Diplomacy Lessons

John Brady Kiesling, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer

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John Brady Kiesling

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Who are the Conspiracy of Fire Cells?
(Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei, Cells of Fire, Synomosia Pyrinon tis Fotias -- SPF 
-- Συνωμοσία Πυρήνων της Φωτιάς ΣΠΦ) 
updated 8 November 2010

[Update: On November 1 and 2, 2010, teams of young anarchists delivered 14 (or perhaps 15) parcels to courier companies in Athens. Each contained a small quantity of gunpowder from fireworks or flares, and an electric circuit to ignite them on opening. The bombs were symbolic -- they would scorch fingers and damage eyes, but not kill. One of them reached the office of German Chancellor Merkel before being detected. The rest were intercepted (or exploded) before their intended destination.

Two of the bombers were caught in the act, incriminated by wigs, Glock handguns, and bulletproof vests.  Their organization is unlikely to add to their legal troubles by posting on Indymedia a proclamation taking credit and explaining their motives. However, the circumstantial evidence points strongly to SPF. 

What were the motives for attempting to produce symbolic bursts of flame in the embassies of Mexico, Switzerland, Chile, Belgium, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, and France, in the remote outer offices of Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, and at Europol, Eurojust, and the European Court? Media suggestions of cooperation with al Qaeda are idiotic -- religion is a deadly enemy of the self-liberation European anarchists seek. References to the Greek/global economic crisis are equally off the point. SPF will be happy to see the collapse of consumer society but, to its elitist world-view, Greek workers -- aspiring petty-bourgeois drones -- are willing slaves who deserve no sympathy. Nor was this spree aimed at the Greek regional/local elections of November 7. Greek anarchists sneer at elections and called for mass abstention, but SPF's choice of targets was nonsensical if the elections were the motive.

A cursory reading of anarchist web sites suggests that these bombs were a thank-you note to anarchists who have demonstrated (or at least blogged) in support of imprisoned Greek comrades. Anarchists have come to grief in each of the countries mentioned, and Europol, Eurojust, and the European Court are believed to be part of a sinister New World Order of integrated continent-wide oppression of dissidents. SPF is repaying international solidarity with solidarity of its own, just as it did in April 2008 and May 2009 with firebombs against Italian targets and the Chilean consulate in Thessaloniki. Greek police point out that SPF was imitating a 2003 parcel bomb spree by Italian anarchists under the FAI (Informal Anarchist Federation) rubric.

Second, the explosions were a way to humiliate Greek and European authorities by showing their inability to thwart even a primitive bomb spree. Third (maybe), this was revenge on the courier companies, which discourage attempts at labor organizing by their delivery personnel, some of them Exarcheia anarchists. Fourth, SPF was sobered by the death of a young Afghan refugee from an SPF-style bombing in March 2010. This spectacular but bloodless new tactic was supposed to be a way to recover self-confidence and prestige. 

But the net results were a major setback -- galvanizing cooperation by European security bureaucrats while adding two new defendants and putting a major hole in SPF's operational capability. The image put forward by the Greek media, of SPF as a collection of semi-competent elitist 20-somethings from middle-class suburbs, will be difficult to repair. 11/2010]

 

The Greek educational system pours thousands of aspiring artists into a status-obsessed, highly politicized society that cannot afford to employ them. Banding together in collective contempt for capitalism and consumer society is one short-term solution for surplus young males (and a smaller female subculture). Members cut themselves loose from society's more onerous chains and hang out with age-mates in an abandoned building, ideally somewhere near Exarcheia, the anarchists' traditional neighborhood.

The anti-authority groups function essentially as artists' collectives, maintaining an inexpensive communal lifestyle through intermittent work, grants from tolerant relatives, or bank robbery. Within that counterculture, anti-authority violence is a rite of passage and group bonding, a form of multi-media performance art, and a chance for young males to rank themselves against their peers and rival groups in an informal but intense status competition. 

Ideology is crucial, in that it allows these (mostly middle-class) young men to overcome the moral instincts they and every other social primate are born with.  In Greece until 1990 or so, revolutionary communism  was the transcendental ideology that seemed to justify lethal violence against specific targets. As communism lost its legitimizing power, a reasonably vibrant anarchist/anti-authority subculture became more prominent.  Greek youth found gurus preaching the rejection of totalitarian social models in favor of self-liberation and an idealized model of communal self-management (e.g., bands of Neolithic hunter-gatherers whose i-Phones and birth control still miraculously function). 

