War on Terror: Insights from a Greek Success Story
Remarks by Mr. Chrysocoides at his presentation on March 28, 2007
Michalis Chrysohoides MP
Former Minister of Public Order, Hellenic Republic
It is an honour to be speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
President Wilson famously considered scholars and policymakers to be engaged in a common enterprise, to be the two sides of the same coin. I am here to address you as a policymaker and talk to you about my experience with fighting terror in Greece.
Countering terror is indeed the most consuming concern of our times. We owe much to the memories of terror victims.
Our mission is clear:
- To find and defeat those responsible for planning terror.
- To do everything we can to stop further outrages.
- And, above all, to make the world safer for the future.
I was first elected in parliament in 1989, a difficult and, turbulent year for Greek political life. The country went through three consecutive national elections/ in a highly polarized atmosphere.
The year of 1989 was not only turbulent it was also dark: it was when the terrorist group November 17, after a 14 year period of action, assassinated a Greek politician for the first time ever. Pavlos Bakoyiannis was a member of parliament and a prominent public figure. I can still recall that day in my mind. There was a hazy and grey sky and the air was heavy suiting perfectly the misery and pessimism of Greek politics at the time.
Three years later, once again I came face-to-face with the unjustifiable results of terror. As I was walking back to my hotel room in downtown Athens, I heard a lot of noise. I asked what was going on? A passerby told me that there had been an assassination attempt against Giannis Palaiokrassas, another prominent politician of the conservative party.
Luckily, he got away with just an injury.
Tragically, Thanos Ajarlian, a 16 year old boy was killed in the explosion. Ajarlian was simply an innocent bystander who was caught up in the explosion. I was lost for words. For a second time within a short period the Greek state was failing to protect its citizens from terrorists. I was sad and angry.
Seven years later in 1999 my political career came to a turning point. I was appointed Minister of Public Order, which is head of homeland security.
The Prime Minister at the time, Constantinos Simitis, had made it explicitly clear that my mission was to eradicate terrorism, mostly personified in the form of the Marxist group November 17.
N17, the last Marxist urban guerilla group of Europe, had been active since 1975. No terrorist had ever been arrested nothing was known about its origins and internal structures. Its membership was perceived to be small but the modus operandi of the group made it particularly forceful. Targets were specifically selected in order to maximize publicity: MPs, government ministers, bankers, industrialists and foreign diplomats. Even the CIA station chief in Athens was murdered. The number of fatalities was low, about 25. However, the choice of the victims and the failure of the authorities to crack the case; created a myth out of them.
I must say I was not thrilled with the terms of my appointment. I remember asking the prime minister: "why are you throwing me into the lion's den?" I was quite anxious and stressed because I realized I was holding a "hot potato" in my hands. After all, countering terror had been a priority of all Greek governments in the last 25 years, and yet, very little progress had been made towards that goal.
The experience gathered from combating terrorism in Greece showed us that it can be defeated. This is my message to you today; terrorism, no matter what its origins are, whether red, black, nationalist or Islamic in nature can be defeated. To do so, however, requires determination, transparency and success in four interlinked fields of action.
1. In the political defeat of terrorism
2. In the maximization of operational efficiency
3. In exploiting opportunities for international cooperation.
4. In safeguarding Democracy, and protecting Human Rights
I will elaborate on each of those fields of action, in turn.
Defeating Terror Politically
Let me begin with the importance of defeating terror politically first.
Disrupting the Narrative of Terror
Our first priority was to challenge the narrative terrorists projected.
When I took office, what struck me was that terrorists always claimed to be after symbolic targets/ not individuals. I realized then that in any struggle the first challenge is to accurately perceive the nature of what is being fought over.
What was "armed propaganda" in their book was cold blooded murder in my book.
The fight against terrorism is not only about tactics and methods; it is also about advancing a particular narrative and persuading the target audience to believe in it. In essence, you need to accomplish two tasks at the same time: first, to challenge the narrative terrorists' project and, second, to replace it with your own version.
A poll, which we carried out in 2001, revealed that people thought of terrorists as Robin Hood characters whom nobody could beat. Conspiracy theories prevailed, and the security apparatus was looked down with contempt.
