Is Anarchist Violence on the Rise in Europe?

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Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP / Getty Images

Police investigators collect evidence outside the Athens court building where a bomb exploded on Dec. 30, 2010

No one was hurt when a powerful bomb tied to a stolen moped blew up on the morning of Dec. 30 outside a court building near central Athens. But beyond the material damage to nearby buildings and cars, the familiar images of fire, thick smoke and smashed shop windows were a reminder to Greeks of just how badly 2010 had gone. "Seeing those images makes you think, Jesus, this is just going to compound all the problems we already have," says Ted Couloumbis, a professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Athens and vice president of a prominent Greek think tank, ELIAMEP. "Tourists will stay away. Investors will be scared off. It's the last thing we need right now."

That's no understatement. Weighed down by a debt of some $400 billion, Greece narrowly avoided default earlier in the year by asking for nearly $150 billion in international loans. In exchange for the loans, which were granted by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May, the Greek government applied drastic spending cuts, tax hikes and labor reforms to shrink the deficit. Those moves not only deepened the country's recession but also added fuel to growing grass-roots anger and frustration.

Much of Europe is in a similarly tight and tense financial situation. Anxiousness about slumping economies has sparked waves of public protest, some of them violent, a few even deadly. And, says the E.U. police agency Europol, it appears to have fed a growing number of attacks by militant groups who identify themselves as anarchists or far-left rebels. Between 2008 — which saw the height of the global financial crisis — and 2009, Europol recorded a 43% increase in attacks by militant groups in the E.U., most of them in Italy, Spain and Greece. "There is anger because there is so much disillusionment, and there is always a small group of people who will take guns and explosives and elevate violence," says Mary Bossis, a security expert at the University of Piraeus. "They want to hit what they perceive to be a weak state."

In Greece, authorities are working to stop the trend. Police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis says a crackdown in 2010 has helped bring the number of domestic terrorist attacks involving bombs or shootings in the country from 23 in 2009 to 12 in 2010. He added that while no group has yet claimed responsibility for the Dec. 30 blast outside the Athens court building, counterterrorism police are investigating the incident. "We are going to continue cracking down on the anti-establishment sources that feed this kind of terrorist activity," he says. "These are just a few criminals. Greek society is against them."

Two urban guerrilla groups that continue to vex authorities are the Sect of Revolutionaries, which was responsible for the mob-style shooting of journalist Sokratis Giolias outside his home on July 19, and the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, which in November sent parcel bombs to several foreign embassies in Athens and to prominent European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Greece has a long history of anti-establishment violence from far-left or extreme anarchist groups, especially since 1975, when the Marxist guerrilla group Revolutionary Organization 17 November gunned down the CIA's station chief in Athens, Richard Welch. Greek authorities finally shut down 17 November in 2002, and most of today's groups have only been around for a few years. Revolutionary Struggle, which emerged in 2003 and tried to attack the U.S. embassy in Athens in 2007, has written in its communiqués that it opposes imperialism and globalization. But other groups like the Sect of Revolutionaries and the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, which have emerged in the past couple of years, are not as focused. "They are at war, but it's not clear with whom," Bossis says.

By no means a unified force, Greece's anti-authoritarian groups work in small, tight cells that communicate with one another by text message and e-mail, and via the activist media website Indymedia, says Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat who lives in Athens and is writing a book on political violence in Greece. Sometimes acts of violence like the embassy parcel bombs are messages of solidarity between the groups, Kiesling notes. "That was self-referential performance art," he says.

In Italy, the Informal Federation of Anarchy, or FAI, sent two letter bombs that seriously injured two people at the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome on Dec. 23. And on Dec. 27, bomb experts defused an explosive device sent to the city's Greek embassy. The FAI has said it sent the bomb to the Greek embassy to show solidarity with 13 suspected members of the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire who face trial next month. Meanwhile, Italian police say an FAI cell named after Lambros Fountas, a suspected Revolutionary Struggle member killed by Greek police in March, sent the earlier embassy bombs that caused the two injuries.

But in a letter posted on Indymedia on Dec. 28, three jailed members of Revolutionary Struggle — Pola Roupa, Nikos Maziotis and Kostas Gournas — denounced the act for its random violence. "We were organizing [our actions] in such a way so as to avoid injuries of people who were not among our political targets," they wrote.

Such repudiation, however, won't influence the new generation of urban guerrillas, says security expert Bossis. Constantly trying to form new cells and groups with no clear ideology, "they are angry with average Greeks for going along with austerity measures," she says. "But as so-called revolutionaries, they offer nothing but violence and anger, and they don't seem to care about innocent bystanders."

Most Greeks already feel like innocent bystanders as they face the country's worst economic troubles in decades grimly — but peacefully. "Greeks are numb right now, but there is determination and maybe a glimmer of hope that this crisis will force real changes," says Couloumbis of ELIAMEP. "No one has the patience for senseless violence."