ATHENS — Anarchy made a spectacular return to Greece this month as explosions struck banks and private businesses and a riot rocked downtown Athens.
Widespread urban guerrilla violence, growing racism toward Greeces 1 million immigrant population and unprecedented disillusionment toward the political class characterize Greek society five months after it experienced its gravest rioting since World War II.
Greece faces a proliferation of new anarchist and anti-establishment terrorist groups, which pose a growing threat to stability, Greek and foreign analysts say.
“We have a new generation of terrorists showing its presence and teeth over the past couple of years, and now they have a new pool of possible recruits,” said Thanos Dokos, director of Greek think tank ELIAMEP. “Growing numbers of people are saying that if the politicians cannot understand with other means, then targeted violence might shake them out of their stupor.”
Greeces center-right government has been battered by bribery, real estate and sex scandals, making it a tempting target for anarchists. A government reshuffle in February was widely criticized, and a second round of changes is expected after European parliamentary elections in June, in which the government is expected to do poorly.
Scandals have forced four ministers to resign in the past two years. Widespread public disillusionment was compounded by anger in December when a policeman fatally shot a 15-year-old boy, triggering a week of cross-country rioting.
Police credibility plunged when riot squads stepped back and allowed widespread vandalism and looting in an attempt to avoid clashes that might cause further casualties.
When the smoke cleared, public and private businesses had suffered millions of dollars in damage. Public trust in the police was further damaged when it emerged in April that a policeman was a member of an organized gang of bank robbers that has carried out nearly 30 armed robberies since December.
“Prison riots, social exclusion, human rights violations, police brutality, lack of accountability and corruption are just a few manifestations that the system in Greece has reached its limits,” said Panos Kostakos, a researcher at the Department of European Studies at Bath University in Britain. “Weak states have always provided strong ground for malevolent actors and dark networks.”
Fresh attacks occurred a week ago Saturday as incendiary devices exploded outside a private security firm, a car dealership and a business selling military surplus gear.
The previous weekend, violence erupted in central Athens as right-wingers attacked hundreds of immigrants huddling within an unused courthouse and subsequently clashed with leftist demonstrators who came to their aid. Athens police announced they are investigating all incidents.
Further inflaming tensions, police used tear gas and stun grenades to break up a protest by Muslim immigrants on Friday after reports that a Greek policeman had defaced the Koran.
The volatile mix of social tensions follows a series of scandals that has threatened to overwhelm the government. President Karolos Papoulias adjourned parliament earlier this month ahead of the European parliamentary elections in June.
Apart from public appeals for calm, the current government has taken a low profile in addressing the surge in violence. Repeated attempts to contact officials to comment for this article were unsuccessful.
Anarchist guerrilla activity has surged since the December riots. The attacks target government offices, TV stations, banks and police personnel with bombs and machine guns.
At least half a dozen new groups targeting policemen and journalists have appeared since the December riots, with exotic names such as Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei, Gang of Conscience and Revolutionary Struggle.
“In parallel with the urban violence in Greece, there was a resurgence in fringe IRA groups and violent riots in Sweden, France, Germany and Hungary,” said Ioannis Michaletos, a specialist on southeastern European security issues with the Athens-based RIEAS think tank. Mr. Michaletos thinks rioting in other European countries and Greece are connected.
Greek and other anti-terrorism experts point to Greece as a transit point in international arms-smuggling routes between the Middle East and the Balkans, and they think that emerging terrorist groups may even possess light anti-tank weapons in their arsenal.
“One of the problems in Greece is the abundance of weapons, many from the stocks of the former Albanian army,” said Mr. Dokos of the ELIAMEP think-tank. “Greece is the soft underbelly of Europe, and there is the possibility that radical elements are coming through it and moving into other European countries.”
Aside from operational links with European anarchist groups, there is no evidence yet that foreign activists are being recruited by Greek militant factions. Their makeup is exclusively Greek and located at the intersection of left-wing political activism, soccer hooliganism and idle youth.
“Judging from the profile of November 17, its a mixture: a handful who started off as student political activists with hard-left parties and had their time in the street getting into scraps as part of the toughening process,” said Brady Kiesling, an analyst and former U.S. diplomat who resigned in 2003 to protest the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.
He was referring to a terrorist group that killed nearly two dozen people in three decades of attacks on U.S., British and other targets. November 17, or 17N, is thought to have broken up with the arrest of some of its leaders in 2002, but officials fear that some of its members may have migrated to other radical groups, such as the Revolutionary People’s Struggle (ELA), which remains active.
“The crucial decision was to go professional, and this is what separated ELA from 17N. The former believed that revolutionaries should be part-timers who went to their day jobs and burned American-owned banks at night, whereas 17N had made the decision by 1983 to fund their violence through robbing banks,” Mr. Kiesling said.
Iason Athanasiadis reports on Greece through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.
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