May 3, 2016
Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: readers who enjoy this article will also want to obtain the author’s new ebook, Studies in Greek Security Vol.II: 2012-2015, available on Amazon Kindle. For excerpts from the book, check out this new article.
For Europe, 2015 was marked by a historic migration crisis and then successive Jihadist attacks in France, followed by those in Brussels in early 2016. Other planned plots were disrupted during this period in different countries. Currently security agencies across the world are working at an intensified pace, trying to uncover the terrorist networks and break down their logistic and communication lines, along with arresting their coordinators.
In the following report, several major aspects of the counter-terrorism effort in Greece are discussed.
Context: Greece’s Geo-Political Placement, and Increased Police Activity
First of all, Greece faces a two-fold challenge. It is geopolitically situated right in the midst of the axis between the Middle East (and the Syrian-Iraqi battlefields) with major EU states, plus it faces a human flow of illegal immigrants and refugees that hinders capacity of effectively vetting newcomers and uncovering terrorists hidden within them. Moreover, the country’s financial burden places further constraints on budgets and capacities. However, the security services have also benefited from non-disclosed technical upgrades in some capacities since January.
In general, the counter-terrorism effort has to take into account these two aspects before forming a clear stance. For the time being it is widely assessed that networks of suspicious NGO’s of Islamic origin, makeshift mosques and dozens of persons are both electronically and physically being monitored by police. There is now a special focus on the islands close to Turkey, in Athens and Thessaloniki, where the largest congregation of suspects is to be found.
On a purely operational level, we are noting increased police protection of major transport hubs such as Athens International Airport and the Athens metro-urban railway. The port of Piraeus, which is also a major transit port for cruise ships has seen its security boosted.
Further, major motorways leading from the west of the country to the eastern borders with Turkey, such as the Egnatia Odos, are seeing a noticeable increase of police patrols. These include more stop-and-search operations. The Egnatia axis in particular is the one connecting thee, Middle East, via Turkey, with the Adriatic – as well as the Balkans and thence Central Europe – creating a vast geo-economic corridor. This can also be used, of course, for the transfer of all sorts of contraband from the East to the West, and South to North.
Increased Protection of Diplomatic Installations, and Leftist Threats
Diplomatic representations of countries assessed as being potential terrorist targets, and assorted associations and businesses, are all benefitting from increased police security controls.
It is noteworthy to add that some of these representations have been in the past successfully targeted not by jihadists but by homegrown far-left terrorists, such as was the case with the rocket attack on the US Embassy in 2007, the attack on the German Ambassador’s residence in 2013, and another one targeting the Israeli Embassy in 2014.
Indeed, because of many years’ experience, the security services’ awareness in that sector exceeds its anti-jihadist knowledge. Here protection is a particular challenge for local authorities, since the perpetrators are largely Greeks. To understand the historic and chronic nature of this threat see Balkanalysis.com’s prior study of all left-wing attacks from 2008 through 2012, and our review of former US diplomat Brady Kiesling’s study, Greek Urban Warriors.
Most recently, Balkanalysis.com anticipated the convergence of radical leftist groups and migration activists, predicting the kind of organized violence we have been seeing at migrant camps like Lesvos and Eidomeni. These also constitute a growing security challenge for police.
However, while other Balkan countries have recently expelled violent activists responsible for causing physical damage, Greece is limited in this capacity precisely because it is in the Schengen Zone. If it deports an activist for causing trouble, that person can always come back, so long as Greece remains in the zone.
Enhanced International Cooperation, Post-Brussels
Another important aspect is Greece’s international cooperation with anti-terrorism task forces, with the American FBI being especially active in Athens. Our sources indicate that FBI activity increased after the attacks in Brussels.
All major EU states have also boosted bilateral cooperation with local authorities due to the terrorism threat. Here there is a special focus on checking the movements of suspected terrorists hidden within the immigration wave. Nonetheless, despite increased scrutiny, no arrests or detentions within Greece have occurred lately in relation to that threat.
The EU border assistance authority FRONTEX is also increasing its personnel in the country, though it is tasked mostly with patrol and registration duties and not counter-terrorism ones. Nevertheless, DEONTEX experts could contribute by clarifying the threat assessment in the country, and building a network for exchange of information between all interested parties, by checking and verifying flows.
On the other hand, FRONTEX itself may add to the list of potential targets, since anarchists and migrant activists have long identified it as one of the symbols of “racist” European policies. Therefore, attacks on FRONTEX installations or personnel by such groups cannot be excluded.
Security Concerns Surrounding Migrant Camps and Activists
Indeed, currently the many refugee camps across the country and most notably in Eidomeni, Piraeus, Elliniko and Lesvos are routinely checked for the presence of radicals posing as refugees. Balkanalysis.com security sources confirm that “substantial numbers” of uniformed and plainclothes police and intelligence officials have been dispatched to these locations, to interrogate or make connections with such persons.
Furthermore, police are monitoring the social media presence of known and lesser known radicals, as well as the preaching of self-proclaimed Imams in Athens-based religious establishments. Data collected so far by Balkanalysis.com indicates the existence of cells coordinated by 15 different extremists who could pose a future threat, but do not seem to have been activated so far within the country, in terms of conducting offensive operations. Propaganda and logistics assistance seem to be the main preoccupation of these networks in Greece, since the country is viewed as a transit zone primarily.
Prison Radicalization and the Intersection of Crime and Terrorism
The steadily increasing Muslim population in the Greek prison system has also presented a new challenge. Although all the inmates are convicted criminals, there has been a noted radicalization amongst groups of them, who no longer identify in ethnic terms but in religious (Islamist) terms. A gradual radicalization us thus occurring alongside the establishment of a parallel society.
Historical experience in most European countries confirms that this is a major milestone in the proliferation of hybrid criminal-terrorist networks within the general society, as inmates who have been radicalized re-enter society and then expand their beliefs, combining criminal action with extremist indoctrination. Eventually, this leads to plain terrorist action if opportunity arises. The case of Belgium and the Molenbek urban ghetto is a prime example.
Greek security forces assess that major threats so far include lone wolf type attacks or small radicalized cells that will act on their own based on social media brainwashing, and not based on orders from or contact with Islamic State or other larger organizations.
Meanwhile, the radicalization process inside the refugee camps will result in public disorder that could be then used by terrorists to stage an attack. This is another peril for which Greek security services are trying to prepare. Although an attack by itself, if not sanctioned and prepared by specialists such as ISIS will have only limited damage, it could still cause disruption.
Of course, such attacks could possibly be averted by the previously mentioned preventive measures. Acts of provocations inside refugee camps by experienced agents provocateurs is an additional issue directly tied with the previous ones.
Generally, the counter -terrorism threat assessment indicates an elevation of danger in 2016 compared to previous years. On the other hand, the overall danger level still lags behind the one in the “traditional Jihadist target countries” such as Belgium or France. As long as Greece remains a ‘transit’ country rather than a ‘prestige’ target this reality should continue.