- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2014

It is “too early to tell” whether the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State will work, says a top Greek national security official who was in Washington this week to discuss how his nation can better coordinate with the U.S. to track extremist foreign fighters between Europe and the Middle East.

With a vast Mediterranean coast near Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt, Greece is emerging as a potentially crucial counterterrorism partner amid fears that European- and America-born Islamic State fighters seeking to return from the region to carry out attacks in their native lands, said Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s minister of public order and citizen protection.

“While we don’t have a specific problem in Greece with jihadists and extremists, we have been monitoring people passing by from Europe going to third countries and from Africa or [the Middle East] going back to Europe,” Mr. Kikilias told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview.

It was “obvious” in conversations with top Obama administration officials this week that the movement of such extremists is “a primary issue for the U.S. government,” he said, revealing that he had met with CIA Director John O. Brennan and top officials, including FBI Director James B. Comey.

Mr. Kikilias declined to offer specific details on who from the Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL — Greek authorities have tracked recently. But he pushed back against reports that Greek intelligence agents had detected six Islamic State recruits traveling through the nation.

The Los Angeles Times and others, including Proto Thema, a leading weekly newspaper in Greece, reported this month that one of the six was a 23-year-old Algerian-born French national carrying a digital memory stick with bomb-making instructions on it.

“Listen,” said Mr. Kikilias, “we’ve been monitoring a lot of guys that pass by. But there was no arrest of jihadists in Greece, OK. It doesn’t matter what the press is saying.”

Despite his denial of the reports, the development added a new twist to Greece’s primary national security issue of controlling a vast maritime border amid mounting European Union concerns over the potential threat posed by Islamic State foreign fighters.

Against the backdrop of such EU concerns, Greek authorities have been scrambling to manage a surge in the number of illegal immigrants — primarily from Africa — attempting to penetrate its borders, which represents the main southeastern gateway to the European Union.

“It’s not easy to control and screen all those borders,” Mr. Kikilias said Tuesday, adding that part of his visit to Washington focused on efforts to convince U.S. officials of the need to more broadly assist Greece with “communication [and] screening technology,” and to deepen communication between the two nations.

Outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. invited Mr. Kikilias to meet with top administration officials months ago, Mr. Kikilias said, adding that planning for his trip was accelerated this month following the thwarting by Greek authorities of a domestic terrorist plot in the nation.

However, the plot was not related to the Islamic State, he said. Rather, it involved a man suspected of involvement with a far-left Greek militant group.

Mr. Kikilias, who has held the public order ministership since June, is considered a rising star in his nation’s government — if only a physically imposing one. Just 40 years old, he stands more than 6-foot-6 and once played professional basketball in Greece.

He said his meetings with U.S. officials were immensely positive, especially with Mr. Brennan.

“He was great with me,” Mr. Kikilias said, adding that cooperation between Athens and Washington has “been excellent” and “the reason for this visit is to make it even better.”

What remains to be seen is whether EU powers such as Germany, France and Great Britain may be willing to increase funding for Greek maritime border patrol. An August report by The Economist noted that Greece spent more than $80 million on efforts to prevent illegal immigration, compared with less than $4 million contributed to the effort by border agencies from other European nations.

While Greek authorities have called on Northern European partners for more help, the situation is complicated by financial tension between Athens and the EU. Germany, for instance, backed significant loans to help bail Greece out of a crippling financial crisis in recent years on the condition that Athens enact austerity reforms.

“Because Greece has such huge maritime borders, it’s right on the edge — it’s a gate. It takes all the heat and all the pressure, and because of the economic program that we are in and the austerity measures, it makes it even more difficult,” Mr. Kikilias said. “We are trying to convince our European partners that it’s not a Greek problem, it’s a European problem, and each one of us should share the weight.”

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