The Greek Gateway to Jihad
June 16, 2016
Abstract: Greece has become a crossroads for extremists trying to reach Syria and Iraq from Europe and for fighters returning home. The fact that several members of the Paris and Brussels attack cell transited through the Greek island of Leros illustrates the Islamic State’s ability to exploit refugee flows in order to move fighters into Europe. Although Greece’s migrant crisis has eased recently, a persistent economic crisis has left the Greek government with limited resources and capability for border security and counterterrorism efforts. At a time of growing radicalization and Islamist extremist activity within Greece’s own borders, this has led to concern that the Islamic State may take advantage by launching attacks against Western or Russian tourists or interests on Greek soil.
On October 3, 2015, a boat originating from nearby Turkey carrying almost 200 refugees landed on the Greek Cycladic island of Leros. Among them were two Iraqi Islamic State recruits carrying Syrian passports with fake names. They were among the 400-500 migrants arriving on the island by sea every day last fall and among about one million irregular migrants who have come to Europe via the Aegean sea, many on rickety boats that trawl the Turkish coast seeking out the desperate.[a] Local officials processed the duo as refugees, and then the two men booked themselves on a ferry to Athens before transiting through the Balkans on a route trodden by tens of thousands of other refugees. Just over one month later they blew themselves up at the French national soccer stadium in the worst terrorist attack in France’s modern history.
They were not the only suspected terrorists who landed in Leros that day. Two others posing as refugees in the very same boat were arrested in Austria in the wake of the Paris attacks under suspicion of having ties to the plotters. In addition, Leros was the arrival point in September for Swedish Islamic State operative Osama Krayem who was traveling with an alleged co-conspirator in the Paris and Brussels terror cell. There were also eyewitness sightings of Paris attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud in Leros in the late summer. He subsequently claimed to have exploited refugee flows to enter Europe, but it is not clear if Leros was his entry point.
The Islamic State’s successful infiltration of operatives into Europe through Greece cemented concerns that the country had become the soft underbelly of Europe. An unannounced, on-site evaluation by E.U. inspectors of six Greek sea and land border sites between November 10 and November 13, 2015, (ironically, the day of the Paris attacks) revealed “serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control by Greece, in particular due to the lack of appropriate identification and registration of irregular migrants at the islands, of sufficient staff, and of sufficient equipment for verifying identity documents.”[b]
After reaching a crisis point, the migrant pressures on Greece eased dramatically[c] after March 2016 due to an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to deport irregular migrants back to Turkey and the move by several countries in the Balkans along the so-called northern refugee corridor to restrict severely the admission of refugees trying to transit northward. But there is concern that the numbers coming through Greece may surge again if the deal with Turkey collapses.
An early example of a terrorist crossing through Greece was Ibrahim Boudina, a French Islamic State operative who was detained on January 3, 2014, after Greek police pulled over a taxi in which he was traveling in the town of Orestiada, four miles from the Turkish border. Greek police discovered a USB drive with instructions for how to make homemade bombs “in the name of Allah,” but let him go because, just as with Fabien Clain, there was no warrant for his arrest, despite French intelligence services being aware of his travel to Syria. One month later French police arrested him near Cannes, thwarting his alleged plans to carry out a bomb attack with three soda cans filled with the explosive TATP.
Another case was Fabien Clain, one of the alleged masterminds of the Paris attacks, who reportedly transited through Greece on his way to Syria in the early months of 2015. Clain drove his family from the northwestern port of Igoumenitsa to the Turkish border in the northeast of the country, making stops in both Thessaloniki and Kavala. French authorities tipped off their Greek counterparts of his presence in the country, but there was no warrant for his arrest so he was not detained.[d]
A significant number have transited from Balkan countries such as Kosovo and Albania and then used Greece as a gateway to jihad.[e] A case in point was Mirsad Bektasevic, a Bosnian-Swede who was arrested along with another man in Evros, Greece, on January 28, 2016. Bektasevic was previously implicated in a plot to attack the British Embassy in Sarajevo.[f] A file collected by Greek authorities showed that both suspects came to Athens via Sweden on January 22, 2016, for two days before continuing on their journey to exit European territory by the end January 2016. Authorities were alerted of their arrival at Athens airport by a tipoff from a European intelligence service. From there, both men took a KTEL bus to Thessaloniki and arrived at Alexandroupolis on a second bus. The ‘green light’ for their arrest came when they booked a ticket for Tychero, a town near the Turkish border.