Reclaiming the Moral High Ground
Our second task was to reclaim the moral high ground.
From day one it was clear to us that if we were to succeed, we had to fight the myth surrounding N17. In this country, I can recall that Post 9/11 families of victims were all over the news. Support groups were formed. Personal stories weaved the fabric of the 9/11 tragedy. In Greece we never had that.
It was a major breakthrough when we decided to reach-out to the families of victims who had formed a dynamic lobby group called "os edo", meaning "that's enough". These people had been ignored, effectively silenced, for years and suddenly they were encouraged to share their side of the story. They launched a campaign to inform the public opinion about terrorism, and to generate support for their cause.
For the first time ever, a relative of a terror victim spoke in public: Michalis Peratikos came on a TV program to talk about the assassination of his son. His vivid yet sad account of the events, as well as of the way his family's life had been affected hit a sensitive chord.
This allowed us to reclaim the moral high ground for the first time. It was clear to us that this approach was working and things were finally taking their course. We continued organizing events in order to inform and remind the public of the victims of terrorism. We were aiming to change popular attitudes and the public's mood toward terrorism. Most of all, we wanted to keep the talk on terrorism alive, not allowing the issue to be forgotten. We wanted to make terrorism everybody's problem and concern, and we used all available media opportunities for that purpose.
Winning the Battle of Ideas
Possessing the moral high ground is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to politically defeat terrorism. The battle of ideas also needs to be fought and won.
Up to that point, nobody in Greece dared to confront the terrorists' arguments and ideas in a persuasive and aggressive way.
Just after the national elections in 2000 I went live on television to say that N17 was nothing more but a historical aberration, an isolated group of assassins who had reached a dead-end. Their ideology, a synthesis of revolutionary Marxism and counterculture rhetoric from the 60's had no relevance for Greek society at the turn of the millennium. Their ideas were outdated: not a step forwards but a step backwards. It was time to finish-up with this farce of a revolution leading nowhere. I was very conscious of the need to avoid any grand generalizations. Our aim was not to discredit the Left in general. Our aim was to isolate the radicals.
Of course, the turning point in our campaign to change the public's perception on terrorism/ was the prospect of the 2004 Olympic Games. We refined our message/ in order to make it more precise and suited to the Games. We stressed that:
• These people are assassins, not heroes;
• Terrorism is an assault to Democracy; it can offer no better alternative
• Terrorism puts Greece in disgrace;
• It is unacceptable for a group of radicals to disgrace our nation like that.
So what conclusion can we draw so far? Very simply; it is absolutely crucial that terror should be politically defeated. We must not simply be stronger than our enemy, but better than our enemy. We need to capture the moral high ground from terrorists, challenge their ideology, involve civil society, and foster conditions conducive to public support for our actions.
Allow me now to move-on to the second course of action: operational efficiency in the fight against terrorism.
Certainly our success was also an operational success and we must never forget that. A political campaign without operational efficiency is like a car with a broken engine.
Police were well-suited in fighting common crime, but lacked experience and "know-how" in dealing specifically with terrorism.
There was a counterterrorism unit, but no dedicated intelligence department dealing with terrorism. The insights of forensic specialists were not properly followed through. Personnel turnover was high, experienced officers would often find themselves being transferred to other police departments after a few years of service and it would take ages to train their replacements.
More than anything there was a problem of vertical cooperation.
When I met the director of the anti-terrorist unit for the first time in 1999, I saw a man who was de-motivated and hesitant to informally share his views on the subject. He confessed that this was the first opportunity he had a serious talk with a cabinet minister.
Addressing Operational Inefficiency
It was obvious that things had to change.
• We began to work differently; we transformed information to intelligence by analyzing the importance of each piece of information we held,
• We created an anti-terrorist unit consisting of permanent personnel and we provided them with access to the appropriate resources,
• And extensive training in Greece and abroad,
• To streamline the decision making process, I made sure that the director of the anti-terrorist unit had direct access to me as well as to the office of the public prosecutor responsible for the investigation,
• Finally, we took measures to devolve authority we gave to the agents as much space as they needed to do their job,
This course of actions allowed us to see the similarities with French revolutionary writings of the late sixties and early seventies. This led us to the hypothesis that there was some link between France and the leadership of N17, a hypothesis that helped us advance greatly our research.
