YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Toppled From Their Pedestal

Terrorism: Greeks find that a violent group they sometimes saw as heroic was all too human.


ATHENS — When a military dictatorship ruled Greece three decades ago, secret police informers were everywhere. So ever since that hated junta fell, snitching has been more despised here than in most societies.

Small wonder, then, that members of the once-romanticized November 17 terrorist organization have fallen from their dubious pedestal since their recent arrests. The men's involvement in terrorist acts isn't the main issue--it's their collective case of what one defense attorney called "verbal diarrhea."

In fact, members of the terrorist gang seem almost to be competing with one another to show who can cooperate most fully with authorities.

The notorious November 17, blamed for 23 killings and many robberies over the last quarter-century, was often portrayed as an almost invincible band of ideologically hardened Marxist revolutionaries. For many Greeks, the most stunning revelation of the confessions is how the men have come across as intellectually unsophisticated working stiffs who were simply doing their jobs--sometimes without even knowing whom they would be killing.

A simplistic anti-imperialist and anti-American ideology appears to have played a role in drawing most of them into the group. But their confessions give the impression that they stayed for more basic reasons: a lust for thrills and the feeling of self-importance, ties of kinship and friendship, the income from bank robberies and the fear that they would be killed if they tried to get out.

Named after the date in 1973 when the junta crushed a student uprising, November 17 burst into prominence with its first slaying, that of CIA Athens station chief Richard Welch in 1975.

During the group's early years, a significant portion of the Greek public--angered by U.S. support for the 1967-74 dictatorship--appeared sympathetic to its ideology if not its methods.

But in the mid-1980s, when the group targeted prominent Greek businessmen, public opinion began to swing more solidly against it. In the last two years, with the Greek government under pressure to prove capable of running a safe Olympics in 2004, investigative work aimed at the group was stepped up. Police also accepted help from Scotland Yard and the FBI.

A Fortuitous Capture

Then, in late June, suspected November 17 member Savas Xiros, 40, was injured allegedly when a bomb he was carrying went off prematurely. His capture led police to safe houses and the arrest of more than a dozen other suspects.

Alexandros Giotopoulos, 58, the accused leader of the group, said in court that his co-defendants' confessions were lies designed to frame him and win themselves lighter punishment. Under a new anti-terrorism law, confessions can win the men leniency. And because Greece has no death penalty, they needn't fear execution even if they confess to multiple murders.

But few others question that the suspects' stories contain much that is true--whatever else may be missing or distorted.

Police say that Christodoulos Xiros, 44, one of those who has talked the most, has confessed to involvement in nine murders, five murder attempts, 11 bomb and rocket attacks and a string of bank robberies over nearly 20 years.

In a statement leaked to the press, he coldly described the June 28, 1988, assassination of a U.S. Embassy defense attache, Navy Capt. William Nordeen.

Explosives were packed into a car along a route often taken by "an American official," with a triggering device placed in a nearby empty house, Xiros said.

"When the target passed in his car, I pressed the button on the remote control," he said. "Only on the news after the act did we learn that the target was killed and that it was U.S. Capt. Nordeen."

Dora Bakoyannis, the widow of Pavlos Bakoyannis, a conservative member of Parliament killed by the gang in 1989, said in a recent interview that "terrorism is so difficult to deal with because they're killing people without knowing them, without any feelings against them."

"It's a very difficult time for the families of the victims, for many reasons," said Bakoyannis, an opposition member of Parliament and candidate for mayor of Athens in elections scheduled for this year. "They see the whole scene every day on television, again and again. And they are looking at persons, trying to understand how and why these persons killed our loved ones."

Police are trying to determine whether a letter claiming to be from November 17 that was published last Wednesday is genuine or not.

Eleftherotypia, a leading Greek daily, reported that it had seen the letter, which bore November 17's trademark red star and threatened kidnappings as a response to the arrests.

Los Angeles Times Articles