Some have used Greece as a way station to transport weapons into Syria. In February 2016 Greek police arrested three alleged British jihadis of Kurdish descent in Evros in northeastern Greece who may have been seeking to cross into Turkey. Police discovered a significant number of weapons in their possession and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
In order to facilitate travel flows, militants have set up logistical, recruitment, and financial cells in Greece, and some members of Greece’s large immigrant community, particularly in Athens, have provided housing to the transiting jihadis and helped them evade security services.
Islamic State operatives have used Greece to coordinate attack plots in Europe. The Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud communicated by a cell phone from an Athens apartment with several members of an Islamic State cell in Belgium, plotting a major gun and bomb attack. Plans for how to attack airports were reportedly discovered on a computer in his residence on Asteropolis Road in the heart of the capital.The plot was thwarted in a gun battle in Verviers, Belgium, in January 2015. An Algerian associate of Abaaoud in Athens was extradited to Belgium and charged with being part of the conspiracy.
The Threat to Greece
Greece does not have as significant a problem with radicalization as some other European countries, which means the threat from homegrown Islamist terrorism is significantly lower than in France or the United Kingdom. Greece hosts a Muslim minority, which is a vestige of the Ottoman Empire, but also an expanding Islamic population from Arab countries and South Asia who have arrived in significant numbers as illegal immigrants. Estimates of the centuries-old[g] Muslim minority[h]—which is mostly located in western Thrace, a region bordering Bulgaria and Turkey—range from 98,000 to 140,000 (between 0.9 percent and 1.2 percent of Greece’s 11 million population but as much as a quarter of the population of western Thrace). Estimates for immigrant Muslim community numbers between 200,000 and 300,000 (between 1.9 percent and 2.7 percent) with the majority living in the Athens region. Most Albanian immigrants to Greece are Muslims, though most are secular-leaning. While there are low rates of radicalization among the very longstanding Muslim minority in western Thrace, most of whom are secular-leaning,[i] there is concern about radicalization among immigrant communities.
One concern is the lack of registered mosques in areas where there are large immigrant Muslim populations like Athens, creating a potential informational black hole for authorities. Data from the Muslim Association of Greece shows that there are currently three officially registered mosques in Athens and about 20-25 unofficial mosques serving the city’s estimated 130,000-200,000 Muslims.The presence of informal, unregistered mosques has complicated the task of law enforcement officials in investigating suspected foreign fighter cases.
Some Greek Muslims have tried to travel to Syria via Komotini, a western Thrace town near the border with Bulgaria and Turkey. One example was a 40-year-old seller of ecclesiastical paraphernalia in Komotini who, according to police sources, operated a pro-jihadist Facebook profile.
In another example of extremist activity within Greece, an investigation into Rawti Shax, an Islamic State linked-organization headed by an Iraqi Kurdish cleric based in Norway, revealed the group was trying to recruit from Greece. In November 2015 European authorities arrested 15 people in four European countries, breaking up what officials called a terrorist network that sought to overthrow the Kurdish government in northern Iraq and recruit militants to fight in Iraq and Syria. According to Greek police, an Algerian national and a Pakistani who were residents of Norway and involved in the network spent time in Greece for recruitment purposes. An analysis of internet chatroom activity also indicated the group had supporters in Greece.
With thousands of Syrian refugees stranded in Greece after Balkan countries took measures to shut off transit routes for irregular migrants in March, there is concern refugee camps could become a breeding ground for extremism. Before it was shut down last month, the Idomeni camp in northern Greece had swelled to over 10,000 migrants. Greek police have since moved the refugees to other facilities in Greece.