The logic of libertarian individualism excludes murder as a tool of political discourse. This is not a guarantee of non-violence, in that some "anarchist" groups also reject logic as an unacceptable constraint on personal freedom. Young "anarchists" frighten their parents with a Nietzschean rhetoric of self-liberation through wanton destruction. Still, in practice the anarchist/antiauthority movement is constrained by the individualism of its ideology. Though it preaches "overthrow" (ανατροπή), the movement quietly recognizes that it has no moral basis for creating rivers of blood. Groups are too small, too anti-hierarchical, and too respectful of comrades' moral redlines to wage serious war on the Greek system.  Violence is self-limiting.

The Rise of the Fire Cells

Since the end of the 1970s, antiauthority groups in Athens routinely engage in stone-throwing, window-smashing, and fire-raising whenever a political protest has critical mass to take shelter behind. On non-demonstration days, an uneasy ceasefire prevails, with police and "anarchists" avoiding each other's territory except for occasional raiding parties.  A small group on motorcycles armed with gasoline bottles or gazakia (in simplest form a propane gas canister wrapped in a petrol-soaked rag) will destroy a bank branch, ATM, or parked car. The better-organized groups publish short proclamations on sympathetic web sites (often http://athens.indymedia.org) to explain those attacks.

The usual trigger for an attack is when a group member or friend is arrested, or when a group's territory is infringed. The group retaliates by demonstrating that police cannot protect their patrol cars or police stations from a drive-by firebombing. Police therefore think twice about arresting "anarchists" for any but the most blatant and serious crimes.

The "Conspiracy of Fire Cells" (Synomosia Pyrinon tis Fotias -- SPF) was an attempt to increase the political impact of anti-authority violence. SPF appeared on January 21, 2008, with a barrage of 12 gas canister attacks against widely dispersed banks, car dealers, and the Public Power Company in Athens and Thessaloniki, during a half-hour period just after midnight. The declared purpose of the first barrage was solidarity with Thessaloniki anarchist Vangelis Botzatzis (Μποτζατζής), arrested in November 2007 for gazaki attacks on banks (he was ultimately released). The number and coordination of SPF's attacks - multiple 4-person teams on motorbikes - alarmed police. 

SPF averaged one arson wave a month, often in Athens and Thessaloniki simultaneously. Solidarity with local and foreign anarchists and hatred of banks, police, prisons, the army, and consumer society were the themes of SPF's proclamations during its first year. SPF's early authors (there are multiple, writing in different styles, with different preoccupations) were uninterested in class struggle and the quest for a future utopia. They embraced urban warfare not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, resistance as art. Modern consumer society is "slow suicide." "The revolutionary element of arson is not only in its material destruction but also in the transgressiveness of the act."

The December 2008 Challenge

The December 2008 Athens riots overwhelmed the anti-authority movement with new recruits hungry for a revolutionary program. Forced to broaden its aims, SPF pledged to join with other groups and wage a "new, rabid (lyssasmeno) urban warfare ... now and until our last breath." The next wave of gazakia, on February 11, 2009, was the first SPF attack to capture major public attention, because it served the media's breathless narrative of reborn Greek terrorism. SPF struck targets with (loose) connections to the 17N prosecution, and dedicated those attacks, in a long, newly sophisticated proclamation, to jailed 17N spokesman Dimitris Koufodinas.

In May 2009 SPF escalated its capabilities with its first use of home-made explosives, causing minor damage to two police stations under construction in Athens and Thessaloniki. The proclamation was a more mature theoretical tract on upgrading "revolutionary terrorism" (terorismos, a word other groups rigorously avoid). 

In June 2009 SPF evolved further, with its first attack on a political target. A small time bomb (home-made gunpowder in a glued-shut pressure cooker) was hung from a staircase outside the home of ex-deputy minister of public order Hinofotis. SPF and "Nihilist Fraction" jointly claimed responsibility. On September 2, a similar bomb caused trivial damage to the heavily-guarded Ministry of Macedonia-Thrace in Thessaloniki. Another damaged the door of PASOK MP candidate Louka Katseli on September 23.

