Written by Ioannis Michaletos
Greece is an E.U., NATO and Eurozone country that has traditionally strong links with the Islamic world due to the geographical proximity with the Middle East and North Africa and the Ottoman rule that lasted four centuries, along with numerous historical encounters with Islam since the Middle Ages.
Currently the country faces a debt crisis that, apart from its obvious disastrous financial consequences both in a domestic and in a global scale, also raises security concerns related to terrorist networks of Islamist origin.
Recent upheavals in Maghreb and the Middle East pertain to Greek and European security as well.
Presently, the country hosts a Muslim minority that is a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, but also an expanding Islamic population from the Arab countries and Pakistan that enter Greece in significant number as illegal immigrants. Corporations in the country, such as banking institutions, tourist companies and real estate firms are in control of Islamic funds, whereas countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Libya can be considered significant trade partners of Greece.
The wider picture
In Athens, Greece, the Iranian Saderat bank is hosted, which is a U.S black-listed institution due to alleged links with Hezbollah. Iran covers 25 percent of Greece’s oil needs per annum and segments of its natural gas needs. There are indications that Hezbollah groups are operating in a logistical-support basis in Athens by gathering funds through tobacco contraband over the past years, as a 2007 report by American collective security research outlined.
In a broad sense, Greece, due to a mixture of its geographical placement, history and business links, is considered a gateway for the Islamic element in close proximity to the European Union and the Balkans, and over the past 10 years it has become one of the main transit territories for Islamic-originating illegal immigration to Europe.
Until now Greece does not seem to have a particular issue of Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, as aptly described in a 2009 U.S. State Department report on terrorism, “Greece is increasingly an E.U. entry point for illegal immigrants coming from the Middle East and South Asia, and there was concern that it could be used as a transit route for terrorists travelling to Europe and the United States. The number of illegal immigrants entering Greece, especially through the Aegean Sea, increased dramatically in 2008 and 2009, with more than 100,000 illegal immigrants, nearly half of whom originated from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, arrested each year.”
Presently in Greece, there seems to be activity within radical Islamic elements as well as gradual projection of Islamic political entities through the use of Greek nationals.
A revelation by the infamous WikiLeaks telegrams showed that the ex-U.S. ambassador in Athens, Daniel Speckhard, has noted the danger of the nexus between Greek domestic terrorist groups and Islamic groups, including those from Iran, as he was informed by the then-Greek minister of public Order, Michalis Chrysohoidis. The leaked telegram was presented by the Greek weekly paper To Vima along with further analysis that points out that the fears expressed are of valid nature.
In 2007 a rocket launch attack with an RPG against the American Embassy in Athens was carried out by the Greek group Revolutionary Struggle, which stated in its proclamation note support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2009 the Greek weekly To Proto Thema reported that Greek leftist terrorists seem to have been trained in Lebanon in paramilitary camps operated by Islamists.
In a special report by the French daily Le Figaro, on December 21, 2010, the case of the route of Islamic terrorists from Lebanon to Europe was noted with significant details. The Lebanese Army Cornell Mahmoud Issa noted to the French journalists that since November 2010, some 20 extremists managed to escape from a camp where they were kept in Lebanon and found their way to the European Union. He stated that already the authorities had been notified on an international level, although he admitted that this is a difficult task. The French security authorities believe that this is the case of a new jihad mission heading towards European metropolises.
In classified documents that were in possession of radical groups in Lebanon, it was noted that three men managed to leave the camp through Syria and Turkey and up to Greece and Bulgaria with the assistance of illegal immigrant transport networks managed by Turks. They managed to acquire fake IDs and were finally caught by a common operation of the Bulgarian and Greek authorities. That case was closely monitored by British and French intelligence due to the fact that these two countries were the ultimate destination of the Lebanese group. Mahmoud Issa stated that more cases are to be found that evade the authorities so far.
Incidents of interest
According to the pre-9/11 French intelligence report, American interests in Greece and Cyprus were considered by Osama bin Laden’s network as targets. Citing a DGSE document, To Vima reported that members of al Qaeda, mostly located in Beirut, in cooperation with Taliban officials and other armed groups, were planning to hijack airplanes between March and September 2000, yet it was never carried out due to various logistical and operational disagreements.
European intelligence agencies have also reported that about 20 Arab fundamentalists have been arrested in Britain, Italy, Portugal, France and the Netherlands for having in their possession forged Greek passports, according to a 2007 revelation by the Greek daily Ta Nea and for the period 2001-2006.
