The bumbling, moustachioed terrorists

November 17 were part of Greek mythology: bold, daring and secretive, they eluded police for decades

November 17: the most mysterious terrorist group in the west. Ruthless, ingenious, impenetrable and, as Europe's only guerrilla gang to elude the authorities for 27 years, seemingly invincible, too. How many times have I written those words? Certainly more than I care to admit in the years I have covered Greece.

November 17, the network that emerged on the bumpy landscape of modern Athenian democracy upon the collapse of the Colonels' regime, was always a good story because it mixed cold-blooded murder with a hint of Robin Hood.

These killers were bolder than the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or even the Red Brigades. What other organisation, after all, would so brazenly have launched rockets into the compound of the US embassy in Athens, done the same thing to the residence of the German ambassador and assassinated a British soldier-diplomat as he drove to work in the morning rush hour?

What other terrorists had elected to stock up on their weaponry by attacking a police station, an army barracks and a popular war museum in the centre of a teeming metropolis?

Long before the appearance of al-Qaeda, these Hellenic Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries were at the top of America's most wanted list. In report after report, the US State Department - tallying the attacks on US military and diplomatic personnel in Greece - described November 17 as the most deadly terror organisation operating in the west. With America so determined to capture the terrorists, no one in the extended house of gossip that is the Greek capital could quite understand the group's extraordinary durability.

The gang, which took its name from the date of the famed 1973 student uprising against the Colonels' regime, not only survived but resisted infiltration. What was its secret? The lack of leaks, or even credible leads, was mind-boggling. In Greece's merry-go-round of acquaintances and friendships, the terrorists' ability to remain invisible only added to their mystique. The guerrillas not only got away with their crimes but crowed about them in the long, abstruse proclamations that inevitably followed each attack.

But now, as I write, November 17 is crumbling. One by one, nearly all its captured operatives - the offspring of two large families and their friends - have confessed.

In testimony after testimony, they have given each other away and named names. They have blabbed about their "hits", down to the fine details of how they disguised themselves, in one instance, wearing fake moustaches the wrong way round.

Some, like Konstantinos Telios, a schoolteacher who has been a member of the organisation for the past 20 years, didn't even bother waiting to be arrested. Instead, he called the local newspaper with his story and gave himself up. They say he heaved a sigh of relief when he crossed the threshold of the police station.

News programmes have been filled with revelations almost every day since 29 June - when a "saintly" iconographer's injury in a botched bomb attack led officials to the first of several November 17 safe houses.

Already, eight of the 14 suspects in police custody have been incarcerated in the "special" cells erected somewhat frantically in recent weeks. By the time you read this, anti-terrorist officials expect to have unearthed all four of the group's "historic founders".

Greeks are shaking their heads in disbelief. Nationwide, the disappointment is palpable. How, Hellenes now ask, could November 17 be so banal? Where are its links to foreign secret services and people in high places and the "big economic interests" that so many believed had nurtured it all these years? Where are the training camps and the Marxist-Leninist ideology that it so espoused? Where is the solidarity one might have expected from members of a self-styled revolutionary group? Certainly not among the plump, loquacious, panic-stricken men arrested so far.

And what about November 17's larger-than-life leader? Alexandros Giotopoulos, the French-born academic pin-pointed as its mastermind, not only seems lacklustre but decidedly non-combative. Instead of standing up for any burning belief in the "armed struggle", he has vehemently denied any involvement in the group - even though his fingerprints and handwriting have allegedly been found in a November 17 hide-out and on a proclamation.

Since returning to Greece in 1974, the former Trotskyist has lived with his French wife in apparent middle-class comfort, commuting between Athens, Paris and a villa on Lipsi, the sort of far-flung Aegean island so beloved by the haute bourgeoisie. At the age of 63, he says, he has no appetite for la resistance unless it is part of the French texts he translates for a living.

All myths die hard. But in the case of November 17, it is the discovery that it is a sphinx without a riddle - that none of its members held any belief or fondness for noble ideals - that has hurt most. For 27 years the terror group had hooked its star on being the "voice" of the little man. Among an instinctively anti-American populace, it had won widespread toleration - and even support - for its crusade against capitalist culture and the "symbols of imperialism".

Few Greeks shed tears for Richard Welch, the philhellene CIA station chief, who, gunned down in 1975, was the first of the gang's 23 victims. Even fewer cried when November 17 murdered Evangelos Mallios, the police chief renowned for his love of torture during the Colonels' regime. For those on the centre-left - still licking their wounds from their defeat in Greece's blood-drenched civil war - the terror gang was simply bringing "closure" to the injustices wrought by democracy's hasty reintroduction after the demise of dictatorship.

That the group went on to strike rich industrialists, businessmen, politicians, publishers and scores of other non-junta related targets left many cold. When November 17 executed Brigadier Stephen Saunders, the British embassy's defence attache, in June 2000, expressions of grief were neither national nor immediate. Even today, 19 per cent of the adult Greek population regard the urban guerrilla gang as a group of "social revolutionaries".

Now, across Greece, there are burgeoning numbers who do not believe that the "polite, soft-spoken, low-key" individuals arrested thus far (for all share the same characteristics) are "the real November 17". Such a conventional lot, claim the sceptics, could not have outwitted the authorities.

From his hospital bed over the past month, Savvas Xeros, the injured iconographer and member of the group, has given vivid accounts of how the gang used taxis to transport rockets and time bombs after planning attacks in the ouzeries of Athens.

November 17 may have deterred businessmen from investing in Greece and, for decades, instilled fear into the lives of diplomats and soldiers alike. But, said Xeros, few of the hit men had any idea who their targets were until they read the newspapers the following day.

Brigadier Saunders, November 17's only British victim, may well have been mistaken for an American Nato officer with the same name. And, said Xeros, there were even times when fleeing assassins had been forced to hail taxis after their getaway cars encountered engine trouble.

This amateurism stretched to the group's knowledge of weapons. The untimely detonation of the bomb that blew up in Xeros's hands was probably the result of a cheap Chinese alarm clock. Many of the detained suspects have spoken of their leader's miserly approach to monies that were increasingly the spoils of bank raids and robberies.

But, ultimately, it is the sense that November 17 were common criminals who lived next door -"uneducated miscreants" bent on using their ill-gotten gains to buy into the new Greek dream of owning a house and a holiday home - that has really unnerved and riled people. November 17 members, it turns out, were everywhere: they had their primary lair on Damareos, the totally ordinary street where I first rented an Athenian home; they were electricians and telephonists, tourist shop owners and teachers, musical instrument makers and mechanics, icon painters and estate agents. They were, in the case of Savvas Xeros and his girlfriend, the Spanish make-up artist Alicia Romero Cortes, friends of friends who still swear they are "great guys, above any suspicion". And they, in turn, are not far removed from another friend, George Momferatos, whose publisher father was shot dead by November 17 in 1985.

The self-avowed terrorists are the emblems of a country whose officials never had the gall, wit or tact to deal properly with November 17. They are human testimony to 27 years of spectacular police incompetence. And very soon, when November 17 goes on trial, these people will embody something even bigger. They will represent the growing pains that have marked the road to maturity for the birthplace of democracy.

The author is Greece correspondent for the Guardian and Observer