The recent bombings in neighboring Turkey have triggered heightened concern among Greek authorities and Western intelligence officials about possible terrorist strikes during next summer’s Olympics games in Athens.
Security experts and Western officials have long warned that a world event held in the heart of the Mediterranean, spread over more than two weeks and 50 different sites, will supply terrorists with an ideal array of targets. But the concerns — and questions about Greece’s ability to cope with terrorist threats — have increased following the bombing of two synagogues and two British targets in Istanbul last month.
Also fueling concern is the reportedly poor performance of Greek forces in security drills and the country’s proximity to the Balkans, a magnet for Islamic militants in the 1990s.
“The Turkish terrorist attacks are… triggering a sharp response in neighboring Greece,” stated a recent report put together by the intelligence consulting firm Cannistraro Associates. Based on American intelligence sources, the report added that Greece “has already been criticized for the flaws in its security program for the games. According to sources, the preparations for security are poorly coordinated and behind schedule.… The attacks in neighboring Turkey are now raising the specter of the games becoming the next target for a truly spectacular terrorist attack.”
Dimitris Gemelos, a spokesman for the Greek mission at the United Nations, said his country had made security for the games a high priority by allocating a record budget of $750 million and planning to deploy about 41,000 security personnel. In addition, he said, his country was cooperating fully with an international advisory group comprising representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, France, Germany, Spain and Australia.
The Cannistraro report claims that Athens’s candidacy for the Olympics was nearly rejected because of its “terrorist friendly” political culture, noting that most major Middle Eastern terrorist groups continue to have offices and representatives in Athens. To address related security concerns, the international advisory group was set up three years ago. It has, under strong American pressure, assumed a much more active role since the September 11 attacks, though U.S. officials have stated that they have no information pointing to an Al Qaeda presence in Greece.
“We are working every day with our partners to make sure we are ready when the Games begin,” Gemelos told the Forward, adding that the Turkey bombings were recently discussed at the highest levels of the Greek government.
While U.S. officials praised Greece’s efforts and its openness to international cooperation, they stress the need to continue improving security. In moves that some observers say reveals a lack of U.S. confidence in Greece’s security capability, the FBI dispatched about 200 agents and the CIA sent a team of operation officers and analysts. Each agency reportedly sent only one operative to the last two overseas summer Olympics, in Spain in 1992 and Australia in 2000.
The Olympics have already been the theater of major attacks, most famously in Munich in 1972 when Palestinian militants gunned down Israeli athletes and in 1996 when a bomb exploded in the Atlanta Olympic village.
FBI director Robert Mueller visited Athens early last month to discuss security and the American military hosted a major security drill last month in Germany attended by top Greek security officials. Washington has reportedly requested that an American security team be assigned to protect American athletes, and a similar request could come from Israel and Australia, officials said.
“We are not against the idea of an American [security] team coming with their athletes,” Gemelos said. “If we are asked about it, we will honor the request.”
An Israeli official would not confirm whether such a request had been made by Jerusalem. But, he said, Israel was primarily concerned about the safety of its athletes and has a long experience protecting VIPs.
American officials emphasize that the Athens Olympics are different from the 2000 Sydney Olympics because the September 11 attacks have refocused U.S. anti-terrorism concerns about spectacular terror strikes. It also differs from the other major international sporting event since September 11 — including the 2002 soccer World Cup in Japan and South Korea — because the 2004 games will take place in Southern Europe, near the Balkans.
Observers worry about terrorists using Albania, Bosnia or Kosovo as a base of operations. During the 1990s, radical Islamists flocked to those regions to fight the Serbs. While the majority left after the wars, some have stayed, drawing the attention of local and Western intelligence sources.
A Bosnian Serb source told the Forward that Al Qaeda has decided to activate cells in the Balkans and step up recruitment of European-looking operatives as a way to avoid surveillance. Those operatives, nestled in the heart of Europe and enjoying the support of local Islamists groups in the Balkans, could be used to carry out attacks, the source added. He argued that Athens, because of its proximity to the Balkans and Greece’s porous borders, is the most obvious target for a major terrorist attack, and claimed that some senior Al Qaeda operatives traveled to the region recently.
Observers cautioned that such claims from Bosnian Serbs should be taken with a grain of salt because of their grudge against Muslims relating to the bloody battles of the mid-1990s. But since September 11, Western and Israeli intelligence services have been giving more credence to such claims.
Greece is one of 15 European countries that take part in the so-called Schengen system, which allows a person with a visa to any of the countries to travel freely among all the other ones without additional paperwork. A person arriving at the airport in Amsterdam, for example, can travel to Athens without having his passport checked.
Gemelos, the Greek official, acknowledged that his country’s northern border has been a concern since the mid-1990s, but stressed that efforts have been made to bolster surveillance there. He said the most challenging task is to guard the thousands of islands scattered along the coastline, a view shared by American officials.
Officials acknowledge that security drills for the Olympics have not gone smoothly. The concerns raised by the exercises have been reported in the local media in recent months, adding to the pressure on the Greek government.
After announcing a 25% increase of its security budget in October, the government created a 200-strong special unit to tackle nuclear, chemical and biological threats during the games. The moves came after the Greek media reported that a U.S. State Department memorandum questioned the organizers’ ability to deal with a potential biochemical attack.
Officials said that difficulties are to be expected, but said the main goal is to be ready on August 13, when the Games start.
“We understand the security concerns, but we also have to make sure we don’t end up creating a police state atmosphere during the Games,” Gemelos said.