In another notable case, in September 2005 Moroccan Anwar Mazrar— one of the leading Al Qaeda operational terrorists in Europe—was arrested on the Greek-Turkey border while attempting to travel to Greece on the Istanbul-Thessalonica bus service. Mazrar had been accused of being a leading member of terrorist groups in Morocco and also of having ties with al Qaeda. It was revealed that Mazrar was planning to stay in Greece for a while as an illegal immigrant and then move on to Italy and plan two bombing attacks.
Mazrar regularly travelled from Milan, Italy, to Algeria, Syria and Turkey. Greek authorities suspected that he was interested in setting up a base of support in Greece and use the country as a safe haven between Italy and the Middle East. In 2005, immediately after the capture of Mazrar, there was a boost in surveillance by the Greek authorities of suspected Islamist radicals in the country. Cooperation between Greece, the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom intensified in that sector.
Towards the end of 2010, various press reports claimed that radical Islamic action was increasing in the center of Athens, and the issue became widely publicized after it was brought to Parliament via the LAOS political party, which demanded state explanations on the issue and proper notification of security forces. According to statements by several Greek politicians, the country hosts amongst its illegal immigrant population radical cells and quite possibly “al Qaeda sleeping cells.”
In another case in 2005, the so-called “Pakistani abduction case,” 28 Pakistani immigrants were allegedly kidnapped by Greek intelligence agents in Athens. That case was connected to the cooperation between Greek and U.K. authorities following the July 2005 bombings in London, but was also the first notable case of accusation of the Greek state by Islamic organizations that Greece is actively turning against the Islamic element and taking harsh measures in the “war against terror.” The Greek weekly newspaper Proto Thema disclosed the names of 15 alleged Greek agents and an MI6 spy chief allegedly involved with kidnapping and torturing the Pakistanis eight days after the London bombings of July 7, 2005. There was widespread support by leftist groups that demanded through a series of legal actions and demonstrations the punishment of the Greek and U.K. security members involved.
According to all data up to now, the Pakistani immigrants were somehow connected, probably via mobile phone SMS texting and conversations, with the terrorist group responsible for the July 2005 bombings in London. Although six years have passed, Greek and U.K. authorities have not revealed the extent of the involvement of these immigrants.
In early 2011, the Greek media revealed information mainly derived from WikiLeaks that U.S. diplomats in Athens had since 2006 information that there is a nexus between illegal immigrant trafficking networks from Pakistan and terrorists groups in that country that profit from that illicit market. American diplomats at that period in Athens met with their Pakistani counterparts and then provided to Greek authorities several names of traffickers suspected with links to terrorists.
According to the State Department, the Greek authorities didn’t take any action, and one Pakistani diplomat who served in Athens at that period, in a conversation with an American officer, commented that he suspects “Greek security officials may be involved in covering the traffickers.”
In July 2009 Abu Sanjat, am Iraqi citizen wanted by Interpol due to his involvement with terrorist attacks in Baghdad, was arrested in Greece. His arrest was a joint Greek-American-Iraqi operation. According to media reports, he was one of the main ringleaders of al Qaeda in Iraq who wanted to expand the network into Europe. He came to Greece as an illegal immigrant by crossing the borders with Turkey and joined a team of another 20 immigrants. When he was arrested he had forged papers identifying him as a Palestinian refugee claiming political asylum.
In 2006 another case of interest took place in the Athens international network. According to reportage by the Greek daily paper Kathimerini, an imam and Pakistani citizen wanted for terrorist attacks and homicide was arrested as he was flying from the United Kingdom, where he lived in a provincial town. The police investigation revealed that his purpose of visiting Athens was to enact a series of religious seminars for the expanding community of Pakistani immigrants in the city. Although there was an international arrest warrant against him by authorities of Pakistan, he was able to pass through the airport controls in London before taking his flight to Athens. That particular incident alarmed the Greek authorities who surprisingly were able to map an emerging social network of Pakistani radical Islamists in Greece before they were able to commit illegal activities or terrorist actions.
Greece’s geographical placement, in addition to the wider culminations in the Mediterranean that have unfolded over the past year, has sounded alarm bells over the peril of the country being used as a regional logistics hub for international Islamic terrorists and a breeding ground of radicals amongst the communities of illegal immigrants from Islamic countries.
A Greek intelligence service report that was leaked in April 2011 in the Greek daily paper Ethnos points to a definite nexus between international organized crime, illegal immigration trafficking, and the communities of Islamists in the country who in their turn finance and form NGOs in order to attain influence in the local society. The danger of infiltration of terrorists in all of the above is also highlighted.
The main known countermeasures that have been taken by the Greek authorities include increased exchange of intelligence with partner countries, technological upgrade of surveillance equipment, and infiltration of suspected radical and terrorist cells.