A presumed SPF safe house in Halandri was already being watched by police before the Katseli bomb. When police raided the house that same afternoon, they found one ready pressure-cooker bomb and various bomb-making scraps. Four young people, age 20-21, were arrested. One was a self-proclaimed revolutionary anarchist, Panagiotis ( Panos) Masouras. The others were students from prosperous backgrounds: Haris Hatzimichelakis, the owner of the apartment; his cousin Manos Giospas, a design student who lived with his mother upstairs; Manos's girlfriend, a photography student. Others, sought on the basis of fingerprints found there, have been hiding from police since the date of the raid. Konstantina Karakatsani, incriminated by a fingerprint on a plastic bag, was arrested on April 22, 2010.

On October 2, 2009 SPF and "Nihilist Fraction" struck back with another pressure cooker bomb, that destroyed two motorbikes and broke windows while Prime Minister Karamanlis was giving his final election speech in the Pedio tou Areos 150 meters away. Their purpose was to deny the government any electoral benefit, proving the four arrests were not a breakthrough against SPF. A similar bomb protesting the educational system did minor damage to the entrance to the unguarded apartment building of MEP (former ND Education Minister) Marietta Giannakou on October 30, 2009.

On December 27, 2009, a four-person team struck again, with a much more powerful bomb that destroyed the entrance of a building on Syngrou Blvd. housing the Ethniki Asfalistiki insurance company and a National Bank of Greece branch. A warning call to a newspaper reduced the risk of casualties. The proclamation claiming credit was signed Guerilla Team of Terrorists/SPF (ΑΝΤΑΡΤΙΚΗ ΟΜΑΔΑ ΤΕΡΡΟΡΙΣΤΩΝ - ΣΥΝΩΜΟΣΙΑ ΠΥΡΗΝΩΝ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΤΙΑΣ). The group claimed to have gained access to powerful explosives through cooperation with other revolutionary comrades. 

The same two groups claimed credit for a harmless explosion outside Parliament on January 10, 201o, making the point that they were able to strike one of the most heavily guarded sites in Athens. Since then, SPF has struck the offices of neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi, Korydallos Prison, and the Thessaloniki courthouse complex with explosives, in each case calling in a warning beforehand. When a bomb killed a young Afghan immigrant on March 28, 2010, SPF issued a proclamation criticizing the bombers for their carelessness. 

SPF in 2010

Arrested SPF suspect Masouras produced (or parroted) SPF's early strand of Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy:

"We execute morality, prefacing catastrophe, whispering rabidly, biting the words: WAR ATTACK because only beauty and strength exist, but the cowards to balance [them] invented justice." Εκτελούμε την ηθική,προλογίζοντας την καταστροφή, σιγοψιθυρίζουμε λυσσασμένα δαγκώνοντας τις λέξεις: ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ ΕΠΙΘΕΣΗ γιατί υπάρχει μονάχα η ομορφιά και η δύναμη,αλλά οι δειλοί για ισορροπήσουν επινόησαν τη δικαιοσύνη. (Masouras's 10/09 letter to Indymedia

Recent SPF proclamations have been longer, less immature, and more revolutionary in content, suggesting a new sense of collective responsibility in response to the belief, fueled by the economic crisis, that Greece has entered or will soon enter a "revolutionary period." Both in tactics (symbolic bomb attacks on buildings) and rhetoric the group is slowly evolving to resemble Revolutionary Struggle (EA) or Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA), both of which were uneasy coalitions between communist theoreticians and anarchist/anti-authority bombers

It may be a mistake to look for a formal membership of SPF. A more likely model is overlapping groups of friends, each with a specific set of motivations. One of SPF's main writers is older than 25, capable of disciplined, analytical Greek and with enough historical knowledge to make valid comparisons with Greece and Italy of the 1980s and 1990s. SPF proved, however, that it has no direct connection with members of ELA or older groups, by making an embarrassing mistake in its January 2010 proclamation. It quoted a pretentious phrase from a March 1985 proclamation by the Christos Kasimis Revolutionary Team (Επαναστατική Ομάδα Χρήστος Κασίμης). ELA had deduced by April 1988 that this particular proclamation was drafted by Greece's most celebrated KYP informer. 