There is concern that because of the jihadist transit through the country, the Islamic State may try to set up sleeper cells in Greece and that these cells might take advantage of limited Greek counterterrorism capabilities to launch attacks against Western or Russian visitors or interests inside the country. As many as 27.5 million tourists are expected to visit Greece in 2016, almost triple the country’s population. As a member of NATO Greece itself is also in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, even if the country is not likely a priority target. In the wake of the Paris attacks the Islamic State released a video threatening reprisals in 60 countries that it considered allied against it, including Greece.
Limited Counterterrorism Capabilities
The rise of Islamist radicalization and the transit of European foreign fighters through Greece has been in danger of overwhelming security services such as the Greek National Security Agency (EYP), which was established to confront left-wing terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Organization 17 November. Most of its staff comes from various bodies such as the police (drug enforcement), coast guard, and military intelligence. Greek ministers have criticized EYP’s leadership,[j] and a lack of funding and training has made it extremely reliant on help from other Western intelligence services. Greek police also lack capabilities to track jihadis. When Belgian authorities requested Greek authorities arrest Abaaoud in Athens in early 2015, Belgian officials accused Greek police of failing to move quickly enough.
There have been some positive developments, including a recent, dramatic reduction in the number of migrants entering Greece, and E.U. officials have proposed creating a European border security force and coast guard to help Greece. In addition, the newly established European Migrant Smuggling Center (EMSC) has stationed officers on the islands of Chios, Samos, Lesvos, and Leros where refugee registration centers are in operation, as well as in Piraeus Port, bolstering Greece’s current border-security capabilities. EMSC agents are checking suspicious individuals against Europol’s databases in the Netherlands.
Although the migrant crisis has eased, a sustained economic crisis has left the Greek government with limited resources and capacity for border security and counterterrorism efforts at a time of growing radicalization and militant activity within Greece’s own borders. If thousands of migrant seekers remained trapped in military camps in Greece for a lengthy period there is a possibility some will be radicalized. Rising anti-immigrant activism by militants from Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party risks adding fuel to the fire.
There is concern that the Islamic State may take advantage by launching attacks against Western or Russian interests on Greek soil. Moreover, there is a sense of complacency that Greece will not be struck because it is not playing any role in the coalition against the Islamic State, which is partly due to its financial restraints but also due to the fact that the governing Syriza party hails from an anti-war rhetoric movement. It may only be an attack in Greece itself that leads to a wake-up call.
Ioannis Mantzikos is a security analyst based in Athens, Greece. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the Free State University in South Africa and a senior analyst at the Research Institute for European and American Studies. His recent book with Dr. Denise Baken is entitled The Transformation of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa. Follow @YMantzikos
[a] Since the start of 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) calculates that almost 1.4 million migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean and entered Europe via one of five E.U. coastal borders: Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. Through March 16 of this year, IOM counted over 997,000 seaborne arrivals to Greece alone. According to the Greek authorities, 47 percent of newly arrived migrants are from Syria, 27 percent from Afghanistan, 17 percent from Iraq, and 3 percent each from Iran and Pakistan. See “Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in 2016 Approach 150,000; Deaths Reach 455,” IOM, March 11, 2016.
[b] E.U. Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos stated in January, “we know that in the meantime Greece has started undertaking efforts towards rectifying and complying with the Schengen rules. Substantial improvements are needed to ensure the proper reception, registration, relocation or return of migrants in order to bring Schengen functioning back to normal, without internal border controls. This is our ultimate common goal.” “Commission discusses draft Schengen Evaluation Report on Greece,” European Commission Press Release, Brussels, January 27, 2016.
