Munich Olympics: When terrorism won

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The 1972 Munich Olympics was supposed to showcase the face of the new Germany. Instead, the horrific death of 11 Israeli athletes — slaughtered as the world watched  — marked a watershed moment in the Palestinian struggle and raises important questions about the power and effectiveness of terrorism. Join Noam Weissman as he explains the details of that day and what followed, and why the massacre at Munich was not just another 1970’s terrorist attack.

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Episode Transcript

That’s right. It’s the 1970s. I wasn’t alive then, but a memorable decade, for sure. You might be thinking of discos, the counterculture revolution and Saturday Night Fever. You may also have no idea what I’m talking about if you are a millennial or younger. That’s cool, too. 

Music ends.

But the 70s saw another kind of fever — the epidemic of terrorism. It’s really sad, because today perhaps many of us just accept terrorism as a part of current events — something to be expected. But prior to the 70’s, it wasn’t like that.

Events across the world including The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Argentinian Dirty War contributed to the 70s being termed the Golden Age of Terrorism. As it relates to Israel, this is particularly relevant because throughout that decade, Palestinian terrorism reached new level of intensity and frequency. 

The most infamous case of terrorism in the 70s, the one that brought Palestinian terrorism — and actually Palestinian national aspirations — into the international arena, was the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, in which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered. 

I love watching the Olympics — I’m a huge sports fan. I was not alive for the 72 Olympics, but I am obsessed with sports so when I was younger, I actually used to watch highlights from the Olympics. I know, weird. Don’t judge. The image of USSR -50, USA – 49 always stung and it was that image that I used to think about when thinking of the Munich Olympics of 1972. The Soviets beating the Americans in Basketball? Ouch. I still think the Soviets got away with one there. Like millions, maybe billions of people out there, my adrenaline kicks in even more when international pride and competition are on the line. 

It’s a pretty extraordinary thing. 

Without these feelings of pride or this odd sense of camaraderie, I think it would be quite laughable if all of the nations in the world came together just to watch each other do gymnastics. 

It’s a big stage. Actually, it’s the biggest stage. 

And that begins the story of the Munich massacre’s significance.

If Israeli athletes competing at the Olympics on the world stage are targeted because they’re Israelis, because they’re Jews, how would the world react? Another question I am almost afraid to ask, Does terrorism work? And, ultimately, how would these Olympics be remembered by Israeli society? 

The Munich Olympics in 1972 were supposed to showcase the new face of Germany.  At the infamous 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, just 36 years earlier, Hitler used the event as a propaganda machine for the “superiority of the Aryan race.”  They actually described it like that. The 1972 Olympics was supposed to be Germany’s chance to show the international community, in their own territory, how they’ve changed. You know, real teshuva, real repentance. Everybody loves a comeback story, right?  

Germany actually named the upcoming events the not-so subtle “Olympics of Peace Joy,” or “Die Heiteren Spiele!!”  …or something like that… They wanted to show Germany as peace-loving as possible, and this meant a deliberate and frankly absurd lack of security.  So, you know that feeling when someone is trying way too hard, and overcompensating a bit too much? It was kind of like that. Not a single uniformed policeman or soldier was to be seen. On the other hand, Olympic officials did put serious consideration into the wardrobe of the small unarmed security force, apparently conducting an opinion poll to determine that light blue uniforms were the most “unpolitical” of hues. 

The attendance of the Israeli team at this event, only 27 years after the end of the Holocaust, can not be overstated.  The Israeli athletes, many of whom lost relatives in the Holocaust, waved the Israeli flag over German soil, only six miles from the Dachau concentration camp. Israel was making a strong statement of both Jewish resilience, and Israel’s readiness to accept “a different Germany.” 

But at 4:30 am, on the morning of September 5th, 1972, the fantasy of a “peaceful Olympics” came to an abrupt and horrific end. Eight men dressed in tracksuits carrying duffel bags loaded with AK-47s, pistols, and grenades, jumped the unguarded fence and infiltrated the Israeli team’s apartment complex.  Two of the Israelis initially fought off the terrorists, but were soon murdered. There were even signs of severe mutilation. No matter which side of the aisle you sit in on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hearing that the Palestinians mutilated Yossef Romano is a concept that sears in my mind. Nothing about that is “freedom fighting.” 

The remaining nine athletes were taken hostage.  The terrorists demanded that Israel release 234 Palestinian prisoners in exchange.  If not, the hostages would be executed.

Before we find out what happened next, let’s take a step back to look at the bigger picture of who these terrorists were, and the greater context of terrorism during this time.  

In 1958, Yasser Arafat and his friends founded Al-Fatah, which advocated armed struggle against Israel. In 1964, they established the PLO or Palestinian Liberation Organization, with the goal, according to Arafat, of destroying Israel. 

There is evidence that the group that led the Munich Olympics Massacre emerged from Arafat’s Al-Fatah, as a splinter cell group called “Black September.” Although Arafat denies giving approval of the massacre, the U.S. State Department claims to have found connections between the two groups, and even one of those involved with the plot, Abu Daoud, claims Arafat approved the plan.

Let’s get back to the Olympics.