Links with Other Groups

Greek police routinely try to link armed groups into a single umbrella organization, ignoring the philosophical differences reflected in their manifestos. The upgraded SPF hoped to help form such an umbrella, writing in February 2009 "Here there is no room for agreement or disagreement on political correctness. The important thing is our eyes behind the hoods, shining so beautifully when we fight." SPF announced in May 2009 that it had joined a new "Arsonists' Cooperative." A month later the Cooperative had vanished. However, cooperation with the "Nihilist Fraction" continued. SPF may have absorbed "Gangs of Conscience" (Symmories Syneidisis -SymSyn), which surfaced in March 2008 with a molotov attack on the Aigaleo police station. SymSyn proclaimed the "new urban guerrilla war" in December 2008, but dropped out of sight after its March 3, 2009 torching of two metro trains prompted public fury.

SPF's pressure-cooker bombs resembled four bombs planted by Armed Revolutionary Action (Enopli Epanastatiki Drasi - ENEDRA) in 2007-9. ENEDRA, with its "collective vision" -- a self-governed society in harmony with nature -- would find SPF's nihilist allies unpleasantly militarist. The real explosives used in the December 2009 bombing instantly prompted fears that SPF had joined forces with Revolutionary Struggle (EA). However, EA would be uncomfortable with SPF's nihilism and rejection of class consciousness while SPF would find EA's proclamations unreadable. Praising deceased EA militant Lambros Foundas, SPF made clear it didn't know him personally.

SPF carefully refused (July 2009 Hinofotis proclamation) to criticize Revolutionary Struggle (EA) and Sect of Revolutionaries (Sehta) for their deadlier violence. Still, SPF never echoed Sehta's ostentatiously brutal contempt for life, despite shared rhetorical nihilism. For bombs, SPF typically calls in two separate telephone warnings.

By their nature, anti-authority groups that espouse ambitious violence tend to be short-lived. Christos Tsoutsouvis and Mihalis Prekas, still the Greek poster children for "anarchist" violence, undervalued their own lives as well as others'. They were both shot dead by police mere weeks after unveiling their organizations in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Most rebels of Exarcheia lack the sense of long-term mission (and also the memory of Junta-era police torture) that kept traditional leftist revolutionaries like 17N disciplined and vigilant. 

After the September 23 2009 arrests, it became clear that the suburban fringe of SPF violated basic security rules of the underground armed struggle: using mobile phones, keeping incriminating materials where they lived, and being conspicuously involved in protests. I therefore predicted the arrests would probably drive SPF underground. Instead, SPF seems to have opted for a more careful and disciplined approach as it has moved beyond the territorial/tribal goals of most anarchist groups to challenge the Greek political establishment. Though SPF's operational environment is far more difficult than that ELA or 17N faced (thanks to DNA testing and sophisticated network analysis tools), it may be able to survive. It has no message, however, that can make it politically relevant to Greeks struggling to survive in a newly harsh economic environment.

 

*"Anarchist" is a generic term used by the Greek media and police to refer to ominously dressed youth who congregate in Exarcheia and throw rocks at police. True anarchists (as opposed to children who like to paint the symbol on walls) are a minority in Exarcheia's wide spectrum of anti-establishment ideologies from libertarian socialism to murderous nihilism. Members often use the term "antiexousiastes" (anti-authoritarians).

Attacks by Conspiracy of Fire Cells (SPF), Symmories Syneidisis (SymSyn), Nihilist Fraction

