Remembering 17N's Assassination Attempt on Finance Minister Ioannis Palaiokrassas, July 1992
On July 14th, 2022, Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis was joined by other top officials of his party New Democracy (ND) in expressing their condolences to the family of a 20-year-old student killed exactly 30 years ago in a domestic terrorist attack. Thanos Axarlian was an innocent passerby, in the wrong place at the wrong time on that afternoon in 1992. The intended target had been the country’s Minister of Finance, who escaped unharmed thanks to his armored sedan. The group responsible for the attack was Greece’s oldest and most lethal Marxist-Leninist urban guerilla group, the Revolutionary Organization—17 November (17N).
The Greek premier tweeted, “His memory becomes our responsibility. And his smile, our strength against the enemies of life, unity and progress,” along with a portrait-style photo of Axarlian smiling. His Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, added on Twitter, “30 years since the day Thanos Axarlian breathed his last, aged just 20, due to the murderous 17N rocket attack. We do not forget Thanos, [nor any] victims of terrorism.” The Mayor of Athens and Prime Minister’s nephew, Kostas Bakoyannis, tweeted from the site of a memorial plaque honoring Axarlian in the city center: “The pain for his mother, his family and us alive. We commemorate Th. Axarlian who was murdered by 17N. We commemorate and some give a public platform to the murderer D. Koufontina.” Bakoyannis’ own father and ND party spokesman, Pavlos Bakoyannis, was shot five times and killed by 17N assassins in 1989 for his alleged role in the Bank of Crete scandal, according to 17N’s subsequent attack claim.
In the context of Greek politics—perhaps especially as they concern powerful political clans, and Greece’s rather intense left-versus-right divisions—Kostas Bakoyannis’ final sentence in the above quoted portion of the tweet is interesting. What he is referring to is the Greek parliamentary left, particularly the far-left coalition SYRIZA and its party leader Alexis Tsipras, under whose most recent administration prison furloughs were granted to 17N’s operational chief Dimitris Koufodinas. (The politics of the Tsipras administration, even if tacitly sympathetic to left-wing and anarchist urban guerrillas, might not have had much to do with this, as the leader of 17N, Alexandros Giotopoulos, just returned to prison following a secretive three-day furlough, much to the surprise of Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis and in the midst of an ND dominated government. Previous ND administrations have also presided over the furloughs of convicted 17N members. Furthermore Greece has an independent judiciary. One does wonder, however, the extent to which the party in power, their Minister of Justice and/or their Minister for Citizen Protection can put their thumbs on the scales in these decisions either to grant or deny furloughs from prison.) In addition to ND politicians’ outrage over the furloughs, they also accuse the Greek left of providing a political platform for terrorists, as the Bakoyannis tweet mentions. In the winter/spring of 2021, Dimitiris Koufodinas went on a hunger strike that lasted several weeks, threatening his life and bringing thousands of sympathetic Greeks out into the streets to protest and clash with the Hellenic Police’s standing riot force, the MAT. It was during this recent hunger strike that the Greek right accused the left of yet again providing a platform to Koufodinas. This accusation is not entirely without truth: for a large segment of Greek society, Dimitris Koufodinas is not a terrorist, but a revolutionary icon.
Tweets from members across ND on the 14th, including from members of parliament and the current Deputy Minister of National Defense, stand in stark contrast to the lack of attention that the attack’s anniversary got from top members of SYRIZA such as Alexis Tsipras and Nikos Pappas. The Greek left might accuse the right of manipulating the anniversary of Thanos Axarlian’s death for their own political fight against both the parliamentary and the extra-parliamentary left in Greece. Despite the very real grievance felt by especially the Bakoyannis family towards 17N, there is indeed truth to claims that current ND members find political capital in the anniversaries of high profile 17N attacks and the memories of their victims.
In Greece’s “parliament of the streets,” anarchists clash nightly with the MAT in Athens and Thessaloniki, pelting them with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails, while the MAT fire back tear gas rounds and throw crowd control munitions into the early hours of the morning. ND has been using police to evict buildings across the country that have been occupied by anarchists for decades, and at the center of this ongoing violent conflict is the downtown Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, where ND has ambitious plans to redevelop a working-class neighborhood, which became a haven for anti-authoritarians and far-left/post-left movements, following the 1973 students’ uprising against a fascist Junta of colonels, and the restoration of democracy. There is an undeniable policy among the ND party to suppress the radical left in Greece, and both historical dates as well as contemporary events concerning 17N often find themselves at the center of this effort.
