There was something surreal about hearing Christodoulos Xeros, a convicted member of the November 17 terrorist group known for its bloody 27-year campaign against US, British and Turkish targets as well as members of the Greek establishment, rage against the troika and German Chancellor Angela Merkel when he was arrested in January after 12 months on the run.
One man who would not have been surprised by Xeros’s attempt to tap into the Greek public’s zeitgeist is Brady Kiesling. The former US Embassy official has just published a book on Greece’s urban guerrilla groups (“Greek Urban Warriors: Resistance and Terrorism 1967-2014,” Lycabettus Press). Much of it focuses on the dominant terrorist movement during this period, November 17, and clearly explains how the group tried to move with the times during almost three decades of operation as it sought to rally popular will behind its actions.
Part crime thriller, part forensic study, Kiesling’s book is a detailed examination of how and why these groups formed after the collapse of the military dictatorship, as well as their modus operandi. He provides unique insight into the day-to-day lives of November 17 members by studying accounting books kept by the group, whose members remain in the public eye even 12 years after they were convicted in court.
Kiesling spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about what he discovered during the process of writing the book.
After the trial of November 17 members, interest in the group started to wane. At that point what prompted you to spend several years of your life delving into their history and that of similar groups?
I certainly wasn’t planning to spend several years researching this book. I was naive about the difficulties, obviously, but not naive in my conviction that books like these have something important to tell us. You and I both watched in horror as the United States responded to the attacks on September 11, 2001 by damaging itself far more thoroughly than any terrorist group or even national army could dream of: unnecessary violation of American civil liberties, trillions spent on a grotesquely counterproductive war in Iraq, and behavior that shamed and weakened America around the world.
After a 27-year fiasco chasing 17N, the US government gave everyone a medal and walked away, making clear it had no intention of learning anything from the process. But the Greek terrorism example was too good a policy lesson to be wasted. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, effective as a tactic only when it triggers a disproportionate reaction from society’s immune system. 17N was far weaker than the mythology made it. We limit the danger by demythologizing terrorism, not by terrorizing ourselves.
Greece is a country where it is notoriously difficult to get access to information and data. How did you find the process of digging up facts about November 17 and others during your research?
It wasn’t so hard. I started with the official story, publicly available material, the confessions, the trial records, press clippings, the timely book by Alexis Papachelas and Tasos Telloglou [“The November 17 File”]. I did interviews where I could. But it was largely a wasted year. Very simply, even honest people lie to save their butts or protect their comrades. Terrorists lie, the authorities lie. And when people tell you what they think is the truth, memory is notoriously selective and unreliable. I soon hit a brick wall of hopeless contradictions.
My response was to revert to childhood, or rather my university days as an ancient historian, back to the rigorous analysis of documents. Friendly lawyers gave me a clean copy of 17N’s financial notebooks and other bits of evidence produced back when their authors either had no reason to lie or were lying to a different readership for a different purpose.
What kind of research methods did you adopt that are different from those employed by others who have written about 17N?
This generation of Greek researchers has learned from bitter experience that the hard work of careful research and analysis doesn’t get rewarded in any meaningful way. But for me the intellectual puzzle was its own reward. Gather texts and digitize them, make databases of dates and places and people, organize information, read a terrorist proclamation five times, use a computer to look for words and phrases, find a specialist to help identify stylistic differences. And, crucially, follow the money. I was the first person to do a serious analysis of 17N’s day-by-day financial records from 1990 through 1997. Months of work, but amazingly interesting, the detailed history of a terrorist group reconstructed from its expense accounts. Ultimately you achieve the critical mass of data needed to confirm that the dots you are connecting actually belong to the same picture.
What kind of things did you discover about Greek terrorism during your research that surprised you?
My funniest single “aha” moment was the recognition, while I was riding my bicycle up a mountain one summer afternoon, that 17N paid its members Christmas, Easter and summer vacation bonuses every year. Suddenly my picture of them changed completely. Recognizable Greeks who aspired to live in an orderly socialist paradise of free healthcare and 14 salaries a year. Not what I expected from deadly terrorists.