The Role of International Cooperation
Allow me now to move on to the role of international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Failing to Involve the International Community
Historically, Greece had had a negative experience from foreign involvement in its domestic politics. In turn, this created a deeply rooted view that international cooperation on domestic security issues should be as limited as possible.
Overcoming this inflexibility was vital in order to get positive results.
Things only started to change as a result of international cooperation at the level of EU institutions. In the course of the 1990s, it became apparent, that the world was becoming an increasingly interconnected place; open to exploitation by international crime. In turn, this led to increased international cooperation.
It was clear to me that the previous approach was wrong
My rational was simple: things had changed. Public opinion was receptive to the idea of international cooperation in fighting terrorism but only to the extent that this cooperation was made explicit and fully transparent.
People accept the necessity of exchanging information and know-how in fighting terror, as long as we respect the rule of law.
Reaping the Benefits
As it turned out, international cooperation was crucial in helping us set up our operational capacity and improve our methodology.
When I went to France in late 1999, the authorities asked me: "where have you been all this time?" Nobody had ever visited them in 25 years. At that time, we established an office to act as liaison between French and Greek authorities for cooperating mainly on issues of terrorism. Aside from the French, we built up a systematic cooperation with British and American authorities.
In the aftermath of a botched bomb attack in 2002, we took full advantage of the international experience in terms of actively engaging the public in the investigation. We published a picture of the injured bomber, as a method of encouraging people to come forward.
Protecting Democracy, Respecting Human Rights
We are fighting this war in the name of Democracy.
The final point I would like to stress today is that/ you can defeat terrorism only if you play by-the-book. The success of political and operational measures in fighting terrorism depends heavily on the strict adherence to the principles and rules of Democracy and human rights.
This was a fundamental assumption we held to be true from the start.
We wanted to protect democracy and our society, without resorting to undemocratic measures. This was the case not only for judicial purposes but also in order to strengthen the credibility of the law enforcement effort. People reject arbitrary actions. Each time we forget this, we lose. When we remember it, we gain in credibility and public support.
The evidence we had gathered from witnesses' accounts, from the thorough examination of all data and from the two "safe-houses" we discovered was more than enough to prosecute them and convict the suspects.
The most crucial principle, the one to be followed under any circumstances, was this: no strong evidence, no arrests. We all agreed that no suspect would be detained, unless we had strong enough evidence to successfully conclude a trial. This was of paramount importance to us. We were not looking for people to fill out prison cells; we were seeking to convict criminals.
Liberty VS Security
Today, as new pieces of anti-terrorism legislation pass and anti-terrorist operations become more frequent, vocal protests from civil liberty groups, give rise to debates on the limits between Liberty and Security.
This is a false dichotomy. To assume a fundamental conflict between liberty and security, it is to misunderstand the essential logic of democratic politics. Liberty and security are reinforcing concepts. Under a democratic regime, liberty presupposes security; the point of security is liberty.
The only legitimate justification for the imposition of any restriction upon individual freedom can only be the advancement of collective liberty.
Today, with the world still at threat from Islamic terrorism, I spoke to you as someone who dealt with terrorism in Greece successfully. Obviously I don't hold the key to the global fight against terror. But I believe that the Greek case provides some useful insights for tackling terrorism in general, irrespective of its nature and its ideological baggage.
Let it be clear that nothing is impossible. All these years I have come to realize that terror can never defeat democracy. This is a battle that it is only for democracies themselves, to either win or lose.
Terrorism can be defeated. A firm commitment to the task is essential but so is the battle of ideas and international cooperation. A democratic country always wins in the long run provided it remains committed to the cause and transparent towards its people.
If we remember to be vigilant and tough towards those who violate the rules of Democracy and commit crimes against humanity, if we remember to be honest and sincere, we will prevail. This is a long lasting struggle. In Greece, it took us twenty five years to do it, but we did it at the end. When we decided to do it, the right way, we were successful.