Phantom Terror

by P. D. Spyropoulos

The State Department's annual report on terrorism sent shock waves throughout the diplomatic and intelligence communities this May after it lambasted a country that it claimed ranked second worldwide in anti-U.S. terrorist attacks in 1999. The reason for the fallout? The report was not referring to Afghanistan, Libya or Iran, but to a progressive European democracy and staunch ally that has fought alongside the U.S. in every major American war.

Both the State Department findings and a subsequent report by a Congressional commission on terrorism -- which recommended considering diplomatic and military sanctions against Greece -- asked Americans to suspend disbelief by portraying Greece as among the world's most dangerous anti-American terrorist countries. The reports blamed an ineffectual or uncooperative Greek government for the situation.

Yet an examination of the facts reveal what is in effect a low-grade urban terrorist problem common to most Western countries, rather than the terrorist mecca portrayed in the reports.

In the most serious of the 20 incidents cited by the reports, a Greek woman was killed and another injured when a bomb exploded at an Athens hotel last year. Significantly, there were no other deaths or injuries that resulted from any of the other incidents.

There were nine other bombings, the most serious of which involved the late-night firing of a rocket launcher at a bank. The rest involved low-grade, home-made bombs. Notably, almost all the bombings were carried out late at night or under circumstances where there was little or no chance of injuring anyone.

Five incidents involved amateur arson attempts causing minimal property damage. Two incidents involved drive-by shootings from motorcycles at corporate buildings, and some of the incidents categorized as anti-American were actually directed against Greek-owned businesses.

Except for one attack, in which two SUVs were heavily damaged in a car dealership, property damage for all the incidents was minimal -- averaging from between $1,000 to $3,000.

The State Department report's mischaracterization of a mentally disturbed woman's attempt to set off a coffee mug-sized propane cooking canister at the entrance of the U.S. Consulate as an "attempt to firebomb the U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki" further underscores the excessive and misleading nature of the report.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that much of the information circulating on the issue originates from unreliable sources -- such as E. Wayne Merry, a former State Department official who has been among the most vociferous in criticizing the Greek government's response to terrorism. Merry's highly partisan reports crossed the line from axe-grinding to ethnic slurs when he berated all Greeks in a Washington Post report last November for having "deep-seated ethnocentric Balkan prejudices" and for tolerating terrorism due to their "rabid anti-U.S., anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-Turkey, anti-Western nationalism" ("Greek Terror", 11/9/99).

While heightened concern by U.S. officials of terrorism in Greece appears warranted given the increase of anti-American attacks over the past year, the sporadic, low-intensity and amateur nature of most of the attacks -- which have almost exclusively been directed against property -- clearly did not warrant the exaggerated conclusions of either the State Department or the Congressional commission's reports.

Twenty three of the 25 deaths resulting from terrorist acts in Greece since 1975 have been attributed to "November 17", a small but violent group widely considered to be Greece's chief terrorist threat. Significantly, Greece's most serious terrorist attack in three years was perpetrated on June 8th, when November 17 shot and killed a British military attache in Athens. The timing of the killing -- which occurred just three days after the Congressional commission's report -- coupled with the fact that the group's last assassination occurred back in May of 1997, has raised concerns that the group may have been encouraged and empowered by the disproportionate significance it was given in the terrorism reports. Hence, British Brigadier Stephen Saunders may have been as much a victim of the State Department's misleading hype regarding Greece's terrorist problem, as of an ineffective counter-terrorism effort itself.

Press coverage of the issue missed another crucial point: just as a lunatic fringe of Americans use violence to oppose government policies within the U.S., the rise of politically-inspired crimes in Greece is the violent edge of a wider dissent to our catastrophic Yugoslav policy -- a policy that triggered consecutive campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Albanians and now Serbs in Kosovo, and that bombed close to two thousand civilians to death.

Charges that nationalist and ethnocentric sentiments are at the source of anti-U.S. terrorism in Greece are made more implausible by the fact that Greek politics, dominated by Greece's socialist party PASOK, have largely been free of the extremist nationalist movements that have garnered significant electoral support in other Western countries such as France, Austria, Israel and Germany. That Greek humanitarian and economic aid to Albania and to Kosovo's Albanian refugees was among the most ambitious of all EU and NATO countries further serves to underscore this fact.

Both the State Department and Congressional reports largely based their conclusions on the inability of the Greek government to apprehend the terrorists. Yet even though U.S. law enforcement agencies with far greater resources and expertise have been working with their Greek counterparts for years, they have also been unable to make any inroads against November 17. This lends credence to Greek objections that it is the secretive nature of the group, rather than any lack of political will, that lies at the heart of the impasse.

