- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

(Editor's note: Bad wiring? Or was it the cheap clock used for a timer? Whatever the reason, the premature blast of the bomb tore open the mystery of November 17, Europe's most enigmatic terrorist cell. It also splintered the bomber's clan. Their lives sketch a wider portrait of four stormy decades in Greece.)
ATHENS The priest's son created beauty and torment.
Savas Xiros worked paints, varnish and gold leaf into the sublime grace of Greek Orthodox icons. The same hands did other jobs: planting bombs and pulling triggers for the terrorist group November 17.
The group had stalked Greece for 27 years with always the same outcome: a clean getaway. Its toll grew to 23 slayings, including four Americans, two Turkish diplomats and a British envoy.
Then something went wrong with a homemade bomb June 29 at a busy port near Athens. Xiros lay nearly blinded. His right hand, which had created radiant saints and aimed deadly firearms, was mangled.
Later, drifting between agony and numbing sedation, he began to confess. So did many other suspects he reportedly betrayed including his two brothers as rapid-fire arrests and raids ate away at November 17's mysteries.
Something else has been uncovered: a jarring self-portrait of Greece since the 1967-74 military dictatorship.
A stew of insecurities, conflicts and feelings of victimhood has simmered in Greece for more than a generation. It also apparently nourished November 17 as the group hopscotched from political revenge to extreme Marxism to ruthless patriotism.
At center stage in this tableau were the Xiros brothers: injured Savas, burly Christodoulos and petty thief Vassilis.
"The final story of November 17 could be contained in the lives of people like these brothers," said Maria Bossi, a former member of Greece's anti-terrorism commission.
Reality could not match the myth.
The arrests chipped away at some entrenched theories about November 17 that it was made up of secret-agent hit men or had protectors among the long-governing Socialists.
Instead, a surprisingly bland profile emerged from the 15 men charged so far. Among them are a brewery worker, real estate brokers, a teacher who dabbled in poetry, a bus driver, an amateur rock guitarist and 40-year-old icon artist Savas Xiros.
Xiros' brother Christodoulos, 44, made musical instruments. Their younger sibling, 30-year-old Vassilis, was a handyman who couldn't nail down steady work.
Their father, the Rev. Triantafyllos Xiros, mourned: "How did this devil survive in our country for so long?"
The story begins in northern Greece in the 1960s.
The craggy ranges were the last redoubts for the doomed communists in Greece's 1945-49 civil war. Sympathizers were still hounded by the Western-backed monarchy, which would be pushed aside in 1967 by even crueler military rulers.
News of other, faraway upheavals arrived: campus sit-ins, civil rights marches, anti-war protests, Woodstock.
But in the Xiros family, change was frowned on. The patriarch followed the most conservative Greek Orthodox factions. Father Triantafyllos expected no less from his 10 children, relatives said.
The first to rebel was Christodoulos. He left home in the early 1970s.
"The father tried to impose a kind of religious fundamentalism," said an uncle, Argyris Tsakalias, a former Greek Orthodox priest who has been interrogated by anti-terrorist squads. "He pushed them to the other extreme."
Like many Greeks, Christodoulos saw the church as one of the pillars supporting the military junta. Another perceived villain was the United States, which treated the junta as a Cold War puppet. Even today, anti-American feelings burn strongly in Greece.
In the early 1980s, Christodoulos crossed paths with November 17, named for the day in 1973 when junta tanks crushed student-led protests.
The group had already exacted revenge, purportedly directed by founders from a Paris-based network of Greek exiles. November 17 appeared in 1975 with the slaying of the CIA station chief in Athens. By 1983, it had also killed two Greek policemen with junta ties, and a U.S. Navy captain and his Greek driver.
During the junta's reign, the opposition had bestowed some legitimacy on politically motivated violence. November 17, cloaked by airtight planning and secrecy, continued in those footsteps.
But the dictators were gone. The group took on a new mantle: self-appointed political executioners and outlaws.
