Terrorism: Hunters and protectors

The words «November 17» and «elusive» have been paired so many times that the phrase has become a cliche. The book «17» by two well-known reporters, Alexis Papahelas and Tassos Telloglou, published last month by Hestia Bookshop, helps us understand why it took more than a quarter-century and a botched bombing attempt to arrest the first members of the terrorist group. Contrary to what one might expect, the book is not a piece of investigative journalism; almost all the information it provides has already become known in the thousands of articles and hundreds of hours of TV emissions devoted to November 17 in the past half-year. It is more a useful compendium, a straightforward narrative which begins in the 1960s in Paris and ends one day in July 2002 with the arrest of November 17 leader Alexandros Yotopoulos. One of the merits of the book is that it completely eschews a conspiracy theory view of November 17 and tells the story straight, although it does naturally mention the obsessions of others – the police authorities, the Americans, conservative New Democracy politicians – that led to so many false leads, imagined and even invented, and set back investigations. It also, quite correctly, views November 17 as an outgrowth, albeit an uncharacteristic one, of the resistance movement against the 1967-74 dictatorship. This is inevitable, given Yotopoulos’s own role as a leader of a resistance group, but also, in a sense, courageous. Even after all these years, hinting at an even tenuous connection between anti-junta resistance and terrorism is enough to send the whole left-wing intelligentsia howling in outrage. Protection Which brings us to the first point: Why did November 17 remain «elusive» for so many years, when all other terrorist organizations in Europe were dismantled within a very short time? Police incompetence did play a role, certainly: The book describes the shocked reaction of Scotland Yard operatives at the Greek police’s failure to shut down a major Athens avenue until the day after the assassination of Brig. Stephen Saunders (November 17’s last victim, gunned down on June 8, 2000) while allowing all sorts of curious passers-by to touch the car that Saunders rode in. There was also the spectacle of Greek police dusting off the motorcycle which the murderers used to flee the scene of the crime because they «couldn’t take it to the police station all dirty.» But the main factor behind the failure to catch the terrorists was the sympathy for their aims, if not always for their methods, obvious in a large segment of the left. This sympathy, and, in some cases, active or passive complicity whose full extent remains to be revealed, undoubtedly helped the executioners to carry out their work unimpeded. Even in the rare cases that they attracted the attention of the police, as happened with self-confessed November 17 member Vassilis Tzortzatos in 1993, they were certain of immediate support by politicians and lawyers. They were also given sympathetic treatment in newspapers, especially Eleftherotypia, as victims of state oppression. The most blatant case was that of Kyriakos Mazokopos, who was injured while trying to prepare a bomb, in November 1990. Mazokopos, not a November 17 member but connected with other terrorist organizations, found defenders in some Socialist deputies, including Melina Merkouri, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers. Obsessions Sympathy from the left, which certainly impeded investigations, was bound to create suspicion on the right and with the Americans. Thus, for the longest time, it was believed – and not merely for political propaganda purposes – that November 17 was an offshoot of the Panhellenic Liberation Movement (PAK), a predecessor organization of the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). This was a classic example of superficial analysis; PAK, known mostly for its rhetoric than for any concrete action, expressed sympathy for armed struggle against the dictatorship. Countless other organizations had done the same, as the book’s opening chapter shows. However, both the Americans and the conservatives were obsessed with Andreas Papandreou and chose to focus on his organization. Some PAK members had established contacts with, and were trained by, Palestinians at their camps. That was enough for the Americans, who, until recently, insisted that people like PASOK MPs Sifis Valyrakis and Costas Tsimas were November 17 members. Another obsession of theirs, based on a computer analysis of November 17’s repetitively boring proclamations, was that their author was well-known novelist Vassilis Vassilikos. It was Vassilikos that former US Ambassador Thomas Niles was referring to last summer when he claimed that he had revealed the names of people «close to PASOK» to the current government, which had done nothing to act upon the information. During its brief period in government (1989-93), but also thereafter, New Democracy used the PAK/ PASOK connection ad nauseam. New Democracy officials repeated the same story to Americans, as former State Department official Wayne Merry told the reviewer in 1999. It made for good, but ultimately ineffectual, propaganda and did nothing to advance the investigation. It was the Saunders murder which acted as a catalyst. International pressure built up, steeling the government’s determination to pursue the case. The arrival of Scotland Yard operatives, who held no preconceived notions on the terrorists, helped a lot, too. The book ends with the arrest of the leader on the island of Leipsoi in what is one of the few riveting narrative passages. Yotopoulos was visibly relieved when he was escorted to Greek prosecutors: He feared he would be handed over to the Americans. Was his fear, and relief, justified? You can either tune in to the terrorists’ trial or wait for Volume 2 of «17,» which is certain to arrive at some point, either this year or next.