The Threat of Islamic Radicalism to Greece

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 15

Al-Qaeda and affiliated Islamist terrorist organizations have extended their reach to many countries in Europe, including Greece (To Bhma, April 20). The war on terrorism has turned Greece into a key entry and transit point for Islamic fundamentalist networks. This is partly due to Greece’s long and porous coastal borders and proximity to the Middle East, making it a potential source for terrorist infiltration to many Western countries. French intelligence sources dating back to the pre-9/11 period claim that organized networks of radical Arab groups that have operated in Greece in the past have been used by al-Qaeda affiliates and other fundamentalist networks (To Bhma, April 22). Greek intelligence reports as far back as 1993 have informed European and U.S. intelligence agencies on the activities of radical Islamic networks. The establishment and expansion of Islamic communities throughout Greece suggest that the country is rapidly evolving as a logistical and recruitment base, with terrorist networks becoming increasingly able to provide financial support for recruitment and propaganda purposes. The nature of transnational organized crime in Greece is fairly heterogeneous, with many Middle Eastern and pro-Islamic groups using the country as a hub [1]. All of these factors demonstrate that Greece is susceptible to Islamist terrorist infiltration.

Muslim Communities in Greece

In recent years, the pace of migration to Greece from Arab, North African and other Islamic regions has increased dramatically (Mediterranean Migration Observatory, November 15, 2004). The major Muslim community network is located in the northern Greek municipally of Thrace, which is situated along the porous tri-border between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. A large and constantly expanding community, numbering around 86,000 Greek Muslims (35,000 Pomaks, 12,000 Roma and 39,000 Turks) and containing 300 formal mosques, has been present for decades in Thrace (Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2007). The Greek Muslim community in Thrace has been steadily and methodically integrated in local and national politics with representatives in the Greek parliament. Nevertheless, the radicalization of this large part of the Greek population presents a real danger. Dating back to 1996, Greek intelligence reports have expressed their concerns that large sums of money are supplied by the Saudi government via the Turkish council in Komotini to the Greek Muslim minority. This money is generally earmarked for religious outreach activities.

Outside of Thrace, no signs of “ghettoization” have been observed, unlike in other European countries. The lack of ethnically and racially homogenous areas in the center of Athens prevents the establishment of a protective shield against the security apparatus that creates a “state within a state” and facilitates terrorist planning and fundamentalist propaganda. Since 2000, however, a new Islamic base, which is more heterogeneous and unstable, has gained a foothold in the heart of Athens. Reports by the Greek press claim that there are approximately 20 informal mosques that exist throughout Athens in apartments, storage places and garages (Ta Nea, May 15). Intelligence sources, however, suggest that the number of informal mosques surpasses 30. Five mosques in particular have been identified by the Serious Crimes Agency (SCA) in Athens as places where extremist elements interact and pray.

The first official mosque—the Greek-Arabic educational and cultural center—began operating in Athens in June 2007 following fierce opposition by political parties and the general public. The Saudi-sponsored mosque can accommodate more than 1,000 religious followers. The new mosque—which will also work as a cultural center and school for Arabic language—was financed by the Saudi businessman El Faouza. The Egyptian imam, Omar Abde Kafi, was invited to be present at the opening of the mosque (Eleftherotypia, May 15). High-ranking Greek counter-terrorism officials claim that various groups linked with these informal mosques have been investigated by the police for suspected ties with terrorist organizations. More specifically, two North African imams have been investigated for suspected links with radical groups from Algeria. Also, various groups of Pakistanis, Kurds from Iraq and Turkey and other Arab nationals have been under the microscope of Greek intelligence and counter-terrorism units for suspected ties with fundamentalist networks (Ta Nea, May 15).

Exploiting Pre-Existing Ties

In the past, various networks have attacked Western targets in Greece. International terrorist networks operating in Greece are comprised mainly of Arab, Palestinian, Kurdish and Armenian groups, and have focused their activities against American, Israeli and Turkish targets. The most publicized cases of terrorist attacks involved members of the Kurdish PKK; the Palestinian May 15 Organization, Abu Nidal Organization, Popular Struggle Front, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Black September; as well as Lebanese Shiite groups [2]. Their main operations included hijackings, hostage taking, RPG attacks on symbolic targets, high-profile assassinations and bombings. The increase in cases of suicide bombings in Turkey, however, perhaps suggests that jihadi tactics imposed by fundamentalist indoctrination have also been established.

Historically, foreign groups that established Greece as their operational platform also established ties with indigenous radical left-wing terrorist groups such as the November 17 group (17N) and the Revolutionary People’s Struggle (ELA) (Eleftheros Typos, May 5, 1991) [3]. A thorough examination of their activities suggests that cooperation between Greek and foreign groups have included training in guerrilla tactics and bomb-making skills, weapon improvisation techniques, logistical and financial support and joint ventures in terrorist planning and attacks. Following the dismantling and imprisonment of various members of the Greek terrorist group 17N, some worrying evidence emerged suggesting a deeper connection between Greek and Islamist terrorism. Photographs and other evidence examined by the police showed that one of the key members of the 17N terrorist groups, Sabbas Xyros, had in the past traveled numerous times to Sudan for “business” purposes. On one occasion, Xyros was photographed wearing a traditional white Muslim uniform (Kathimerini, July 7, 2002). It has been alleged that the picture was taken in a gathering organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares some of al-Qaeda’s underlying ideology yet disassociates itself from violence. During the trial of the 17N groups, Xyros disclosed no further evidence with regard to his possible ties with fundamentalist groups.