[c] According to the IOM, 3,360 migrants and refugees landed on the Greek islands in April 2016 as compared to 26,971 the previous month—an 88 percent drop. The figures for May were lower still with just 1,465 migrants and refugees arriving on Greek shores by sea, fewer than were arriving daily in January and February. See “‘Dramatic’ drop in migrant arrivals to Greece: officials,” Deutsche Welle, May 13, 2016; “IOM: Noted drop of maritime migrants reaching Greece,” Xinhua, June 4, 2016.
[d] Fabien Clain had previously served jail time for recruiting for al-Qa`ida in Iraq. As well as claiming the Paris attacks on behalf of the Islamic State, he was also suspected of encouraging a plot by a Parisian student to attack a church in the city, which was thwarted in April 2015. Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Immense challenges remain despite arrests of terror suspects,” CNN, April 8, 2016.
[e] The Islamic State has produced several propaganda videos featuring Kosovars appealing to their countrymen to join them, and the Kosovo authorities believe some 200 individuals have left to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria. See Tim Lister and Ioannis Mantzikos, “Add this to Greece’s list of problems: It’s an emerging hub for terrorists,” CNN, January 26, 2015.
[f] On October 19, 2005, Bektasevic had been arrested after a police raid on his aunt’s home in Sarajevo, Bosnia. In the house, police had found a belt with explosives, 18 kilograms of explosives, and a videotape with directions as to how to create a makeshift bomb. See Rodolfo Toe, “Sarajevo Embassy Attack Plotter Held in Greece,” Balkan Insight, February 2, 2016, and Maja Zuvela, “Three jailed in Bosnia for planning suicide attack,” Reuters, January 10, 2007.
[g] The first Muslims settled in this region after arriving from Anatolia in 1363 during an attempted conquest of Europe by the Ottoman Turks. In 1923 Greece and Turkey agreed to a mass exchange of populations and consequently Greeks resettled from Asia Minor to mainland Greece and vice versa. The Muslim minority in Thrace is mirrored by a Greek-Orthodox minority in Istanbul. See, for example, Ioannis Michaletos, “Islam in Greece: Country Outlook,” Radical Islam Monitor in Southeast Europe, August 5, 2011.
[h] It is estimated that 45 percent of Muslims in Western Thrace are of Turkish descent, 40 percent of Slavic descent, and 15 percent of “Pomak” descent. Ioannis Michaletos, “Islam in Greece: Country Outlook,” Radical Islam Monitor in Southeast Europe, August 5, 2011.
[i] Muslim preachers in the area of Komotini in the Evros region of northern Greece have repeatedly denounced radical extremism and have been supportive of all counterterrorism measures. “Thraki Muftis denounce ISIS,” To Vima, October 1, 2014.
[j] Former Minister of Interior Yiannis Panousis said he was aware that jihadis were traveling via Greece and questioned EYP’s ability. Minister of Defence Panos Kammenos called for EYP Head Mr. Yiannis Roubatis to resign. See Constantinos Zoulas and Yiannis Souliotis, Panousis claims SYRIZA officials told him to free detained suspects, Kathimerini, November 15, 2015; “Kammenos: Roubatis should have resigned,” Huffington Post Greece, November 22, 2015.
 Christopher Harress, “Paris Shootings 2015: Greek Officials Claim Bataclan Attack Terrorist Passed Through Country In October,” International Business Times, November 14, 2015.
 Paul Cruickshank, “The inside story of the Paris and Brussels attacks,” CNN, March 30, 2016.
 “Attaque du Stade de France: le terroriste kamikaze passé par la Grèce n’était pas seul, “ France TV-Info, November 20, 2015.
 “Council Implementing Decision setting out a Recommendation on addressing the serious deficiencies identified in the 2015 evaluation of the application of the Schengen acquis in the field of management of the external borders by Greece,” General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, February 18, 2016; “Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in 2016 Approach 150,000; Deaths Reach 455,” International Organization for Migration, March 11, 2016.
 Éric Pelletier and Thibault Raisse, “Attentats de Paris: révélations sur l’autre commando de Daech,” Le Parisien, February 13, 2016.
 Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Immense challenges remain despite arrests of terror suspects,” CNN, April 8, 2016.