Christodoulos Xiros, angry and alone, had apparently found a new home.
His statements detail his evolution from lookout to driver to gunman to bomber. In 1988, he said, he helped rig a car bomb that killed a U.S. defense attache, Capt. William Nordeen. He said he asked no questions.
"When the target passed in his car, I hit the button," he told police.
Christodoulos also identified a November 17 rookie who helped kill Capt. Nordeen: his curly-haired brother Savas.
Savas, too, fled his father's strict piety. Like his brother, he found political soul mates in Athens with Greece's tiny but militant Marxist-Leninist political party.
Gradually, police say, he was drawn toward November 17 by his older brother. Savas represented part of the group's "second generation." November 17 was changing with the demise of the Cold War.
Its proclamations began to graft a firebrand Greek nationalism onto its "anti-imperialist" denunciations. The paranoia fit well with the times.
Xenophobia soared in Greece as illegal immigrants poured across the old Iron Curtain.
Huge rallies opposed the use of the name Macedonia by a former Yugoslav republic, arguing that it usurped Greece's Hellenic past. The rise of Islamic movements in neighboring Turkey was watched with anxiety.
Among Western allies, Greeks were ostracized for sympathizing with fellow Orthodox Serbs during Yugoslavia's collapse.
The two Xiros brothers were neck deep in the phobias, which were shared by their father. Their childhood turf, northern Greece, was the center of the white-hot nationalism searing the nation.
Savas, who as a boy couldn't even kill a chicken for the family dinner, started to learn a new code of bloodshed.
Police say Savas has admitted to a role in nearly every November 17 slaying since 1988, including the most recent ambush: a British defense attache, Brig. Stephen Saunders, in June 2000. Savas reportedly said he fired at Brigadier Saunders after the primary assassin's gun jammed.
"I apologize now for what I've done. … I was a member of November 17," he told authorities. "But I believe I was also a victim … of this ideology."
The third brother, Vassilis, loved motorcycles but never had money to buy them. His solution was to join a theft ring in the northern city of Thessaloniki, according to police.
His talents for stealing motorcycles were apparently put to use by November 17 in the mid-1990s, police say.
By then, the group was in another important transition, adopting the style of a mafia-like family business. Besides the Xiros clan, another group of three relatives now formed much of the inner circle.
Police believe the old guard still played a role. But the latter-day "revolutionaries" found bank robberies more seductive, taking more than $5 million, authorities estimate.
The group's secrecy was apparently maintained through a mix of family honor and outright threats. Some suspects told police that there was only one way out: your own funeral.
The group's ideology never fully anchored seemed to shift even more.
"I first believed the organization did the right thing and was pushing the world toward a change. … I gradually realized nothing was happening," said Christodoulos Xiros, who has been implicated in at least nine killings.
November 17 never said it had an end game. There was no grand political overthrow demanded. There was no clear enemy as its targets started to veer all over the political map.
Vassilis, his hair tied back in a sloppy ponytail, showed only vague awareness of any broad objectives or even a firm grasp of events. He told police that the British envoy Gen. Saunders was killed because "he had taken part in brutal bombings in Persia," which is what Greeks still call Iran. The November 17 proclamation had said it was punishment for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
"I never knew much," Vassilis told police.
Authorities contend that they've mortally wounded November 17 and hold one of its masterminds, French-born translator Alexandros Giotopoulos. He denies any links to the group.
Success could help end Greece's image as an unstable corner of the European Union. For years, Washington and other governments criticized Greece as a weak link against terrorism. The worries were magnified by preparations for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
"We will remove all the shadows that have hung over Greece for so many years," government spokesman Telemachos Hitiris said.
But some signs suggest the group has other tentacles. At least one suspected leader beekeeper Dimitris Koufodinas, 44 is still at large.
On Aug. 2, a military armory was robbed. Statements claiming to represent November 17 said it has the weapons.
"We have not fallen asleep," a communique warned. "Soon we will prove our force."

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