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British Diplomat Assassinated in Athens

17 November: Europe's Most Wanted Marxists

09 June 2000
"It was us who neutralised him", said the 13-page statement released by Revolutionary Organisation 17 November (RO17N) late on Thursday 08 June, only a few hours after the assassination of Brigadier Stephen Saunders. Saunders was the United Kingdom's defence attaché in the Greek capital, Athens.

The statement was hardly a surprise for Greek and American intelligence officials, who have come to know very well the Organisation's trademarks: the use of a .45 calibre pistol for a murder weapon, a motorcycle for a means of escape, and the systematic targeting of local and foreign high officials.

The organisation -which takes its name after a bloody ultra-left rebellion of Greek students against the colonels' military junta, on 17 November 1974- is now described by Greek and American officials alike as one of the most elusive, cunning and deadly subversive organisations in the Western World, along with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) movement.

Nevertheless, RO17N is characterised by two fundamental features, which significantly differentiate it from the aforementioned Irish and Basque groups: first of all, it is speculated that its membership is no higher than 25 individuals, many of whom are said to be blood relatives. What is more, the Organisation's style of operation is not that of blind bomb hits against anyone who might be present at the scene and time of detonation, but that of selected execution-style hits against high-ranking administrative and military officials.

Consequently, RO17N has proved to be small enough in terms of its size and selective enough in terms of its operations -it has killed no more than 23 individuals in 26 years of operation- so as not to draw the attention of too many Greek and American intelligence officers. Nevertheless, it has proven damaging enough to cause the US to recently declare Greece as one of two countries in the world (the other being Pakistan) that are consistently unwilling to help combat terrorism.

It is often claimed that the main reason for the elusive nature of RO17N has been its small size and organisational flexibility. Indeed, the history of 20th century urban warfare has shown that the larger a subversive organisation is, the higher is the potential of it being infiltrated and, subsequently, neutralised by the authorities -the history of Italy's Red Brigades testifies to this.

In addition, the Organisation seems to be very careful in planning, orchestrating and executing its operations, spending months and sometimes even years mapping out its strikes. For instance, between February and May 1998, American intelligence officials stationed in and around the US Embassy in Athens, noted motorcyclists surveying the Embassy facilities and nearby US Marine barracks at least 8 to 10 times. All but one incident involved motorcycle vehicles carrying stolen licence number plates, indicating that the surveillance was in aid of orchestrating an attack against the diplomatic compound. Systematic surveillance of targets over many months indicates a highly professional subversive organisation, whose members could easily compete in ability and tactics with even the most efficient counter-terrorist bodies. Discovering them will be anything but easy.

Yet there might be more reasons behind the apparent elusiveness of RO17N. The Organisation's ideological rhetoric directs to the -rather well-grounded- inference that its members have common political roots with some of the present government's most senior officials, and some of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement's (PASOK) most historic members, including late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and current Prime Minister Kostas Simitis. These common roots go by the name of Panhellenic Resistance Movement (PAK), which was founded in the late 1960s as a popular armed resistance front against the colonel's dictatorship, which subsequently ended in 1974.

There was nothing illegal about that -in fact the United Nations Human Rights Charter permits armed operations by citizens whose democratic rights are infringed by oppressive regimes. Nevertheless, PAK became a Pandora's box, letting loose of dozens of armed struggle factions and shaping the political culture of the Greek left during and after the junta. When the parliamentary system was fully restored, most of PAK's members gave up armed struggle and concentrated instead on socialist parliamentary politics. Nevertheless, some of the more militant members remained faithful to the teachings of Ernesto Che Guevara, and refused to lay down their weapons. It is indeed very likely that a number of RO17N members originate from that subgroup.

It is because of a mixture of comradeship and socialist romanticism, the argument goes, that some of PASOK's executive members refuse to name those involved in RO17N.

That may be so, but the argument that seems more plausible is that the Greek intelligence establishment is prepared to turn the blind eye when it comes to the Organisation's activities, in return for the latter's dirty work services. In other words, the Organisation may be used by the Greek intelligence apparatus as a means of targeting elements of foreign intelligence services operating in Greece. The Organisation's recent target would lend support to such a hypothesis: Saunders was the UK's defence attaché in Athens (basically another term for head of intelligence operations), who served in the MI6 and Special Branch in -among other places- Northern Ireland and Kuwait. And this is not the first time that RO17N has targeted foreign intelligence officers operating in Greece: the long list includes a Central Intelligence Agency station chief, the German Ambassador and a number of Turkish diplomats.

Another equally plausible hypothesis is that the Americans know the identities of the Organisation's members, but find them to be more useful out of jail. This is because RO17N members are said to have visited armed training camps in Libya, Lebanon, Nicaragua, former East Germany and Northern Ireland. What is more, the Organisation is said to have links with Palestinian, Kurdish, Basque, Irish, and Catalan subversive groups.

In any case, RO17N appears now to have challenged, apart from the Greek, Turkish and American intelligence establishments, the créme de la créme of the UK's anti-terrorist community. It won't be long before Athens hosts hordes of undercover agents from dozens of countries, in search of Europe's most wanted post-Cold War Marxists.

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