Global Independent Analytics
Ioannis Mantzikos
Ioannis Mantzikos

Location: Greece

Specialization: Jihadist Groups, Islamic Terrorism, Global Security

The Greek connection to Jihadi routes

Greece is not only a route for jihadists trying to reach Iraq and Syria, but also a gateway into Europe for fighters returning home from the Middle East.

In the past few months, Islamic State has either directed or inspired major terror attacks in Sharm el Sheikh, Beirut, Paris and San Bernardino. While it is true that priority targets of Islamic State remain France, the United States, Russia, Italy and the UK, some countries should nonetheless not feel entirely terror-proof. Greece is a perfect example of this.

Greece is not only a route for jihadists trying to reach Iraq and Syria, but also a gateway into Europe for fighters returning home from the Middle East. For proof of this, the ringleader of the November 13 Paris attacks, Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, used Greece several times to enter Europe from Syria on his way to Belgium. After the deadly attacks in Paris, the Greek public opinion was shocked by the revelation that Greece not only a place of transit, but often works as a temporary shelter for jihadists.

For Greek secret services and the Counter-Terrorism Service, however, this is not a new finding. Last March, shortly after the double terrorist attack on a Jewish grocery in Port de Vincennes and the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January 2015, Greek Police Counter-Terrorism operatives in consultation with their French colleagues held a secret operation in a junkyard of used cars in the southern suburbs of Attica.[i] The objects of the search were suspicious "convertibles" which belonged to the French man Amed Koulimpali, who along with brother Kouasi, did the bloodbath in Paris on early January 2015. Athens Police detected the traces of the jihadists thanks to the testimony of a Kurdish arms smuggler, who lived and was active in Belgium.[ii] The Kurdish dealer presented himself voluntarily to Greek authorities and confessed that he had illegal dealings with Koulimpali, but without knowing the secret plan. He revealed that a few weeks earlier had sold to the French jihadists Kalashnikovs and explosives.

As far as the Abaaoud case is concerned, shortly after the Paris attacks, police and secret service officials from various countries worked together to identify a suspect in Athens, who appeared to have exchanged telephone calls with members of a core Islamic terrorist group that was dismantled in the city of Vervie, Belgium. There were strong indications that the suspect was the alleged "mastermind" of the deadly attacks on Friday, November 13. Last January, a secret investigation took place in Athens’ Omonoia Square  in order to identify the suspect, without positive results. A few days later, using data from the analysis of telephone calls, police raided a ground floor apartment and arrested a 33th year old Algerian named Omar Queen and an additional person. In his possession, they found a mobile phone that was used in one of the 'issue' communications with terrorists in Belgium.

In Leros, a small Greek Island in the Aegean, Greek Authorities found traces of two of the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the tragic Friday the 13th, outside the Stade de France. French Authorities announced that a dead bomber was recorded on October 3 2015 and "identified" in Leros, where a smuggler boat arrived from the opposite Turkish coast. The passport, which was collected from the point of the explosion, was probably forged and had been issued with elements of another name. Fingerprints of one of the bombers in Paris  were recorded in Leros.

Meanwhile, during January 2016, another alleged case involved Turkish authorities which extradited to Greece a 40-years-old Muslim man with suspected links to jihadi cells. The suspect, from Komotini in northern Greece, had been arrested in Turkey and was believed to be on his way to Syria. The 40-years-old, who is suspected to have been on his way to join jihadi fighters in Syria, is understood to have run a store selling ecclesiastical paraphernalia in Komotini, which has a large Muslim minority. According to police sources, the suspect had a Facebook profile under an Arabic name, on which he is said to have praised the activities of jihadi fighters.

In a related development, two migrants who had been detained in the island of Kos over suspected ties to the Islamic State in 2015, were released after no evidence was found linking them to ISIS. The two men said they were Syrian and one claimed to be opposed to the Assad government.

These events may turn out not to be a coincidence. There have been indications that terrorists are setting up logistical, recruitment and financial cells in Greece, in part to facilitate the travel of a growing number of would-be fighters. Some reports have assessed that up to 200 people in the country have links with the two jihadist groups that most Europeans join: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front—Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Finally, some in the large immigrant communities in Athens may have been in a position to provide jihadists with housing and logistical support.

Greece is far from being a priority target for the Islamic State, especially since Greece has made it crystal-clear that it will not take part in any kind of military action against IS. Nonetheless, IS recently released a video threatening the sixty countries that have allied against them, including for the first time the NATO member Greece. It is quite obvious that Greece is far down the food chain on the jihadists’ target list, even though its close connection to Russia may put it more at risk.

Finally, Greece is rightly seen as the soft underbelly of the EU. There is serious talk about kicking it out of the Schengen zone, which allows free unmonitored travel within most of the EU. If this were to happen, Greece could become more of a target overnight. In fact, if jihadists were to be “stuck” in Greece, unable to go to France for example, they may decide to pull off attacks against French interests within Greece.

In the past few years, Greece has been more in the news for its economic and financial crisis than for international terrorism issues. So while Greece is not a target per se for now, this could change quickly if Islamic State decides to strike in the country. Greek security services should take note and be prepared for the worst.

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