 “Document RMC: Le témoignage de Sonia, celle qui a dénoncé Abaaoud,” BFMTV, February 4, 2016.
 Paul Cruickshank, “Paris ringleader came through Greek island Leros,” CNN, December 17, 2015.
 “Council Implementing Decision,” p. 4.
 “European Commission – Fact Sheet European Agenda on Migration: Securing Europe’s External Borders,” December 15, 2015.
 Patrick Kingsley, “Balkan countries shut borders as attention turns to new refugee routes,” Guardian, March 9, 2015.
 Paul Cruickshank, “Raid on ISIS suspect in the French Riviera,” CNN, August 28, 2014; Rukmini Callimachi, “How ISIS Built the Machinery of Terror Under Europe’s Gaze,” New York Times, March 29, 2016.
 Yiannis Souliotis, “Fabien Clain’s Greek Journey,” Kathimerini, April 3, 2016.
 “Suspected jihadist terrorists arrested in Alexandroupoli,” To Vima Online, February 1, 2016.
 Panagiotis Spyropoulos, “What has been found in Jihadists cellphones,” The TOC, February 1, 2016.
 Lia Nesfige, “Evros: getaway of jihadists and arms smugglers,” Ta Nea online, February 15, 2016.
 “120 Kosovar jihadists returned from Syria,” Tribune, November 30, 2015; Arianna Ferentinou, “Jihadists giving headaches to Greeks too,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 12, 2014.
 Éric Pelletier and Stéphane Sellami, “Attentats de Bruxelles : cinq questions sur un carnage,” Le Parisien, March 23, 2016.
 Paul Cruickshank, “Inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe,” CNN, February 13, 2015.
 Ioannis Michaletos, “Islam in Greece: Country Outlook,” Radical Islam Monitor in Southeast Europe, August 5, 2011.
 “Unlicensed mosques in spotlight after Paris attacks,” Kathimerini, November 26, 2015; Tasos Telloglou, “Three mosques registered in Athens,” Kathimerini, November 22, 2015.
 “Turkey extradites Greek Muslim with suspected jihadi ties,” Kathimerini, November 19, 2015.
 Alexandros Kalafatis, “Who is the 40 year old man arrested for alleged ties with ISIS?” Huffington Post Greece, November 20, 2015; “Turkey extradites Greek Muslim with suspected jihadi ties,” Kathimerini, November 19, 2015.
 Gaia Pianigiani, “Coordinated European Raids Target Ring Supporting Terrorist Groups,” New York Times, November 12, 2015.
 Vasilis Labropoulos, “Terrorist Recruitment network in Greece,” To Vima, April 10, 2016.
 “Migrant Crisis: Macedonia Shuts Balkan Route,” BBC, March 9, 2016.
 Costas Kantouris, “Greek police evacuate hundreds from Idomeni refugee camp,” Associated Press, May 24, 2016.
 For example, see Oliver Guitta, “Greece: ISIS’s Gateway to Europe?” National Interest, December 15, 2015; Helena Smith, “Miracle in Athens as Greek tourism numbers keep growing,” Observer, May 28, 2016.
 Philip Chrysopoulos, “ISIS Threatens 60 Countries Including Greece,” Greek Reporter, November 25, 2015.
 John M. Nomikos, “Does Greece needs a department of Homeland Security?” Research Institute of European and American Studies, November 1, 2013.
 “Kammenos: Roubatis should have resigned.”
 Cruickshank, “Inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe.”
 “European Commission – Fact Sheet.”
 Philip Chrysopoulos, “Europol Undercover Agents at Greek Hotspots to Locate Jihadists, Traffickers,” Greek Reporter, April 11, 2016.
 Ioannis Michaletos, “Current Greek Counter-Terrorism Threat Assessment: Terrorism, Radicalization and Migration,” BalkanAnalysis.com, May 3, 2016.
 Sarantis Michalopoulos, “Greece will abstain from military action against ISIS,” Euractiv, November 16, 2015.