According to a 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 Bhma reported that members of the bin Laden network 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. Afterward, in October 2000, a team of bin Laden’s network led by Abu Ounoud arrived at the Ain al-Helweh camp in Lebanon (To Bhma, April 22). The assumption is that the group visited Lebanon in order to get into contact with a “sleeper cell” stationed in the country. The activation of that cell was supposed to trigger communication and interaction with various people or other potential sleeper cells in Greece and Cyprus. In November 2000, two Russian citizens who were traveling from Moscow via Lebanon were arrested by the Greek authorities and deported to Lebanon and then back to Russia. Russian authorities informed their Greek counterparts that these two individuals were actually Afghans who were using falsified documents. The same route and modus operandi has been used in at least one other occasion around the same period. Greek intelligence sources claimed that one of the five red-flagged informal mosques that operate in Athens was also a link for the al-Qaeda-Lebanon-Greece network.

Terrorism and Organized Crime

Despite evidence that jihadi networks are active in many other European countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and Germany, comparable cases have not yet emerged in Greece. The latest terrorist attack happened on January 12 of this year by the newly-emerged, indigenous terrorist group, the Revolutionary Struggle (EA), which attacked the U.S. Embassy in Greece—one of the most guarded and protected buildings in the heart of Athens. Very little is known about the membership, affiliations, motives and capabilities of the group. The first concrete evidence is that the Chinese-made RPG-7 that was used in the attack originated from an Albanian army barracks, which was looted during the 1997 riots. A criminal-terrorist network linked to members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) smuggled the weapon via the Greek-Albanian border (Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, January 19). This and many other cases illustrate the increased relevance of a unitary analytical platform for both criminal and terrorist networks.

Criminal organizations from Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and Syria have, over the years, developed an extensive network of contacts and expertise in drug trafficking, illegal immigration and document forgery (Annual Report on Organized Crime in Greece, 2003-05). Criminal and terrorist groups operate under a common umbrella capable of accommodating both activities. Terrorist operatives, for instance, often follow the same smuggling routes as drugs, illegal migration and other transnational criminal activities. The crime-terror links are, indeed, becoming increasingly relevant in anticipating and preventing the operation of terrorist networks. High levels of illegal migration suggest that terrorists can enter Greece illegally and, with forged documents, travel to other European countries. Some police sources, for instance, suggest that around 1,200 Muslims enter the country daily, and half of them enter illegally (To Kentri, December 21, 2006). There are cases suggesting that Greece has become a transit point and perhaps logistical support hub for terrorist cells.

In September 2005, for example, the Moroccan Anwar Mazrar 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 (Ta Nea, May 15). European intelligence agencies have also reported that around 20 Arab fundamentalists have been arrested in Britain, Italy, Portugal, France and the Netherlands for having in their possession forged Greek passports. Claims have also been made that many Muslims use Greek identity cards to travel around Europe (Ta Nea, May 15).

Greece Establishes Anti-Terrorism Measures

The 2004 Olympic Games acted as a catalyst for integrating Greece’s security and intelligence agencies into the new security environment. Crucial changes were introduced to manage the threat posed by fundamentalist networks. Additional legislative measures and banking regulations were implemented, which mirrored the post-Cold War security environment regarding asymmetric threats such as terrorism and organized crime. Banks and other financial institutions in Greece are enforcing “know your client” policies and are allowing easier government access to suspicious bank accounts in an attempt to prevent money-laundering activities. Since 2004, new laws and taxing regulations against economic crimes have also been introduced that limit the number of offshore companies in Greece. International and direct pressure by the United States on the Greek government has been a key factor in the implementation of a “tough on terrorism, tough on crime policy” (Kathimerini, March 20, 2006).

Additionally, international cooperation and policing against illegal immigration from the east and north fronts with Turkey and the Western Balkans have now become common. Security measures in major entry and transit points such as seaports and airports have been enhanced by U.S.-sponsored modern control equipment that allows port authorities to monitor all outbound containers from Greece to the United States (To Bhma, March 18). More recently, the opening of an investigative office in northern Greece has been proposed by the chief of the Greek police in order to examine serious criminal and terrorist activities. The new office is said to cooperate with the existing SCA of the Greek police that investigates both terrorist and organized crime activities (Kathimerini, June 24). Finally, additional security measures have been introduced in a widely opposed draft plan to install a large number of CCTV cameras in Athens. Undoubtedly, these new security measures have been a direct consequence of the changing security environment with which countries must deal.

Assessing the Threats

Greece has likely become a transit and entry point for Islamist militants who mask their activities and movements in civil society. Globalization forces have contributed to this development. Networks of non-government organizations, charities and cultural centers linked to Saudi Arabia have managed to build and finance a large number of mosques in Greece, Kosovo, northern Albania, Bosnia and the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia.

The opening of the first mosque in Athens suggests that, in the long run, Greece will have to deal with the threats that France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom are now encountering. The danger of becoming an open recruitment and logistical base for terrorists as well as a terrorist sanctuary is extremely worrying considering that Greece shares borders with countries known for being home to terrorist groups. The latest attack on the U.S. Embassy in Athens supports the notion that Greece is a meeting point for various ill-minded terrorist groups. Signs of Wahhabism and radicalism in Greece are also starting to emerge. Greece will certainly face tough decisions in the years ahead.


1. Panos A. Kostakos, “Flexible Foe—Transnational Criminal Networks in Greece,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 2007; Annual Report on Organized Crime in Greece (2003, 2004 & 2005).

2. Spiros Ch. Kaminaris, “Greece and the Middle East,” MERIA 3(2) June 1999.

3. Daniel Perdurant, “Antisemitism in Contemporary Greek Society,” ACTA no 7, 1995.