Date Group Event Time Call Locality type Proclamation Comment
21-Jan-08 SPF arson spree banks cars 1:00 no Athens Thes gazakia directactiongr
21-Feb-08 SPF arson spree banks etc. 2:00 no Athens Thes gazakia directactiongr
19-Mar-08 SymSyn Attack on Aigaleo police station no Aigaleo molotovs 15 on motorcycles, four police, two private cars destroyed
20-Mar-08 SPF arson Athens Thes no Athens Thes gazakia directactiongr
4-Apr-08 SPF arson Italian autos, Italian school 1:10 no Athens, Thess gazakia directactiongr support for FAI, Italian anarchists
26-Apr-08 SPF arson Athens dip cars banks 2:35 no Athens gazakia directactiongr
30-May-08 SPF arson against banks, etc 2:00 no Athens Thes gazakia directactiongr
28-Jun-08 SymSyn Arson Sprider store no Lykovrisi gazakia Tsourapas, Kontorevithakis comrades awaiting trial
1-Jul-08 SPF attack on president's guard's car no Pangrati gazakia solidarity with anarchists Tsourapa, Kondorevythiotis
15-Jul-08 SPF arson ND office no Thessaloniki gazakia
17-Jul-08 SymSyn Raid Perama police station 5:30 no Perama molotovs directactiongr from overpass above,  5 patrol cars, 6 motorcycles destroyed
9-Aug-08 SPF arson DEH no Peristeri gazakia with "Anasa Tromou"
4-Sep-08 SPF arson attack Mylonas office no Thessaloniki gazakia directactiongr solidarity with kidnappers Polykarpos, "Asymmetric Threat"
13-Sep-08 SPF attack on police station no Thessaloniki gazakia directactiongr with "Asymmetric Threat"
29-Sep-08 SPF arson National Bank of Greece no Athens gazakia directactiongr iho Voutsis-Vogatsis
7-Oct-08 SPF two ATMS torched no Thessaloniki gazakia
28-Oct-08 SPF arson attack Stratodikaio 2:35 no Rouf gazakia directactiongr Solidarity with Dimitrakis, facing military court
4-Nov-08 SPF 3-day arson spree no Athens Thes gazakia directactiongr
3-Dec-08 SPF arson French news agency no Athens gazakia directactiongr
20-Dec-08 SymSyn Raid N. Filadelphia police school no N.Filadelfia molotovs cars torched in parking lot
1-Jan-09 SPF 15 arson attacks no Athens Thes gazakia Indymedia
11-Feb-09 SPF 16 gas canister bombs iho Koufodinas various no Athens, Thess gazakia Indymedia
3-Mar-09 SymSyn HSAP train torched 1:10 no Kifisia gazakia Indymedia 20 in carnival masks, for Kouneva, French anarchist,  w/ Extremistes Peramatos
9-Apr-09 SPF/NihFrac arson against 4 churches no Athens Thes gazakia duds
19-May-09 SPF/NihFrac bomb against police station under construction 4:35 no Thessaloniki time bomb Indymedia
19-May-09 SPF/NihFrac bomb against police station under construction 6:57 yes N. Penteli time bomb Indymedia small explosion
10-Jul-09 SPF/NihFrac Bomb apt of Hinofotis 4:00 yes Athens time bomb Indymedia 4 kg explosives in pressure cooker in black bag hung from stairs
22-Jul-09 SPF arson against Chilean consul yes Thessaloniki gazakia Indymedia disarmed, solidarity Chilean anarchists
2-Sep-09 SPF bomb Ministry of Macedonia-Thrace 5:00 Alter/100 Thessaloniki time bomb Indymedia on back railing, insignificant damage
23-Sep-09 SPF/NihFrac bomb, apartment of L. Katseli/G.Arsenis23:30 11:42 Etypia 11:22 Alter Kolonaki time bomb Indymedia in pressure cooker in sack hung from knob, trivial damage
3-Oct-09 SPF/NihFrac bomb, trash container near ND speech 20:10 Etypia 19:57 Patisia time bomb Indymedia 2 motorbikes damaged, Karamanlis speech Pedio tou Areos, pressure cooker
30-Oct-09 SPF/NihFrac bomb, apartment of MEP Giannakou 4:32 Etypia Alter Patisia time bomb Indymedia entrance, one car damaged, pressure cooker
27-Dec-09 SPF/Terrorists bomb, Ethniki Asfalistiki 23:oo Etypia Syngrou time bomb Indymedia powerful explosives, four members
10-Jan-10 SPF/Terrorists bomb outside Parliament 19:58 Etypia Athens time bomb Indymedia real explosives, no damage
15-Jan-10 E.O. 6December bomb, SecGen Press/Information 23:41 Athens time bomb real explosives, some damage
20-Mar-10 SPF bombs, Chrysi Avgi, immigrant office Athens time bombs Indymedia significant damage to Chrysi Avgi offices
13-May-10 SPF bomb outside Korydallos prison 22:12 yes Korydallos time bomb Indymedia very loud, no damage
14-May-10 SPF bomb, Thes courthouse yes Thessaloniki time bombs Indymedia damage, one injured from slow evacuation
1-Nov-10 SPF? 14 parcel bombs against EU organizations, leaders, and foreign embassies Athens weak parcel bombs no weak gunpowder bombs sent via courier companies over two days. Two armed suspects arrested in the attempt. One courier company employee with scorched fingers