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Inside Greece's violent new anarchist groups

Wednesday, 14 Aug 2013 | 7:30 AM ET
Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

Not far from the Athenian ruins where democracy was born more than 2,500 years ago, young anarchists intent on toppling Greece's political system run a cafe where the beer is cheap and the artwork features police cars set on fire.

At first glance K*Vox, started a year ago by anarchists who occupied a shuttered building, looks like any other cafe in the bohemian Athens neighborhood of Exarchia. But inside posters show gun-toting guerrilla fighters and the symbol of anarchy - a circle with an A.

On a recent summer day, as the cafe was abuzz with chatter about two anarchists detained by police, a man barged in shouting that help was needed at a store attacked by far-right activists. Such extremists have been regularly blamed for the rise in street attacks during Greece's economic crisis, though they deny perpetrating such acts.

(Read more: Violent protests hit Greece and Spain)

"Isn't it time for a revolution?" a 34-year-old anarchist watching the cafe scene said as he rolled a cigarette. "It's now or never. If we don't do something now, nothing will ever change."

Most media coverage of political radicals in Greece has focused on the far-right Golden Dawn party, which has risen to as much as 14 percent in voting polls after winning support with free food handouts for Greeks and fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric. But the country's economic crisis is also driving extremism on the left.

As Greece's economy has declined, anarchist groups that aim to topple the political system, saying it serves the interests only of the rich, have attracted growing public support.

"In the past it used to be more of a youth movement," said the cafe customer who, like other anarchists interviewed, declined to give his name. "Now you see anarchists who are 40, 50 or even 60 years old - not just 20-year olds like it was a few decades ago."

(Read more: Greek protestors seek 'stay of execution' on bailout)

Many self-proclaimed anarchists - the word stems from the Greek "anarchia" or absence of authority - say they are pacifist, but certain groups have few qualms about using violence. Six years of recession have fuelled a new wave of left-wing militancy, according to officials, anarchists and court testimony.

Many "see it as an alternative political voice," said Mary Bossis, a University of Piraeus professor and one of Greece's foremost experts on left-wing militancy. "They are not marginal anymore."

Not a hoax

In the early hours of June 7, two Greek news organisations received a call warning that a bomb would soon go off in the residential Athens neighborhood of Dafni.

"This is not a hoax," the caller said before hanging up.

(Read more: Is President Obama right about Greece?)

Twenty minutes later, a bomb with at least 1 kg of dynamite exploded under a BMW car used by Maria Stefi, the director of a high-security prison in Athens where suspected anarchist guerrillas are being held. The explosion destroyed the car and smashed windows in nearby buildings; Stefi, who was not in the vehicle, was unharmed.

A day later an anarchist group called the Conspiracy of Fire Cells claimed responsibility for the bomb. The blast was one of a series of attacks this year that have jangled nerves in Athens, including an explosion in a shopping mall, a drive-by shooting at an office used by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and several gas canister explosions outside the homes or offices of politicians and journalists.

There were 527 arson and bomb attacks in 2012 and 254 in the first six months of this year, police data show. Security and police officials blame most of the attacks on anarchist or leftist "anti-establishment" groups.

The numbers compare with 542 arson and bomb attacks over the 12 years from 1974-86, when Greece had a reputation for widespread violence by leftwing militants, though attacks in that period had more bloody results.

(Read more: Greece Minister: Failure to meet bailout terms not our fault)

Anarchist groups that have claimed responsibility for recent violent attacks include the Lovers of Lawlessness, Wild Freedom and Instigators of Social Explosion, Gangs of Consciousness, Lonely Wolf, the Untouchable Cell of Revenge and most recently, Untamed Desires, which said it was behind a parcel bomb sent in July to an association representing prosecutors.

But the group that has become most prominent since the economic crisis erupted is the Conspiracy of Fire Cells (CFC), which is accused by police of carrying out about 150 criminal acts since 2009. Its bombs typically contain small amounts of explosives packed into pressure cookers or similar containers. One such device exploded outside parliament in 2010, causing minor damage but no injuries.

Arrests of more than 30 suspected CFC members since 2009 and four trials since 2011 have failed to stem attacks by the group, which analysts say epitomizes the newer generation of anarchists who come from wealthier families and care little about ideology. Many are educated, disaffected youth who often describe themselves as "nihilist," unlike the more Marxist-inspired far-left militants of the past, analysts and lawyers say.

(Read more: Trouble brewing: Greek tragedy mark two?)

The CFC's loose, horizontal structure of individual cells makes it hard to fight, officials and lawyers say. Some liken the group to the Hydra, the mythological serpent that grew two heads for each one cut off: "You catch one but then more keep popping up," a former senior security official told Reuters.

One indication of the group's philosophy is a 2011 pamphlet attributed by prosecutors to CFC members - and confirmed as a CFC document by a lawyer acting for a CFC member - that was circulated on anarchist websites. It declares CFC members are "revolutionary anarchists" waging "urban guerrilla warfare" against the state.

The pamphlet says: "Everyone can learn and devise ways to steal cars and motorcycles, fabricate licence plates and forge ID cards and official documents, expropriate goods and money, target-shoot and use firearms and explosives." It encourages anarchists to employ easily obtainable items such as gasoline, jerry cans, and camping gas canisters for attacks, as well as timebombs built using instructions from the Internet.

A former senior security official said that in some ways CFC poses a bigger security risk than other Greek militants such as Revolutionary Struggle (RS), an anarchist group that emerged in 2003 declaring war on all forms of government and later protesting against austerity.

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