Greek Mail Bombs: A Sign of Violence to Come?

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Members of the special police "Dias" squad patrol near the Athens' ancient Acropolis November 3, 2010

The two baby-faced young men who faced a Greek prosecutor Thursday on terrorism charges were caught carrying small parcel bombs that, according to some reports, were only about as powerful as firecrackers. But Panagiotis Argyrou, 22, and Gerasimos Tsakalos, 24, set off international panic this week for their alleged involvement in a letter-bomb plot that sent at least 14 booby-trapped packages to several embassies in Athens and the offices of three high-profile European leaders.

While three of the letter bombs, the first of which were discovered Monday, reached their intended targets, only one caused injury. A woman at a private courier company was lightly burned when one of the packages detonated in her hands. But fear spread worldwide after potentially deadly explosives from Yemen were found last Friday on a cargo plane bound for the U.S.

Greece has suspended delivery of all international air mail until Friday, and at least five more suspicious packages were found today. But police and terrorism experts say the Greek mail bombs have no connection to the Yemen bombs or the al-Qaeda brand of international terrorism associated with the cargo-plane plot. "This is the work of a small group of radicals who are isolated from and by Greek society," Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas told TIME on Wednesday. "The whole of Greek society is fighting them."

Argyrou, whom police arrested with Tsakalos on Monday, is suspected of having connections to a small but militant anarchist group called Conspiracy of Cells of Fire, which first emerged in January 2008. The two men aren't saying why they sent the parcel bombs, if they did, or what they hoped to accomplish by doing so. They are refusing to cooperate with police and are calling themselves political prisoners.

"The group's vision, if you can call it that, is very vague, but they recruit angry young people who are frustrated with the problems here," says Mary Bossis, a professor and security expert at the University of Piraeus. "And Greece has very extensive economic problems, social problems, and corruption problems right now."

Prime Minister George Papandreou, whose center-left government has been trying to rally Greeks out of its worst debt crisis in recent memory, has promised that authorities will be "merciless" on the militants behind the mail-bomb plot. The police are searching for five more men, ages 21 to 30, with alleged connections to conspiracy of cells of fire. Government spokesman George Petalotis says police plan to infiltrate and shut down the group, which the government believes is "defaming Greece and giving a picture of this country that has nothing to do with reality."

Anti-state protest in Greece has a long history, most of it non-violent, and is rooted in the 1946-49 civil war and a 1967-74 military dictatorship. Young rebels, many of them anarchists, fought police brutality and authoritarian crackdowns during the junta. Scores of them died on November 17, 1973, when the military crushed a sit-in protest at the National Technical University of Athens, also called the Polytechnio.

After the fall of the junta, the extreme fringe of radical rebels branched off into terrorism and caught the rest of the world's attention by gunning down former CIA station chief Richard Welch in Athens in 1975. A notorious but now defunct group called the Revolutionary Organization 17 November took responsibility for Welch's death and spent much of the next 27 years targeting — and killing — Greek leaders and foreign diplomats. Political violence had waned in recent years, until police killed a teenage boy in December 2008 and sparked widespread riots. New militant groups emerged and existing ones like Conspiracy of Cells of Fire stepped up their activity.

Urban guerrillas in Greece rarely use parcel bombs — they are more likely to attack with exploding gas canisters and Molotov cocktails. But in June, George Vassilakis, a top aide to then-Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, was killed instantly while handling a gift-wrapped package addressed to the minister. No one has taken responsibility for the attack.

When the first of the latest parcel bombs was discovered on Monday, embassies stepped up their security. By Tuesday evening, police reported the discovery of letter bombs addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and to the embassies of Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Russia. At the Swiss and Russian embassies, the bombs exploded on the grounds, but no one was hurt and no damage was reported.

On Tuesday, police also discovered that one parcel bomb had reached German Premier Angela Merkel's office in Berlin, and another addressed to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found on a courier plane later that same night. The plane made an emergency landing in Bologna. Both bombs were intercepted before they exploded.

STRATFOR, the U.S.-based intelligence company, said in a report on Tuesday that posting parcel bombs to world leaders showed a troubling tactical change among Greek urban guerrillas, who usually call in their attacks to local media ahead of time. But Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat who studies Greek political violence, says the parcel bombs were likely meant to send a message of solidarity to anarchists worldwide. "Greece is not a violent country," he says. "When people get hurt, society reacts very negatively, even within the anarchist community."

But Bossis, the security expert at the University of Piraeus, notes that political violence has increased in Greece since the 2008 riots, and she is troubled by the likes of Argyrou and Tsakalos. Police say when they were arrested, the two were carrying Glock pistols and one of the suspects was wearing a bulletproof vest. "These people may be amateurs, but they are inventive," she says. "They have weapons, and if I had to guess, they aren't planning to let them gather dust. They want to use them."