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The early 1970s gave birth to numerous left-wing urban guerrilla movements in Europe. Major organisations including the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades and Action Direct pretty much gave up their ghost with with the times or after too many of their members were apprehended by the authorities. Of all these shady groups with their connections to the Soviet Bloc and the Middle East, the one that calls itself Revolutionary Organisation 17 November (Epanastatikí Orgánosi 17 Noémvri) and operates in Greece is the only one that's consistently baffled both domestic law-enforcement and counter-terrorism experts for over 25 years.

Indeed, both their identity and origin are very much uncertain. It's thought that they're a very small group with between ten and 25 members, no more. Their name comes from the date of a 1973 student uprising that was drowned in blood by the Greek junta. Their early ideology was clearly Marxist-Leninist, in line with their counterparts in other countries. They would issue rambling leftist manifesta following each attack, typically leaving a typewritten note with their insignia--a red outline star with the "EO17N" acronym in its centre--in a public rubbish bin and calling a liberal newspaper to give them its location.

By the end of the cold war they were the only western European organsation of their kind with any serious presence and an identity crisis followed. Their writings began to deviate from their earlier Marxist-Leninist texts, acquired a strong nationalistic character and became increasingly anti-European and anti-Turkish apart from their trademark anti-americanism. They also began issuing computer-printed announcements and release them less frequently. The absence of an announcement claiming resposibility following any attack with their signature is taken as a sign that more are to follow in the same cycle. Their "demands" include the removal of all American bases from Greece and the country's exit from NATO and the European Union. Since 1975 they've targeted Greek, European and American business interests, local politicians, police officers with ties to the dictatorship, and diplomats from the United States, Turkey and Britain. They're on the US State Department's list of 28 foreign terrorist organisations, in the illustrious company of groups such as Hezbollah, ETA and Tupac Amaru, none of which have enjoyed the same success in eluding authorities and escaping detection.

Their members are stealthy, efficient and lethal. They usually strike in broad daylight, and have a few "signature" weapons that account for most of their assassinations. Their boldest attack was a raid on a neighbourhood police station, where they overpowered the guards and made off with the contents of its armoury. The bumbling police force already had a morale problem which was not made any better by this brazen raid. They plan meticulously and generally take care to avoid non-target casualties. Only once did they miss their target and kill a bystander. Their attacks on commercial targets tend to occur after business hours. However, on several occasions in which suspected 17N members were openly confronted by police, they unhesitantly used firearms and shot to kill.

Not a clue exists as to the identity of any of their members. There were long suspicions that some of their key members came from the core of the foreign-based anti-dictatorship movement of the early 1970s and may have belonged to the inner circle of late prime minister Andreas Papandreou's resistance group during that time. Foreign intelligence services believe that Papandreou himself may have known some members of 17N but, if he did, he took the secret to the grave. Connections have been made to militant Palestinian groups of the 1970s and the Stasi, though Stasi records have failed to reveal anything conclusive. Some ties to other domestic organisations, primarily the Revolutionary People's Struggle (also on the State Department's honoured guest list), are suspected but no evidence worth having exists to that effect.

The big question these days, and the one often posed by American and other foreign media, is whether they will have any impact on the 2004 Olympics. The leadership of the chronically incompetent Greek police knows that this time the chips are down and has invested heavily in equipment and technology, and enlisted the help of foreign services in creating an infrastructure capable of preventing terrorist attacks and apprehending the members of this most shadowy and elusive of organisations. I doubt the public is in any danger from 17 November, they may be bold but are not reckless. It is, in my opinion, very unlikely that visitors or athletes will be in any danger from them. Olympic officials are probably just as safe. If anything, they might use the distraction of this major event to plan unrelated strikes.

Since their first appearance in the assassination of CIA station chief Richard Wells on 1975-12-23, they've killed 22 people, the last as of this writing being the British Embassy's military attaché Stephen Saunders on 2000-06-09. The list of their victims includes police torturers, conservative politicians and businessmen and other "establishment" figures. In the execution of their missions they are calm and ruthless. Welch was gunned down in front of his family.

17 November are completely unpredictable in their selection of targets. While their activity may have had some popular support from the left side of the political spectrum into the 1980s, the last ten years have seen them become universally reviled as an organisation that engages in senseless terrorism. I'd say they've lost their original "revolutionary" character and possibly have new members who have less political and more personal, psychopathological, motives. Whichever the case may be, they're a bunch of really slippery fish and operate with uncanny precision. Catching them will take considerable investigative prowess and probably a bit of plain old dumb luck. So far their pursuers have failed to show that they possess either.

Updates will be organised into a summary once I have a full story.

On 2002-07-20 dumb luck finally struck. A weapon stolen from a police officer killed in the course of a bank robbery in 1984, believed to have been the work of 17N, was found in the possession of a man who was seriously injured three days ago when a bomb he was carrying went off inside the Piraeus port facilities.

During the following days police raided several locations, including a flat pretty close to where I used to live in north-central Athens. In that flat they found the motherlode: explosives, weaponry, printed material, even the organization's banner. The man arrested is now thought to have been a high-level operative since at least 1983, and possibly the co-author of their public statements.

One more flat, this time in east-central Athens, yielded another cache of explosives and weapons. The presumed bomber, Savas Xiros, woke up saying that he went to take a leak and a bomb exploded next to him. It was discovered that he made ten trips to Sudan during the last seven years. This fact indicates the still unproven existence of 17N's relationship with the international extremist circuit.

Events continued to unforld rapidly and, on the 17th, a person who fit the experts' profile of the presumed leader of the organisation was arrested on the island of Lipsi in the Dodecanese. He was identified as a 58-year-old French-born teacher, the son of a marxist ideologue who was very close to Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. This description fits in with the profile of an individual who probably studied or lectured in France during the 1967-74 dictatorship. Xiros, in the meantime, was said to be cooperating with the prosecutor's office and seemed to be "relieved" and more concerned about his eventual return to his occupation as an hagiographer than anything else. Two of his brothers were arrested and, according to the police, confessed to taking part in a number of operations.

A total of nineteen arrests were made in scattered parts of the country. What's strange is that, despite the fact that the group operated almost exclusively in the Athens area, the suspects are almost all from far-away parts of the country, and apparently the group also unexpectedly had a base in Thessaloniki.

The trial began in March 2003 and lasted nine months. Prosecutors had to take turn reading the charges--accused ringleader Alexander Giotopoulos alone stood accused of 963 criminal acts, not including those stemming from the first four assassinations to which a 20-year statute of limitations applied.

Fifteen of the nineteen arrested were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, Giotopoulos receiving 21 life terms.

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