The New Guerrilla Group Threatening Greece

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Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters

A policeman secures a street in front of Greece's Finance Ministry in Athens August 5, 2010. Police evacuated the Finance Ministry after a bomb threat was received

It's the height of tourist season in Greece and the country needs all the visitors it can get. Struggling under massive debt and squeezed by sweeping spending cuts, Greeks are relying on the tourist trade to help give its economy a much-needed bump. So the last thing they need right now is a terrorist group threatening to turn Greece into a "war zone." But when the Sect of Revolutionaries recently warned that "tourists should learn that Greece is no longer a safe haven of capitalism," keeping the country crippled was clearly one of their goals.

In a CD containing a proclamation sent to the center-left newspaper Ta Nea on July 27, the group promised "arson, sabotage, violent demonstrations, bombings and assassinations." Greece is painfully familiar with militant extremists, its modern history scarred by the violent acts of groups like the Revolutionary Organization 17 November and the People's Revolutionary Struggle. But the threats made by the Sect of Revolutionaries — also known as the Rebel Sect — are on a whole new level of malice.

"This is the first time we have ever had a terror organization in Greece saying they plan to target innocent bystanders and even tourists," says Mary Bossis, a security expert and professor at the University of Piraeus. "It's a change in mentality that's very troubling."

In that same statement, the group claimed responsibility for the July 19 murder of Socratis Giolias, a radio journalist who relished uncovering scandals. Gunmen shot Giolias, 37, 16 times outside his home in the Athens suburb of Ilioupolis. As head of the news department at private radio station Thema and a prolific blogger, Giolias criticized the country's militant guerrilla groupsm. "The murder of Giolias was like a Mafia-style killing," says Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat living in Athens and author of a book about political violence in Greece. "He was challenging the revolutionary movement through the blog. He got up their noses, and they took their revenge."

Little is known about Sect of Revolutionaries, a relatively new group that emerged last year, a few weeks after a police officer in Exarcheia shot and killed 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. The officer claimed he had fired warning shots to scare the boy and his friends to stop them from throwing rocks and bottles at police. But eyewitnesses said the youths had only exchanged verbal insults with police. The shooting outraged the Greeks and led to rioting, which energized extremists.

On Feb. 3, 2009, attackers fired 9-mm bullets and threw a hand grenade at a police station just outside Athens. No one was hurt, but police later discovered a CD on Grigoropoulos' grave containing a communiqué that identified the group as Sect of Revolutionaries and took credit for the attack on police. "Our aim was to execute them," the statement said. "Next time they will not have luck on their side."

Two weeks later, two gunmen fired shots and lobbed an explosive device at a private television station in Athens, again injuring no one. But in June 2009, the group gunned down its first victim, Nektarios Savvas, 41, a police officer assigned to protect a key witness in the 2004 trial against the People's Revolutionary Struggle (ELA).

In its July 27 proclamation, Sect of Revolutionaries said Giolias was the first of several prominent journalists and publishers it plans to attack for, they claim, promoting corrupt interests. The group says it will also target police, public prosecutors and prison staff. The police have received many requests for protection, says spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis, adding that authorities are still investigating leads on the group and aren't yet ready to make any arrests.

Using what they can garner from the group's communications and m.o., experts are attempting to build a profile of Greece's newest batch of domestic terrorists. Kokkalakis and security expert Bossis agree that Sect of the Revolutionaries' mob-style hits and threats to "cut the faces" of those who oppose them suggest that its members may be hardened criminals who have spent long stretches in prison. Police have also theorized that the group's members are relatively young — in their twenties and thirties — and may have connections to very extreme anarchist cells in Exarcheia, the activist but mostly peaceful neighborhood that has produced Greece's most potent rebels. And the group's weapons stash, which can be seen in a photograph sent with the group's statement to Ta Nea, includes handguns, Kalashnikov rifles, and a semi-automatic weapon resembling a Scorpion sub-machine gun — an arsenal that likely came from the criminal underworld of the Balkans, says political violence expert Kiesling.

But unlike other guerrilla groups in Greece, Sect of Revolutionaries appears to have no clear ideology or goals, says Bossis. "If you read their proclamations explaining their motives, they're all over the place," she says. "They say things, like they want to be close to nature and run free in the fields, but they want to achieve this fanciful vision by killing. They want to overthrow someone, or something, but they have no idea what to do beyond that."

Still, the emergence of Sect of Revolutionaries will surely hurt a country already in bad shape, especially one in which tourism accounts for about 16% of GDP and a fifth of jobs. Thanks to months of bad press following the May demonstrations — one of them deadly — against the austerity measures and, more recently, strikes by public service workers and truck drivers, the Panhellenic Hoteliers Association says it expects tourism revenues to drop 20% compared to 2008. "Greece is in a lot of trouble right now, and it's obvious to everyone inside and outside the country," says security expert Bossis. "A group like Sect of Revolutionaries wants to hit the country when it's down, when it's perceived as weak. They offer nothing but nihilism, but they do what they say, and that's why they are dangerous."