and the founders of PASOK.
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