Today’s blog, if you can’t tell by the title, is going to be very serious. So before I get into the main blog, I would like to share a more light-hearted story from last week. Footage has been found showing beavers being parachuted into the Idaho wilderness as part of a relocation program. I recommend going and finding the footage because it is as bizarre as it sounds. And now, today, I am writing about the 1972 Munich Massacre (the abduction and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich summer Olympics) and subsequent operation to avenge those who had been killed.
Ever since Israel’s creation in 1948, there had been increasing tensions between Israel and Palestine. Palestine had been partitioned in 1947 into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the city of Jerusalem. This Jewish state would become Israel the following year. In 1967, Israel gained more land from Jordan and Egypt (who were supporting Palestine) after winning the Six Day War.
During this time, there were a number of Palestinian insurgent groups and nationalists fighting to reclaim the land they believed were rightfully theirs.
Ed: I know this background to the events in Munich is like taking a machete to the delicate subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, it could very well be its own dissertation-length blog post.
The Munich Massacre
At 4:31am on September 5th 1972, eight members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) faction, Black September, gained entry to the under-guarded athlete’s village. After killing two members of the Israeli Olympic squad, the members of Black September had taken nine hostages. A number of the Israelis had managed to escape before they had been found and had alerted the nearby American squad to the events. By dawn, the whole world was watching Munich.
The hostage-takers demanded the release of 224 Palestinians and non-Arabs from Israeli prisons, as well as the release of two founders of a German far-left paramilitary organisation. However, while negotiations got underway, the hostage-takers’ decision to throw the body of Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling coach, into view of the world media to “show their resolve”. At this point, the Israeli government refused to continue with negotiations.
12 hours after the siege began, 38 German police officers, dressed in Olympic sweatsuits, infiltrated the village and began to prepare for an assault. Unfortunately, the assembled media filmed these officers and broadcast the images live, meaning that the hostage-takers were aware of the police’s plan. The police retreated after the hostage-takers threatened to kill a number of the hostages. Two hours later, after the hostages had spoken with the police and the German Interior Minister, accompanied by the mayor of the Olympic village, had visited the hostages, the hostage-takers demanded transportation to Cairo.
Two helicopters were arranged to fly to a nearby NATO airbase, which would have transport to Cairo waiting. The first attempted police ambush failed after one of the hostage-takers demanded to sweep the route to the helicopters and the police snipers along the 200 yards of underground parking garages retreated, revealing their presence. German soldiers (with no sniper training or sniper rifles) were positioned at the airbase, the site of the more thoroughly planned ambush. More police were on the 727, ‘destined’ to take the party to Cairo.
The mission was a failure. After realising there was almost double the number of hostage-takers than reported, the mission was aborted…without actually telling the five men acting as snipers. A protracted firefight broke out as one of the sharpshooters attempted to eliminate the hostage-taker’s leader, codenamed Issa, and missed. At four minutes past midnight, one of the kidnappers turned on the restrained hostages in one of the helicopters with an assault rifle before blowing the helicopter up with grenade. Issa was then killed as he ran at the police. While unclear what exactly happened to the other hostages, at some point a hostage-taker turned a gun on them in a similar manner to the first helicopter.
In the words of ABC’s Jim McKay, “They are all gone.”
Ed: There was a horrible reality about this whole event. The Olympic organisers had asked a West German forensic psychologist to come up with potential terrorist scenarios to aid in security. His 21st scenario? Palestinians target Israeli athletes, killing some and taking hostages to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners. Organisers didn’t like the idea of heavy security at the games and so they ultimately largely ignored this scenario.
The immediate aftermath was mixed. On September 8th, Israeli jets bombed ten PLO camps in Syria and Lebanon, killing up to 200 people; on October 29th, Lufthansa flight 615 was hijacked and the hijackers demanded the release of the surviving members of the Black September group that had been sent to Munich. The West Germans released three of the members of the group in return for the safety of the plane; the Olympics, already in their second week, were suspended in their final days. One of the long-term results of the attack was the formation of dedicated counter-terrorism units in Europe, such as the GSG9 in Germany.
Operation Wrath of God
On September 6th, Israeli President Golda Meir created a taskforce to formulate a definitive Israeli response. It was decided that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, would co-ordinate a series of assassinations against the people responsible for the attacks. While Meir reluctantly agreed to this, she backed the operation more strongly following the release of three of the survivors following the hijacking incident mentioned above.
The first target was Wael Zwaiter, the PLO representative in Italy and believed to be a member of Black September and involved in a failed plot involving an El Al (Israel’s flag carrier airline) plane. His assassination took place on October 16th, just over a month after the Munich killings. Zwaiter was followed by Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO representative in France, and believed to be the leader of the French arm of Black September on December 8th. January 24th 1973, saw Hussein Al Bashir, the Fatah (the biggest faction in the PLO) representative in Cyprus killed and April 13th was the day that a law professor at the American University in Beirut, Basil al-Kubaissi, shot in Paris as the Israelis believed he had supplied arms logistics to Black September. Four days before, three targets had been killed in Lebanon through a mission run by Israeli commandos. More attacks followed, eliminating Bashir’s replacement in Cyprus and the French Black September director of operations.
Then there was a nine year hiatus. The next wave of Operation Wrath of God assassinations came in 1982 against two members of the PLO’s Rome based operation and one member of the Paris based operation. In 1986, the secretary general of the PLO faction, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was killed in Athens.
Ed: The reason for the hiatus? In late 1973, a Mossad team hunting Ali Hassan Salameh, the suspected mastermind of the Munich attack, killed an innocent Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway and arrested. This led to the compromise of a number of Mossad agents across Europe and the suspension of Wrath of God until 1978.
However, there was one exception to the hiatus. After unsuccessful attempts to kill Salameh, mentioned above, a Mossad team in Beirut managed to assassinate him 1979. He had been one of their biggest targets and they had been unsuccessful five times. But now, they had finally succeeded.
Response to Operation Wrath of God
Black September retaliated via a letter bomb campaign in late 1972 and attempted to assassinate Golda Meir in Rome the following year. They were unsuccessful and were officially dissolved in 1974.
In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed the movie Munich, which followed the events of Wrath of God, with a degree of artistic license.
I hope you found this blog interesting and if you are a new reader, I recommend you go check out my other works!
I would also like to explain why, despite often writing quite light-hearted and nerd oriented blogs, I write blogs like this. As this is my personal blog, I tend to write about what’s currently on my mind. While I do have a nerdy mind, sometimes I write a piece on a subject I feel strongly about or I believe needs more awareness (such as this blog on abstinence-only sex education in America) and sometimes, like today’s blog, I like to remember the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The further we move into the future, the more likely we are to forget about events like this, In today’s tense international climate, the lessons learned from events such as the ones described in today’s blog may play an important role in not condemning our future.