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Cooperative Partner? Greece's Record on Terrorism

Author: Theophilos C. Gemelas
February 7, 2002
Wall Street Journal Europe


At a White House ceremony last month, U.S. President George W. Bush praised Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis for his strong stand against terrorism. Greece is a U.S. ally, of course, and Mr. Simitis had expressed total commitment to the fight against international terrorism. So it is perhaps understandable that diplomatic niceties were observed. Hopefully, however, this was accompanied by some pressure behind the scenes, for Greece's historical record shows that it has tolerated terrorism or at least has been ineffective in attempts to apprehend terrorists.

This poor record is of increasing importance given that Athens will host the Olympic Games in 2004. The international community will obviously watch closely how Greece prepares for the event. But there remains the broader foreign-policy issue of what to do with American allies who are unable or unwilling to meet the challenge.

When it comes to Greece, it must be one or the other. For 26 years the terrorist group known as "Revolutionary Organization November 17" has been committing acts of murder. None of over 100 attacks have led to the arrest of a single member of the group, despite efforts by the United States and other nations to offer assistance and advice to the Greek government. This ratio -- 22 dead and not one single arrest -- gives Greece the worst record in Europe in the fight against terrorism.

The group takes its name from the Nov. 17, 1973 violent student protest in Athens that was squelched by the Greek military junta at the time. Critics have charged that there are links between senior government officials and November 17, which might explain the lack of arrests. Other observers have explained it as a lack of Greek resources needed to address the problem, coupled with a high level of incompetence among Greek law enforcement. Whatever the cause, the facts remain that Greece has not achieved any results in dealing with the November 17 problem.

Greece's record is getting worse. In the summer of 1987, the United States confronted senior Greek officials with intelligence that indicated Greece was harboring Abu Nidal and other members of the Al Fatah Revolutionary Council. The Greek government protested and delayed negotiations over U.S. basing rights in Greece, forcing Washington into a middle ground: Washington did not retract its charge, but declared it would not accuse Greece of supporting terrorists.

More recently, in early 1999, it was uncovered that Greece harbored Kurdish Worker's Party member Abdullah Ocalan at its embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Ocalan held a prominent position on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorists and his PKK group is blamed for over 30,000 deaths during their 14-year guerrilla campaign for a homeland in southeastern Turkey.

Acting on a tip off by U.S. officials, Turkish commandos finally arrested Ocalan in 1999 while he was being escorted by Greek diplomats and Kenyan authorities to the Nairobi airport. The political cost paid by Greece was the resignation of three senior Greek ministers -- foreign, interior, and public-order -- and a national embarrassment for the country.

The events of Sept. 11 have refocused the United States' resolve on addressing

all forms of terrorism. In fact, President Bush stated in his speech to a joint session of Congress after the attack that "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Given the President's statement and past Greek behavior and results, the key question should be: What will U.S. policy be toward American allies that harbor, support or continue to be ineffective in apprehending known terrorists? For example, should the U.S. leverage its membership in various international organizations (NATO or the United Nations) to influence allies to move away from policies that achieve few results in eliminating terrorism and toward being part of a comprehensive counterterrorism effort?

The now ending phase in the war against terrorism addressed state sponsorship of terrorists in Afghanistan, and the next phase will focus on places like Somalia, where al Qaeda cells may be operating. But allied nations that tolerate terrorism present a key challenge to the United States. Since the U.S. is unlikely to use military force against allies, the problem should be approached by strengthening cooperative intelligence efforts.

These collaborative arrangements should help prevent, and respond to, terrorist attacks. But penalties or sanctions need to be imposed on allies that are not fully cooperating. Greece will need to be a cooperative partner in the future and devote more resources to addressing threats posed by terrorists if it wishes to improve its record and reassure the international community that the Olympics will produce medallists rather than casualties.

Mr. Gemelas is associate director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.