Some are concerned that the State Department may be using this highly implausible portrayal of Greece as a dangerous terrorist state to gain leverage over Greece and to enable Turkey's growing dominance over the region, as well as to reprimand Greece for its outspoken opposition to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

That political considerations appear to influence the State Department's list of countries tagged as abetting or tolerating terrorism has long been a concern of foreign governments and human rights groups alike. This is most starkly seen when comparing the State Department report's treatment of Greece with its neighbor across the Aegean.

While the report applauded Turkey's counter-terrorism efforts, particularly against the militant Kurdish separatist group the PKK, it omitted a vast body of evidence which would arguably rank Turkey as among the world's top sponsors of terrorism.

A 1998 investigation by the Turkish government conceded that up to 14,000 of its citizens have been killed during the past two decades by government-sponsored death squads. Turkish security forces have killed thousands of Kurdish civilians as part of a war that has resulted in the ethnic cleansing of between 1 to 3 million Kurds from southeastern Turkey.

The Turkish government also employs and supports the Grey Wolves -- an extreme-right paramilitary organization that has killed thousands of Turks and has been characterized as Europe's largest terrorist organization. The Grey Wolves received international notoriety when one of its members, Mehmet Ali Agca, attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.

These shocking facts are what led Danielle Mitterrand, president of the France-Freedom Foundation and widow of the late French president Francois Mitterand, to declare that the international community "should judge and impose sanctions for state terrorism represented by Turkey's official army."

Moreover, in 1996 Turkish deputy Sedat Bucak revealed that Grey Wolves chief Abdullah Catli spearheaded a campaign of arson fires that ravaged Greek islands during the height of summer tourist seasons, causing millions of dollars in damages.

While Turkey's dangerous strain of state-sponsored terrorism was disregarded by both the State Department and Congressional reports, EU-member Greece has been subjected to what may well be characterized as a politically-inspired witch hunt with little actual substance.

The small group of extremists responsible for the sporadic attacks on foreign businesses and the killings of four American officials during the past 25 years are a perverse exception to Greece's standing as among the safest countries in Europe for foreign officials and tourists alike.

According to information taken from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, Greece's homicide rate is less than a fifth of the U.S.'s, and Americans are seven times more likely to be murdered in their own nation's capitol than anywhere in Greece. The memorial at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City commemorating 168 dead should serve as a sobering reminder that far more Americans and government officials have died as a result of home-grown terrorism. Whether looking at terrorism or crime, Americans and U.S. officials are safer walking the streets of Athens or Thessaloniki than those of Washington, D.C. or New York.

This reality was underscored when former President George Bush informed reporters while vacationing in Crete this June that he felt safe visiting Greece, and urged other Americans to do so as well.

Politically-motivated charges of terrorism undermine U.S. credibility worldwide and depreciate sincere U.S. concerns regarding terrorism. If our policymakers cry wolf too often, or try to exert untoward pressure on democratic allies through irresponsible accusations, our capacity to counter genuine terrorist threats will be compromised and our foreign policy will sustain further damage.

The disproportionate focus on what is in essence a minor concern for U.S. interests in Greece is a red herring that not only detracts from the real foreign policy issues our government must address in the region, but hands otherwise inconsequential extremists their biggest victory by magnifying the perception of danger they pose, and thus their ability to spread terror. Moreover, exaggerating the effects of terrorism in Greece helps to undermine our staunchest and most democratic ally in the region, and our best hope for the spread of democratic and free-market values to the Balkans, Turkey and beyond.

P. D. Spyropoulos is an attorney and the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP), a non-profit think-tank created to address bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism. Commentaries, letters and opinion-editorials by AHMP have been published in The Baltimore Sun, Billboard, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Republican, The Daily Telegraph, The Dallas Morning News, The Detroit News, The Economist, El Nuevo Herald (Miami), The Financial Times, Forbes Global, The Fresno Bee, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The National Review, New York Newsday, The New York Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Orlando Sentinel, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Plain Dealer, The South China Morning Post, The St. Petersburg-Times (Fla.), The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Tampa Tribune, The Toronto Sun, USA Today, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and World Press Review

American Hellenic Media Project
PO Box 1150
New York, NY 10028-0008

Click here to view another version of "Phantom Terror", which was submitted to The Montreal Gazette

Click here to view an exchange of critical letters between US Ambassador to Greece, Nicholas Burns,
and the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project regarding the above editorial

Click here to view coverage by The Washington Times of this exchange of letters

Click here to view an excerpt from a June 28, 2000 State Department briefing regarding this exchange of letters

Reposted: August 8, 2000

[AHMP Home Page] [Announcements] [Media Alert!] [Recent Responses] [Responses by Source] [Responses by Topic]