Another crucial point was identifying 17N’s true audience as they attempted to proselytize the armed struggle. Their real foe wasn’t the Greek state but their revolutionary competition. One discovery I’m proud of is that in 1985 17N created a whole subsidiary bomb-planting organization, the Christos Kasimis Revolutionary Team, devoted to trash-talking ELA [Revolutionary Popular Struggle, a rival extreme leftist group] on its behalf.
The saga of the secret informants was pretty amazing too. We will never know, of course, exactly how much money was swindled out of the CIA and the Greek state by terrorism entrepreneurs peddling dubious intelligence, but I was able to reconstruct a couple of rather baroque episodes, the Krystallis case in 1985 and the Riancourt incident in 1992.
You suggest in your book that the Greek police and US authorities misread November 17 for a long time? What were the circumstances in which it was able to grow into Europe’s most untouchable terrorist group?
The key point is that 17N didn’t grow. If it had, the authorities would have caught it. Every time it got large and ambitious there would be a quarrel and a bunch of them would leave. Because 17N stayed small and operationally pretty unambitious, it was hard to find.
A key difficulty, though, is that police and the CIA were looking for their enemies in the mirror. The CIA focused on its own enemies, forgetting how much of Greek society it had alienated without even noticing, and didn’t look until very late at the right part of the anti-Junta resistance. If the authorities had read 17N proclamations carefully, they could have spotted the LEA [the Paris-based Popular Armed Struggle] / Giotopoulos connection as early as 1977. Instead they obsessed over a different group of suspects. The police were looking for a highly hierarchical organization structured like the Greek police. Disentangling the fine points of revolutionary ideology was simply too hard, so police ignored it, missing key pointers for separating 17N from its competition.
How N17 evaded capture for so long
Given that they started operating at a time when communications weren’t what they are today, how did these groups operate? What was day-to-day life like for its members?
The universality of mobile phones makes terrorism much more difficult now than it was for 17N. Anyone who uses a mobile phone is an open book for the authorities, and anyone (in Greece at least) who doesn’t have a mobile phone on at all times is a prime terrorist suspect almost by definition. Today’s network analysis software will spot suspicious behavior pretty quickly, so you can’t just turn off your mobile phone.
17N lived in a simpler age. They were extremely disciplined about not using the telephone or (later) the Internet. They took for granted calls were tapped. Instead, they had face-to-face meetings, scheduled in advance, after a circuitous route to detect surveillance. They had a backup meeting and a backup to the backup in case the ordinary meeting had to be aborted. They found ways to signal each other by standing on a given street corner holding a given newspaper. They had social meetings at restaurants and rebetiko clubs, but were careful what they talked about. But also, they ended up being groups of friends who saw each other regularly and trusted each other. One reason they were caught in 2002 is that they got very sloppy about their cell structure and knew too much about each other. But that was a natural degeneration over time.
There are references in your book to claims about numerous members of 17N never having been caught. How many people are we talking about and are there core members among them?
The picture painted by the financial notebooks strongly implies that many of the code names assigned by the authorities to specific suspects are wrong. From the vacation bonus lists, we can deduce that about 10 members are missing from the 1990-97 period; the pre-1983 period would add another few members, some probably dead by now. Of these 10-15 people with substantial involvement, at least two were among the five professional members receiving a monthly salary in 1992. So, yes, key members were never identified. On the other hand, 17N was already dying in 2002 when Savvas Xeros blew himself up. The missing members are not a threat to Greek society.
You recount how some Greeks were ambivalent toward or even supportive of 17N for a long time. At the same time, the group tried to tap into the zeitgeist of the period. However, it never succeeded in becoming more than a small, albeit sustainable, terrorist group. What held it back from becoming more than that?
