The Bumbling, Moustachioed Terrorists; November 17 Were Part of Greek Mythology: Bold, Daring and Secretive, They Eluded Police for Decades. Now, They Are Being Unmasked as Plump and Banal

By Smith, Helena | New Statesman (1996), August 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Bumbling, Moustachioed Terrorists; November 17 Were Part of Greek Mythology: Bold, Daring and Secretive, They Eluded Police for Decades. Now, They Are Being Unmasked as Plump and Banal


Smith, Helena, New Statesman (1996)


November 17: the most mysterious terrorist group in the west. Ruthless, ingenious, impenetrable and, as Europe's only guerrilla gang to elude the authorities for 27 years, seemingly invincible, too. How many times have I written those words? Certainly more than I care to admit in the years I have covered Greece.

November 17, the network that emerged on the bumpy landscape of modern Athenian democracy upon the collapse of the Colonels' regime, was always a good story because it mixed cold-blooded murder with a hint of Robin Hood.

These killers were bolder than the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or even the Red Brigades. What other organisation, after all, would so brazenly have launched rockets into the compound of the US embassy in Athens, done the same thing to the residence of the German ambassador and assassinated a British soldier-diplomat as he drove to work in the morning rush hour?

What other terrorists had elected to stock up on their weaponry by attacking a police station, an army barracks and a popular war museum in the centre of a teeming metropolis?

Long before the appearance of al-Qaeda, these Hellenic Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries were at the top of America's most wanted list. In report after report, the US State Department-tallying the attacks on US military and diplomatic personnel in Greece-described November 17 as the most deadly terror organisation operating in the west. With America so determined to capture the terrorists, no one in the extended house of gossip that is the Greek capital could quite understand the group's extraordinary durability.

The gang, which took its name from the date of the famed 1973 student uprising against the Colonels' regime, not only survived but resisted infiltration. What was its secret? The lack of leaks, or even credible leads, was mind-boggling. In Greece's merry-go-round of acquaintances and friendships, the terrorists' ability to remain invisible only added to their mystique. The guerrillas not only got away with their crimes but crowed about them in the long, abstruse proclamations that inevitably followed each attack.

But now, as I write, November 17 is crumbling. One by one, nearly all its captured operatives-the offspring of two large families and their friends-have confessed.

In testimony after testimony, they have given each other away and named names. They have blabbed about their "hits", down to the fine details of how they disguised themselves, in one instance, wearing fake moustaches the wrong way round.

Some, like Konstantinos Telios, a schoolteacher who has been a member of the organisation for the past 20 years, didn't even bother waiting to be arrested. Instead, he called the local newspaper with his story and gave himself up. They say he heaved a sigh of relief when he crossed the threshold of the police station.

News programmes have been filled with revelations almost every day since 29 June-when a "saintly" iconographer's injury in a botched bomb attack led officials to the first of several November 17 safe houses.

Already, eight of the 14 suspects in police custody have been incarcerated in the "special" cells erected somewhat frantically in recent weeks. By the time you read this, anti-terrorist officials expect to have unearthed all four of the group's "historic founders".

Greeks are shaking their heads in disbelief. Nationwide, the disappointment is palpable. How, Hellenes now ask, could November 17 be so banal? Where are its links to foreign secret services and people in high places and the "big economic interests" that so many believed had nurtured it all these years? Where are the training camps and the Marxist-Leninist ideology that it so espoused? Where is the solidarity one might have expected from members of a self-styled revolutionary group? Certainly not among the plump, loquacious, panic-stricken men arrested so far.

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The Bumbling, Moustachioed Terrorists; November 17 Were Part of Greek Mythology: Bold, Daring and Secretive, They Eluded Police for Decades. Now, They Are Being Unmasked as Plump and Banal
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