When the July 1992 attack first occurred, 17N accused both New Democracy politicians and the main stream media of exploiting the death of Axarlian to portray the group as indiscriminate terrorists
On June 16th 1992, 17N released a communique to a local radio station analyzing the tax system in Greece, with an emphasis on the rates average Greeks were then expected to pay compared to their annual salaries in Greek drachmas, in contrast to the rates paid by shipowners, industrialists, contractors, celebrities and journalists, wealthy doctors, lawyers and politicians etc. Around the grievances enumerated in this communique, the group had originally planned “a low-intensity action against a finance ministry official who was responsible for finalizing the government's tax policy,” before deciding to assassinate the Finance Minister himself.
At the time, Ioannis Palaiokrassas was the finance minister, and in a latter communique, 17N claims to have spent weeks conducting surveillance, observing his daily movements around Athens. After having confidently mapped his patterns of coming and going from the Finance Ministry, the group chose a second story location above a small shop, not far from Parliament in downtown Athens. There, near the window, a crew of guerrillas would set up a tripod-mounted tube launcher, load their rocket, and aim the weapon at a marked point on the street where the minsters’ car passed by nearly every afternoon with little deviation. The launcher had been wired to fire remotely by another member of 17N who would see the two-car motorcade approach the marking from a position on the street, after receiving the signal from the team of spotters. Prior to June 14th, 17N claims to have abandoned the attempt 15 separate times, dismantling the launcher, unloading the rocket and packing them both away each time, mostly calling off the operation due to the presence of bystanders as the minster’s vehicles passed by the target point.
According to 17N themselves, the attack on Minister Palaiokrassas was “supposed to be a culmination of 17N’s decade of intense action.” 17N’s career had always been intense, their 1975 operational debut being the stunning assassination of CIA Athens Chief of Station, Richard Welch, in front of his home after attending a Christmas party. They had, however, intensified their campaign throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, with a peak number of 22 attacks in 1991 before their operational decline and eventual dismantling in 2002. Not only were the 1980s a particularly bloody decade for the group, they were also brazen years, in which 17N significantly increased its military capabilities. In 1988, without firing a shot and disguised as police officers, six members of 17N managed to subdue and tie up the on-duty officers at a police station in Vyronas, a suburb of southeast Athens. They then made off with a large cache of weapons including multiple Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifles, one of which was used in 17N’s last successful attack—the June 2000 assassination of British Army officer, Brigadier Stephen Saunders, killed in rush hour traffic by a hit squad on a motorcycle.
On Christmas, 1989, members of 17N managed to steal another large cache of weapons from a military base in the northern city of Larissa, which included multiple anti-tank rockets. The haul was added to their already extensive giafka, which shortly after would include two functional bazookas stolen from a war museum in Athens the subsequent May. 17N put the rockets to almost immediate use. In November of 1990, in a setup very similar to that which they would use in the Palaiokrassas assassination attempt, the group fired a rocket at the armored limousine of Greek businessman, Vardis Vardinoyiannis, who also survived the attempt. Following the attempt on minister Palaiokrassas, and after the group’s operational activity had really declined from their peak in 1991, 17N remotely fired another anti-tank rocket from a makeshift launcher into a CitiBank branch location in Athens long after business hours, causing no injuries.
The assassination of finance minister Ioannis Palaiokrassas was, as Koufodinas said, supposed to make a big splash, even for a group whose resume was already remarkable. They introduced themselves to the world with the assassination of a top US intelligence officer, and went on to kill more, along with British intelligence officers, Turkish diplomats, Hellenic Police officers and Greek businessmen, among others. The last high-level Greek government official targeted by the group was Giorgos Petsos, who was injured in a 17N bombing in 1989. This attack was meant to top that operation.
Just after 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon on July 14th, 1992, 17N spotters noticed a rush of activity around the finance minister’s armored Mercedes and armored Audi—his security detail’s car—and prepared as they had dozens of times to fire the rocket through the windshield of the Mercedes as it passed over their marking on the pavement. However, there was some confusion on the part of 17N’s team near the minster’s car, coupled with some deviation from his normal routine. Apparently, on this day, Palaiokrassas was joined by his wife and 14-year-old niece and decided to drive himself. Koufodinas offers an interesting account of these fatal moments in the claim he authored:
So, when shortly after 4 o'clock [the 17N operative] noticed the usual intense movement, by the police just before he left, around the cars, he saw the two women, the rush of the police and their different behavior from that of Thursday, he did not see them to enter the Mercedes. He thought they got into the Audi, which was parked right behind the Mercedes. He still didn't see—perhaps because of the dust on the windows—that Palaiokrassa sat in the driver's seat. So thinking that the women got into the back Audi, he gave a positive signal for the launch. This was our fault […]
At the moment the remote control was pressed, all 4 teammates were very close to the Mercedes. Especially the partner who pressed it had to be almost next to it, because otherwise the signal wouldn't catch - that's why we had a big antenna. The two companions checked the streets and saw that there were no passers-by at the specific points.
