November 17 Assassins Remain in Shadows

Bursting with pride, the Greek police, on Tuesday, July 2, claimed to have captured its first suspected member of the shadowy urban guerrilla November 17 group since it launched its 27 years of murder and mayhem. Not too much detective work was involved. The suspect, 40-year-old Savas Xyros, was seriously hurt – according to some reports, critically – when a bomb he apparently was planting exploded prematurely in Piraeus, the port of Athens.

The gun police found beside him was identified as the weapon used in the murder of a Greek policeman in 1984.

Immediately after bringing Xyros, an artist, to hospital, police raided his apartment in an upscale Athens neighborhood and found a large quantity of weapons, including bombs and anti-tank missiles. Several days later, police raided another Athens apartment and discovered another weapons cache, although no one was arrested.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, who spoke with sources in Athens, it is highly unlikely the local police have actually uncovered a thread that could lead them to the heads of November 17, a group named after the date of a bloody 1973 student uprising against the military junta then ruling Greece.

For now, police are focusing on the gun found next to Xyros.

The reason is elementary: Since December 1975, the November 17 group has committed 21 murders, mostly US, British and Turkish intelligence personnel and several key political and business figures in Greece. The same 45-caliber pistol was used in all the killings. Richard Welch, the CIA chief in Athens, was the group’s first victim in 1975; British defense attache Stephen Saunders, gunned down on his way to work in June 2000, was the most recent.

The group’s other victims include:

November 15, 1983 – U.S. military attache George Tsantes shot six times in his car. His driver was killed too.

June 28, 1988 – U.S. naval attache in Athens Captain William Nordeen is killed by a remote-controlled bomb outside his home in the northern suburb of Kifissia.

March 12, 1991 – U.S. air force sergeant Ronald Stewart is killed by a remote-controlled bomb in protest against U.S. involvement in the Gulf War.

January 24, 1994 – Former Bank of Greece Governor Michalis Vranopoulos is gunned down and his driver-bodyguard injured in a central Athens street. The weapon is the group's signature gun.

May 28, 1997 – Ship owner Costis Peratikos is killed as he leaves his office in the port of Piraeus.

After each attack, the self-declared radical Marxist group announced it wanted to rid Greek of foreign – and especially US and British – capitalist interests.

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that intelligence circles fighting terrorism for many years in Europe take a different tack on November 17’s real motives and why none of its members has ever been caught.

They note that all the group’s victims, including Greek business executives and financial figures, were directly linked to intelligence agencies, suggesting that the killings were “wet operations”, or liquidations, rather than murders motivated by political ideology. A statement issued by the group after the murder of the British defense attache two years ago underscores the point. It said Brigadier Saunders was killed because of his involvement in the war in Kosovo in 1998. The statement alleged that he helped direct NATO’s bombing of the Serbs in Yugoslavia. By revealing Saunders’s secret role in the Kosovo war, November 17 signaled that as in other murders, it was privy to precise data on the key roles of its victims in various intelligence agencies – information obtainable only by large, sophisticated and state-sponsored intelligence bodies.

The failure to arrest even one member of the group in a quarter-century of murder was explained away by the unlikely contention that it enjoyed the protection of high-powered Greek politicians. Anyone familiar with Greece’s politics and the internal disputes among its myriad intelligence services – private agencies controlled by Greek shipping tycoons and intelligence bodies run by the Greek Orthodox church – knows it would be impossible to persuade these feuding groups to act in concert in the interests of keeping the identities of November 17 members secret.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the solution is far simpler.

The assassins never knew who sent them. Neither did the Greek authorities or the CIA and MI6, which lost men to November 17 attacks.

Conventional wisdom among intelligence and counter-terrorism experts is that November 17 enjoys the support of intelligence bodies that helped the Soviet KGB infiltrate the US intelligence community, especially the CIA and FBI, at the height of the Cold War. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say both the FBI and CIA are still conducting vigorous investigations to try to discover if the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Philip Hanssen, the two American double agents who worked for years for the KGB, availed themselves of the operational services and capabilities of November 17 in their covert operations for the Russians.

Answering that question could expose several still-hidden channels of penetration of the CIA and FBI, like November 17, that are still active and serving a new generations of spies, as well as certain terrorist groups.

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