The story of ELA, the ‘mother’ of Greece’s terrorist groups, and the growth of her many offspring

On the evening of April 29, 1975, the town of Elefsina, southwest of Athens, was shaken by repeated car bombings. Eight vehicles, all American-owned, went up in flames almost simultaneously. Local residents looked on as the fire brigade attempted to put out the fires, unaware that they were witness to the founding act of the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA), a terrorist organization that was active through January 24, 1995, when it set off a bomb at the Athens University of Economics and Business. The group was founded after intensive discussions between people mostly drawn from groups fighting the 1967-1974 military dictatorship in Greece. The central issue raised was the groups’ future stance toward the new order. Most decided to trust in the democracy that had just been restored and believed that the role they had played during the dictatorship no longer served any purpose. Some, however, disagreed. They spoke of a mere changing of the guard leading to a regime of oppression of the people under the direction of foreign powers, all sugar-coated by democratic institutions. They advocated a continuation of the struggle in the form of armed urban guerrilla warfare to bring about true social change. The idea of urban guerrilla warfare became popular during the 1960s, as the example set by national liberation movements and revolutions in countries – particularly in Latin America – had especial resonance in Europe where terrorist groups began to appear. The movement was slow to arrive in Greece due to the dictatorship in power at the time. After the junta fell, discussions turned to the need for founding an urban guerrilla organization. A central figure in all these discussions was Christos Kassimis, believed to be the founder of ELA. Also thought to be in favor of a continuation of the armed struggle were Alexandros Yotopoulos and a third person who police now believe to have at some time been part of all terrorist organizations in Greece. Kassimis stayed with ELA until his death in 1977. The other two withdrew fairly quickly – Yotopoulos in order to found November 17, as he was in favor of more «dynamic» modes of action. Shortly afterward, the third person in the original group joined him after a love affair made it impossible for him to remain in ELA during that period. ELA was active in Attica with arson and bomb attacks on buildings used by foreign firms and state services. One characteristic of the group was that all its attacks were planned to avoid harming people, timed to take place when the buildings were empty. The attacks were usually preceded by an anonymous phone call. The group’s goal, according to its proclamations, was to attack the foreign dominance of capitalism and imperialism. The actions were aimed at mobilizing the masses, hence the choice of symbolic acts that were not meant to hurt anyone. This was the main difference between ELA and November 17, which assumed the role of executioner, making its debut in 1975 with the murder of CIA chief in Athens Richard Welch. Between April 1975 and the end of 1977, ELA chose 21 days on which to carry out terrorist acts, mostly with more than one strike on the same day. The mass nature of the acts was unprecedented in Greece. It was then that ELA is believed to have had its largest membership, about 80 active members and about 200 more in auxiliary roles, such as producing and distributing proclamations. On October 20, 1977, Christos Kassimis was killed in a confrontation with police outside the AEG premises in Rendi, western Athens, where police say he was about to place an explosive device. Yiannis Serifis was arrested, an event that was of major consequence for the group – which only made two attacks in 1978. It was only from 1979 on that it resumed its large-scale action. The death of Kassimis is believed to have resulted in the withdrawal of a large number of members. It was then that Christos Tsigaridas took up the reins of ELA On January 31, 1979, retired police officer Petros Babalis was murdered. A previously unknown group calling itself «June ’78» assumed responsibility for the killing. In 1985, ELA admitted to the «paternity» of this new group and assumed responsibility for Babalis’s murder. During their early years, ELA shared a safe house with November 17, where they stored their weapons. At the end of the 1970s, another dissident emerged in ELA’s ranks. This was Christos Tsoutsouvis, who decided to found his own group, the «Anti-State Struggle,» taking with him a few more ELA members. In order to arm the group, he broke into the common safe house and stole weapons. Keys to vehicles used in attacks by November 17 were found a few years later in a safe house in Kalama Street that had been used by Tsoutsouvis. The Anti-State Struggle was to claim responsibility for the murder of prosecutor Giorgos Theofanopoulos on April 1, 1985. Tsoutsouvis was killed shortly afterward, on May 15, after an exchange of fire with police officers in Gyzi, near central Athens. On December 19, 1980, the Minion and Katrantzos Sport department stores in central Athens were totally destroyed by fire. The «Revolutionary Organization October 1980» claimed responsibility. The middle of the 1980s saw November 17 at its most powerful, and continuing its terrorist acts. As emerged in suspects’ testimony, it was a period in which new members were recruited, culminating in 1989 with the break-in at the Sykourio army camp and the theft of missiles. ELA, on the other hand, was losing strength, as most of its members abandoned the struggle as pointless. In 1985, the Revolutionary Militant Left (EMA) made its appearance with a bomb explosion outside the Tsatsos home in Kolonaki. A passing Iraqi immigrant picked up the bag containing the bomb thinking it might have something of value in it. The explosion occurred a short time later on a city bus traveling along Vouliagmenis Avenue. EMA was short-lived. According to police, it was renamed «May 1,» and reappeared two years later, in 1987, with the assassination attempt against Giorgos Raftopoulos, then president of the General Confederation of Greek Workers. In 1989, May 1 claimed responsibility for killing Supreme Court deputy prosecutor Panayiotis Vernardos. EMA and its heir, May 1 are considered to be the work of the person who left ELA early on the movement and joined November 17 after the above-mentioned love affair went wrong. The new group took weaponry from November 17 and set up its own safe house, which was found by Dimitris Koufodinas who had been trailing the chief hitman of May 1, known by the code name «Parkinson.» Koufodinas entered the safe house and retrieved the weapons, which may have been the reason for May 1 joining forces with ELA in 1990, resulting in an increase in the number of ELA attacks and a change in the way they operated. There were now more «blind» attacks, leading in 1994 to the death of police official Apostolos Vellios after a bomb explosion in a police bus. ELA did not claim a single terrorist attack after 1995, although there was no announcement that it was ceasing action. On the contrary, its last proclamation ended with the phrase «the struggle continues.» It is believed, however, that ELA’s silence was linked to the release of the former East German state security (Stasi) files. In 1996, the «Revolutionary Cells» appeared on the scene, acting in the same way as ELA, leading the authorities to believe that the new group was founded by former ELA members who wanted to continue the struggle and perhaps had inherited part of ELA’s arsenal.