Pola Roupa was the first and only female leader of a Greek terrorist group. Drawing on primary research, George Kassimeris offers an insight into the role and experience of a leading female militant inside Greece’s gender-conservative and overwhelmingly male-dominated armed struggle movement.
On 21 February 2016, Pola Roupa, Greece’s most-wanted terrorist and leader of the Revolutionary Struggle (RS) group, stunned the country by hijacking a helicopter in order to free her partner and fellow RS militant, Nikos Maziotis, held in the maximum-security prison of Korydallos in Athens.
In a daring, one-woman commando-style operation, Roupa took the helicopter pilot hostage, forcing him at gunpoint to fly over the prison courtyard. The attempted jailbreak, however, failed when the pilot resisted, managing in the struggle that ensued to regain control and land the helicopter away from Korydallos. Roupa ran off but was eventually arrested a year later by Greek counter-terrorism police in a middle-class suburb south-east of Athens, where she was living under an assumed identity with her 6-year-old son.
Roupa’s arrest was the final nail in the coffin of RS, marking the end of a 15-year campaign of politically motivated violence by the first guerrilla group to emerge on the country’s terrorist landscape after the 2002 collapse of 17N, Greece’s premier terrorist organisation and one of Europe’s longest-running terror gangs. Led by Maziotis and Roupa, Revolutionary Struggle picked up the baton of terrorist revolutionary violence in 2003, before even the 17N trial had come to an end and sentences were passed.
The demise of 17N rather than dealing a fatal blow to the country’s armed struggle movement, diminishing the attractiveness of political violence as a strategic tool, led instead to an upsurge in and intensification of revolutionary violence. In 2008, RS was joined by an anarchist-oriented guerrilla group, the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire (CCF) and they went on to become the most active of Greece’s post-17N generation of urban guerrilla groups.
The Embassy of the United States in Athens, which was attacked by Revolutionary Struggle in 2007, Credit: ChristosV (CC BY-SA 3.0)
This new generation of Greek militants, when compared to their predecessors, differ little in how they conduct their violent campaigns. At the same time, however, the parallel emergence and evolution of RS and CCF, two ideologically diverse political factions from the extra-parliamentary left and anarchist movements, which had to modify their ideas and political rationales in order to promote and justify violence, demonstrates how confusing and unpredictable Greece’s terrorist landscape remains.
With regards to their profiles, membership and operational behaviour, although hierarchical attitudes, age subordinations and gender stereotypes continue to exist, they have become less visible. During the 17N years, for example, Pola Roupa as a female Greek militant would have not been able to transgress the norms of typical female behaviour. Her gender and young age would have consigned her to a peripheral role inside the organisation, if not to total exclusion.
Historically, the European experience shows that women have long been involved in politically motivated violence but very few have achieved leadership positions within these organisations. With very few exceptions, the development of group ideology, strategic leadership and motivation has generally been seen as the concern, if not the monopoly, of men. Greece, a country with a persistently rich tradition in politically motivated violence, constitutes no exception. At the time of writing, Pola Roupa remains the first and only female leader of a Greek terrorist group.
The notion of Roupa, a woman on the run with a child, struck a nerve in the Greek extra-parliamentary community making her a cause celebre, earning her at the same time sustained nationwide media coverage. Greece’s best-selling newspaper Ta Nea ran a profile of Roupa, ‘the only woman to have a one million euros put on her head’ likening her impact on the country’s armed struggle movement to that of Ulrike Meinhof of the West German guerrilla group Red Army Faction (RAF).
Meinhof had cofounded the group with Andreas Baader in 1970 after helping him to escape from a Berlin prison where he was serving for arson. Over its twenty-one-year history, the group evolved from a small militant gang (the Baader-Meinhof Gang as they were dubbed in the media in their early years) into a dangerous multi-levelled terrorist organisation that carried some of the most daring and spectacular operations in Europe.
Was Pola Roupa a 21st-century Greek Ulrike Meihof? Interestingly, Roupa’s partner and comrade Nikos Maziotis posted in September 2014, a statement-tribute entitled Tribute to The RAF and Ulrike Meinhof to mark the 80 years since the birth of Ulrike Meinhof. It comes as little surprise that Maziotis is full of awe for Meinhof. Meinhof, in Maziotis’s opinion, was ‘a heroine who sacrificed her own life for the greater revolutionary good’. She was ‘a shining example that stood consistent until the end’.
However, the most remarkable passage in the tribute comes towards the end when Maziotis addresses the complex personal dilemmas and political realities Meinhof faced as an armed RAF activist and a woman. Maziotis, in fact, uses Meinhof as a case to make scathing observations on gender politics and more specifically on gender as a relation of power. Ridiculing simplistic assumptions about the involvement of women in armed resistance due to love and romance, Maziotis confronts long-established societal constraints and restrictive gender norms and stereotypes where women remain invisible and ignored.
Although she is not mentioned by name in the tribute, the text’s ultimate purpose is to vindicate Roupa who Maziotis clearly sees as a 21st-century version of Ulrike Meinhof. Throughout the text there is an implied comparison between Meinhof’s and Roupa’s personal and revolutionary trajectories.
Roupa, like Meinhof, wanted to ‘move people politically’ by creating an insurrectionary mood that would awaken consciences and radicalise people. In their own minds, Meinhof and Roupa were fighters for revolutionary justice (which explains why they ferociously rejected the designation of them as terrorists and of their actions as terrorism) but in their obsessive attempt to affect political reality they blithely ignored the Clausewitzian axiom that violence ‘should not take the place of the political purpose, nor obliterate it’.
It is a measure of Roupa’s total commitment to the revolutionary cause that the birth of her own son while in prison failed to make her reassess her previous life choices. The arrival of Lambros (named after dead comrade Lambros Foundas) changed nothing for his parents. In fact, his arrival radicalised them even further.
This post is based on ‘Greece’s Ulrike Meinhof: Pola Roupa and the Revolutionary Struggle’, which has just been published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
George Kassimeris – University of Wolverhampton
Professor George Kassimeris is chair in security studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He tweets @GKassimeris