One fatal difficulty was that people follow personalities more than ideologies, and 17N had no Che Guevara to put forward, no charismatic spokesmen in prison or exile to make its Maoism more accessible. Key figures were obsessed with internal security and very cautious about recruitment. The failures of the Greek state – in particular its weak justice system and slowness to punish junta torturers and corrupt politicians and officials – opened a window for 17N to curry popular favor. But 17N’s paranoid view of Greece as a banana republic under US subjugation didn’t match people’s perception well enough to make its supposed “national liberation struggle” compelling in a time of parliamentary democracy and economic progress. The left’s internal squabbles turned people off. Deadly violence alienated the majority of Greek leftists, who had embraced a gentler, more humanist vision of socialism. And the police were not completely incompetent.
ELA established links with Carlos the Jackal but they proved largely fruitless. 17N remained a very insular group. Why were Greece’s terrorist groups not able to establish links with similar organizations in other countries?
17N didn’t try because it was sure, from members’ prior experience during the junta, that such groups were probably penetrated by Mossad or the CIA. And what could a foreign group offer it? 17N’s rigid self-reliance, its ability to fund and arm itself through robberies, was a key reason it wasn’t caught for 27 years.
The transition to new era of terrorism
The lack of other sources of funding meant that 17N became heavily reliant on bank robberies – a road that ELA refused to go down. Was the start of this activity the moment when any pretenses that 17N was involved in an ideological war disappeared?
Robbing banks was a huge ethical as well as practical problem for 17N. Koufodinas and others were acutely aware in practice of Che Guevara’s dictum that “the problem with robbing banks is that you turn into bank robbers.” The financial notebooks show 17N waited until it was broke and desperate before conducting one. It recruited helpers from outside because its own members were too reluctant. 17N kept detailed accounts to prove the money it stole went to the revolution, even though in practice the members enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle from the proceeds. At the end, however, as you indicate, the ideological mantle became hopelessly threadbare. I darkly suspect that 17N’s last robberies were aimed at building up a pension fund.
How has Greek terrorism changed since 17N disappeared from the picture?
The Marxist-Leninist model of armed revolutionary violence became moribund during the 1990s. The current armed movement is dominated by various flavors of anarchists. But anarchism is an ideology unsuited to revolution, because it rejects the transcendental goals that allowed the Maoists and Leninists to justify murder and theft. Instead, anarchist violence is self-centered, essentially a form of personal artistic expression. The Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire has no interest in saving the Greek masses, only in carving out for its members a pleasantly prelapsarian tribal subculture of freedom and adrenaline.
Christodoulos Xeros apparently developed a close relationship with members of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire (SPF) in prison and, according to the police, was planning to help their members escape when he was caught. Do the ideologies of Greece’s traditional terrorists and current generation of urban guerrillas overlap at all or is the Xeros case an exception?
I tend to read Christodoulos’s escape as a massive midlife crisis exacerbated by his obsessive sense of personal responsibility to his friends, including to the SPF members he met in prison. The huge ideological gap between him and SPF can be papered over, because Christodoulos is sure the existing state is evil and must be destroyed, and replacing that state is a problem they can agree to leave on the back burner. Still, in practice their cooperation was confined to narrow practical things – the escape attempt they were planning. I don’t see a wider coalition as possible, despite the efforts of a few aging revolutionary theoreticians.
We should close with the most important people in this story, who are the victims. You point out in the book that the pressure from the victims’ families, particularly after the murder of British Brigadier Stephen Saunders in June 2000, was a catalyst in forcing authorities to intensify efforts to crack the case. Has Greece done enough, though, to honor the innocent people that were killed? How do you explain the reason that victims of terrorism are much more easily forgotten here than in other countries?
It isn’t just a Greek phenomenon. Human beings are strange animals. We demand to live in a just world. Bravo. But instead of reforming ourselves or our society, instead of respecting all human life as sacrosanct, we make our world feel more just by whispering inside ourselves that victims somehow deserve their fate.
We need to humanize terrorism’s victims, to know them as individuals. This proved a powerful tool against terrorism. It is, however, only a first step toward humanizing everyone, including the people we call terrorists. The members of 17N and ELA were all too human, as my book makes clear. We would fear them less, and their deadly folly would damage us less, if we understood them as recognizable Greek citizens with all the virtues and limitations that identity implies.
[Kathimerini English Edition]