Letter bombing campaign uncovered in Greece

Multiple bombs destined for top-level targets discovered in Greece. Iran chides Russia over decision not to honour arms deal. Months after Kyrgyzstan violence, tensions and resentment still running high. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Luke Heighton
3 November 2010

After several days and the discovery of more than ten packages believed to be parcel bombs, Greek authorities have suspended  international airmail for 48 hours. On Monday, suspect packages addressed to the Belgian, Dutch, and Mexican embassies were found in Athens, the last of which went off, injuring a woman at the courier company handling it. Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of two men (both of whom were reported to have been in disguise and carrying firearms at the time), and the interception of two more parcels meant for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Belgian embassy in Athens. 

On Tuesday German authorities announced that a package sent to Chancellor Angela Merkel from Greece via UPS also contained explosives matching those discovered previously. By the end of the day as many as eleven letter or parcel bombs are thought to have been found in the Greek capital, addressed to prominent politicians and embassies belonging to Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands and Belgium. Just after midday, Wednesday, Italian police were called to Bologna airport after the pilot of a private courier plane was ordered to land, following intelligence suggesting he was carrying a package addressed to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. There were reports that shortly after landing the package ignited.

Greek police are currently searching the homes of the two men already arrested, and are looking for a further five individuals. At least one of the men arrested is believed to be a member of the Conspiracy of Fire Cells (SPF), an organisation which first made headlines in 2008 following the killing of an Athens teenager by police. So far, however, explanations as to why this round of attempted attacks took place have focused on Greek militant groups’ response to the state’s recent austerity measures, and the possibility of an attempt to stoke tensions ahead of this weekend’s local elections – seen by many as a referendum on the current government.  Speaking to Reuters, Blanka Kolenikova, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, said: "Given that left-wing militants tend to blame the country's fiscal woes on 'the wheels of capitalism', the unpopular cost-cutting measures could see recruits to such groups increasing".

Brady Kiesling, a former American diplomat and expert on Greek terrorism, told Christian Science Monitor that “SPF has a track record of international actions. It is definitely an anarchist group looking for a symbolic gesture.” More controversially, perhaps, Kiesling (who also writes for the English-language newspaper Athens News), posted on his own blog earlier this year that in his view Greece’s various anti-authoritarian groups comprise “bands of Neolithic hunter-gatherers whose i-Phones and birth control still miraculously function”, functioning “essentially as artists’ collectives”, and that “Within that counterculture, anti-authority violence is a rite of passage and group bonding, a form of multi-media performance art.” 

For the Irish Times the motivation behind the protests – often presented as merely the logical outcome of public opposition to austerity legislation – is less a conflict of ideology or of economics, and more as a battle to maintain “essential Greekness” during "a time of transformation” and “transition”. Meanwhile Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor and a columnist of popular daily newspaper Kathimerini, usually considered a conservative organ, has gone so far as to ascribe the cause of such violence as rooted in “the absence of personal discipline, which has cultivated a mentality that anyone could do what they liked”, allied to the weakness and  abject failure of the Greek government to make good on either its promises or its responsibilites.

Russia reneges on billion-dollar Iran arms deal

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has roundly condemned Russia for its decision to back down on a billion-dollar arms deal with Tehran. Speaking on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad argued that the deal’s apparent collapse was at least in part attributable to "some Russian official” having been “deceived by the Satan” into thinking that “by illegally cancelling an arms deal, they could harm Iran”. Nevertheless, he went on to add that the same officials “should however be told that Iran does need their missiles to defend the country. They are still obliged to fulfil the still valid contract and if not, Iran will force them to make good the damage caused.”

The likelihood of Russia renewing its former commitment to the deal is disputed by experts. Writing in September – when the deal’s collapse first went public – Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin described President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to scrap Russia’s agreement to supply S-300 air defence systems to Iran as a credit to the Obama administration’s ‘reset’ policy over US-Russian relations, coupled with strong decision-making on the part of Medvedev himself. It may also be significant that in July Saudi Arabia was reported as having offered to award Russia with lucrative contracts of its own in return for a curtailment of its cooperation with Iran - reports which were denied in some quarters, but confirmed in others. Saudi Arabia is believed to have been seeking 150 T-90 tanks, 160 helicopters and air-defence systems worth more than $2.2 billion.

According to Rogin, during his trip to Washington in July “the Obama administration made clear to Medvedev and other Russian officials that the sale of the S-300 to Iran was a red line that couldn't be crossed, and one that was raised in every high-level meeting between the two countries. Israeli officials did the same in meetings with their Russian counterparts”. Despite Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov saying defence cooperation with Iran would continue in other unspecified ways, the deal’s cancellation represents a significant blow to the Iranian regime, which in the last ten years has purchased more than $5 billion worth of Russian weaponry.

Ahmadinejad was also subject to what has been described as “unprecedented” personal criticism from within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards this week. In an article appearing in the Guards’ monthly Payam-e Enghelab (Message of the Revolution) magazine, Ahmadinejad was reproached for thinking himself “above the law”. In a thinly-veiled attack, the article, entitled "Is parliament at the centre of affairs or not?" went on to suggest that "dealing with marginal and unnecessary issues by some politicians has become the country's main issue," and that "adopting these kinds of stance has no benefit but creating separation and division in the Islamic Revolution front and casting doubt about fundamental stances". 

The Iranian leader was also criticised for what was described as his “superficial interpretation of Imam Khomeini's remarks and changing them in a way that meets a few people's interests”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has himself been critical of the Iranian President for his perceived tendency to privilege an “Iranian” over an “Islamic” way of thinking, though he too appears to be having a much harder time of late, with reports of a waning of his spiritual authority amongst the country's shi'ite clerics and laypeople alike.

Trials continue but reconciliation still incomplete in Kyrgyzstan

On 29 October, five Uzbek men accused of being complicit in the killing of a policeman and his driver last June were sentenced to life in prison. However, a recent article published by the Jamestown Foundation in the aftermath of the ethnic violence that swept Kyrgyzstan six months ago suggests there is substantial continued resentment between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations in the country’s southern Osh and Jalalabad regions, and that the inability of the country’s judicial system to deal with cases arising out of the violence may lead to further instability. What began as physical attacks last summer have, increasingly migrated into the courtroom, where victims and perpetrators of last June’s violence now accuse each other of instigating the trouble.

So far some 300 cases have reached Kyrgyzstan’s judicial system, though the vast majority of these have ground to a halt following fears of threats to defendants, witness, lawyers and judges. Courtroom violence is also a very real and not infrequent occurrence. Amid general distrust in the state’s ability to handle matters, there is significant anecdotal evidence of defendants and their relatives, ethnic Uzbeks, being attacked by the victim party, ethnic Kyrgyz. Moreover, according to the report’s author, Erica Marat, some of the alleged chief instigators of the violence – the ethnic-Kyrgyz mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakhmatov, and renowned entrepreneur ethnic-Uzbek Kadyrzhan Batyrov – have yet to be detained by the provisional government, not least because of the influence they continue to exert over local politicians and people.

In such an environment, argues Marat, beset as it is by a toxic mixture of inability, volatility, politically-motivated disinclination, and popular and bureaucratic demoralisation, the prospects of justice for those on the receiving end of June’s catastrophic conflicts seems slim, dependent for the most part on the heavy presence of international observers capable of forcing police and judges to take a more active and impartial role in prosecutions. Even then, she says, some trials may have to take place abroad if they are to take place at all.

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