Jihadists giving headache to Greeks, too
“We do not have a problem with jihadists in Greece, but there is a problem in our wider area,” stated Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos, speaking to reporters in New York after his meeting with Ban Ki-moon after the U.N. General Assembly at the end of September.
By that he wanted to put an end to rumors that members of extremist Islamist groups have been operating in his country which for over 20 years has been a refuge or stopover for refugees from Asia, Africa and the Balkans and which has now become a transition country for Western European and Balkan Islamists who want to reach Syria and Iraq.
There was a reason for the reporter’s question. Media reports claimed that the CIA has provided information to the Greek authorities that seven individuals of Greek origin are linked with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and that jihadists have been training in Greece.
The firm statement by the Greek side that there is no problem with jihadists in Greece was soon to be challenged. Answering a question on whether there is a flow of jihadist militants traveling through Greece en route to Syria and Iraq, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed that they have expressed their concern (to the Greek authorities) about the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria and Iraq “in very clear terms.” “We know that out of the 15,000 foreign fighters, 2,000 we believe are Westerners.”
So jihadists exist in Greece one way or another. And the government has promised to cooperate in the international effort to eradicate the problem. But Greece is in a difficult situation. Still struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis, it has concentrated all its energy on abiding by a Calvinist austerity schedule imposed by its European partners which has also affected the effectiveness of its police force.
And all through October, a weak coalition government will have to negotiate a lighter austerity program in order to stave off a rising leftist opposition. The ISIL problem is the icing of a cake which is not sweet.
There are practical issues, too.
ELIAMEP (the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy) estimated that in 2009 there were 205,000 illegal immigrants in Greece while in 2011 the figure had increased to 470,000, i.e., an increase of 130 percent. In a written reply to a question by the opposition, the Greek deputy interior minister stated recently that the total number of foreign nationals living legally in Greece was 537,237 while there is no confirmed figure on the number of illegal residents. Interestingly enough, the official number of illegal immigrants from 2008 to 2012 arrested by the police was 577,900, almost equal to legally residing aliens.
Even if the number for illegal immigrants is uncertain, the figure of legally residing foreigners in Greece is high enough to cause concern. Officially, Greece may deny that there are members of ISIL in Greece but graffiti and black flags have been sighted in Athens since the beginning of the Syria crisis, while recent media reports claimed that police are looking for about 100 suspected ISIL members of Arab origin who are in Greece facilitating the passage of Westerners who want to reach ISIL through Turkey. Are they legal residents?
The Greek police have categorically denied that there are any training grounds for Islamist militants in Greece but there is no denial over media reports that one 27-year-old person who acquired Greek citizenship in 2001, when he was 12 years old and living in Athens, fled the country and is now fighting with the ISIL army.