17N’s street-level operative with the remote control to the rocket launcher pressed the button as the cars crossed over the mark. When the rocket exploded on the street, the pair of cars were stopped and became engulfed in flames. The security detail evacuated the minister and his family, who remained unscathed. Two innocent bystanders, however, were badly injured, one of whom perished roughly 30 minutes after the attack. The other injured bystander, a young woman, was carried away from the scene by emergency workers. The deceased, a 20-year-old student by the name of Thanos Axarlian, bled to death after his body was struck by either rocket fragments, or debris from the explosion.
The death of Axarlian became a pivotal moment for 17N. Their subsequent two communiques claiming the attack were entirely concerned with both asserting that Axarlian had been killed by glass blown out from a nearby building, rather than by rocket fragments and gas as the official medical report stated, and further, that police had prevented unharmed bystanders from attending to Axarlian as he lay bleeding on the sidewalk. Koufodinas called into local papers and, using the pseudonym “Lucas,” expressed his sorrow and that of 17N’s over the loss of Thanos Axarlian. Koufodinas later wrote in his autobiography, Born 17 November,
Our pain is great, mine is unbearable. I called immediately, expressed my regret. […] The police may have been responsible for blocking the ambulance for almost half an hour. But the main responsibility was ours. Years later in court I apologized. (…) It was a tragic mistake. The only mistake of 17N.
Claiming that police took orders from government officials and members of ND seeking to capitalize on the tragedy, Koufodinas wrote:
- THE POLICE ARE MAINLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF THANOS AXARLYAN
- THEY LEFT HIM HELPLESS, BLEEDING FOR HALF AN HOUR ON THE SIDEWALK
- SO THAT [THEY] COULD EXPLOIT IT POLITICALLY AGAINST US
17N’s claim states that witnesses said Axarlian was still conscious 20 minutes after the attack, and that he was pronounced dead at the hospital. It remains unclear why Axarlian was not immediately given medical attention, but a Kathimerini article published the next day showed a witness standing over the body of Axarlian, arms out and palms up, distraught—though it is not apparent whether he was simply upset about the death of the young man, or if, as 17N suggests, he had been prevented from rendering aid.
The death of Thanos Axarlian was a unique moment in the 27-year saga of 17N. For opponents of the organization, the previous lives that were taken by 17N offered no moral leverage against the urban guerrillas nor against those Greeks who either quietly or openly supported them. 17N justified each of their previous targets, including Palaiokrassas himself, in their communiques and according to the ideological arguments they made based in revolutionary Marxist-Leninism. But the death of Axarlian was considered a tragedy by all of Greek society regardless of politics, and it clearly troubled Koufodinas himself, who went to considerable lengths over two subsequent communiques to demonstrate both the deliberate inaction of the police as well as their efforts to prevent bystanders from rendering aid, and he emphasized that Axarlian was not struck by rocket fragments but by glass—a fact he alleges was covered up by the medical report later released. “After 17 years of our action and dozens of dynamic actions, with powerful or moderate bombs, remote-controlled or not, rockets, pistols, etc., there has not been a single bystander seriously injured.”
Greek terrorism expert, George Kassimeris, suggests that the killing of Thanos Axarlian marked not only a real operational decline for 17N, whose attacks became more infrequent throughout the following years, but also perhaps a real decline in their own sense of the ongoing campaign. According to Kassimeris, the decline in 17N operations corresponded to the group’s deteriorating sense of their own purpose:
At the same time, 17N motives became more difficult to decipher. The mortaring of MEGA TV studios in March 1995 during the station’s main evening news confirmed the impression that 17N’s attachment to unregulated violence had become the only way for the group to maintain its ideological identity and preserve its raison d’ètre.
Whatever revolutionary credibility, or even just sympathy among average Greeks, 17N might have lost after the killing of Axarlian, they have gained much if not all of it back since its members were revealed in 2002. The reveal of Koufodinas particularly elevated him to the status of an icon, not just among the Greek left but among both anarchists and revolutionary leftists around the world. Opponents of 17N have arguably found it harder to condemn the group among all but those who already agree with them. Yet, reactions such as those we saw from ND politicians on July 14th, 2022, are likely to continue as we pass over more pertinent historical dates, and especially as 17N’s members remain alive and a significant part of both the Greek consciousness and Greece’s contemporary history.
 From 17N claim, 1992-06-16 Paleokrassas.
 A Greek word for a secret arms cache.
 From 17N claim sent to Eleftherotypia, 1992-07-18 Paleokrassas.