After learning of the attack, Avery Brundage, president of the Olympics Committee, controversially declared that the games must go on.  In typical German precision, the first athletic event of the day occurred at exactly 8:15 am, as two Israelis lay dead and nine Israelis were held hostage.  Brundage spent his day exerting pressure on German officials to get the Israelis out of the village and allow the Olympics to carry on in peace. Jim Murray of the LA Times was astonished by this, saying, “It’s almost like having a dance at Dachau.”  As the other athletes were sunbathing and playing ping-pong, an international nightmare, lasting more than 20 hours, was happening a few yards away. 

Finally, at 3:51 pm, the Olympic committee suspended the events.  Thousands of people filed out of Olympic Stadium and gathered on the grassy hill overlooking the apartments, along with live television crews.  Viewers were horrified to see that Jewish blood was being spilled on German soil. There was just a  feeling of helplessness. 

There was a feeling of once again Jews were slaughtered on German soil while the world looked on. But, Ronen Bergman author of the wildly-read Rise and Kill First points out that it was worse, “the State of Israel was rendered impotent by German authorities and forced to watch passively as terrorists slaughtered its citizens.”

So, negotiate? No way.

Israeli prime minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate with the terrorists, calling it “blackmail.”  

Meanwhile, the German authorities turned down assistance from the Israeli Mossad, who — unlike Germany — had a specialized counter-terrorism unit.  Instead, Germany began clumsy negotiations with the terrorists.  At the same time, without a real operational plan, German police scaled the building and prepared to attack the terrorists.  But, in a fail of epic proportions, they realized that their actions were being broadcast on live TV to a worldwide audience, including the terrorists themselves.  It was really an absolute disaster

The terrorists then made a new demand, that they and the hostages be flown to Egypt. The German authorities agreed to helicopter them to the airport, where they planned to ambush them. The botched rescue attempt became a textbook example of how not to handle a hostage situation.  six policemen, disguised as flight crew, were placed on the airplane, and five sharpshooters lay on the perimeter. The plane crew in disguise was to wait for the terrorists and Israelis to arrive….but at the last minute, the “flight crew” voted to abandon the mission and left the plane. The remaining five sharpshooters had no special sniper training, no radio communication, and no telescopic or infrared sights — which, if you’ve watched TV or seen a movie in the last, I dunno…70 years, you know are pretty essential for a sniper. 

Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir was present for it all but was ignored.  It seemed to him that his presence actually made the Germans…uncomfortable.  And so the rescue attempt continued lacking the most basic experience and technical foresight.

The helicopters landed at the airport just after 10:30 pm.  When the terrorists entered the empty plane, they realized it was a trap and ran back to the helicopters.  The sharpshooters opened fire and a shootout ensued. Some untrained sharpshooters, versus heavily armed terrorists. It was a disaster.  One of the terrorists ended up throwing a grenade into one of the helicopters, killing the four Israelis and pilots inside. They gunned down the remaining five hostages in the other helicopter. All told, 11 Israelis had been killed, along with one policeman, and five terrorists.  In the press briefing later that morning, the Munich police commissioner tried to explain, by saying “The terrorists were too clever, too professional.  The hostages were condemned to die…  We tried all we knew, but they were not amateurs.”  A really really weak statement. Not a ringing endorsement of the German police’s competence. Victor Cohen of the Shabak, Israel’s FBI, reported that:

“we learned that some of the policemen who were supposed to take part in the rescue operation made a decision before it started that they were not ready to risk their lives for the sake of the Israelis.” 

I really really hope this is not true…

Long story short, the games were suspended for 24 hours, and then continued as planned and the German government allowed the bodies of the dead terrorists to be flown to Libya, where they were buried as heroes.  

Now, if you thought the series of Germany’s screw-ups ended here, you’re wrong.. Three terrorists remained alive in German custody awaiting trial. But, as predicted by Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir, the unthinkable happened.  Palestinian terrorists hijacked  commercial Lufthansa flight 727, and demanded the release of the three imprisoned terrorists in exchange for the 14 passengers on the plane.  The Germans quickly agreed. 

27 Years Later

In the Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September, it was revealed that Germany had colluded with Al Fatah in planning the hijacking in exchange for a promise not to carry out any more terrorist acts within Germany. Yes, you heard that correctly — a major European country colluded with terrorists in a bargain.

For 20 years, the German government insisted that no documents existed relating to its failures.  But in 1992, a German archivist smuggled a bulging folder to the wife of one of the victims. The number of files the Germans had been hiding ran up to 4,000.  Horrible details emerged; that the Israeli athletes had been brutalized until their bones snapped, and one of them was castrated in front of his teammates.

So, why am I spending time on this story? It’s just another case of terrorism. Right?

Well, first of all, the massacre of Jews in Germany by Palestinian terrorists left a deep scar on Israeli society and would become a watershed event for how Israel would treat terrorists… and it would not be pretty.  Aaron Klein who did serious research on the topic and a former captain in Israel’s army, described it as Israel’s 9/11. While it was obviously not nearly as large scale as 9/11, for the first time a terrorist act was on international television for all the world to see. 

Menachem Begin apparently proposed bombing Libya in response. But, Prime Minister Golda Meir had a different plan. On no less significant of date than 9/11 1972, the Knesset voted to allow Israeli intelligence to find its targets, even in friendly countries.  Golda later said to the Knesset: 

“retaliation or no retaliation, at any place where a plot is being laid, where they are preparing people to murder Jews, Israelis — Jews anywhere — it is here that we are committed to striking them.” 

So, Israel unleashed “Operation Wrath of God” — an operation directed by the Israeli government and the Mossad. The objective:  Hunt down and assassinate all of the terrorists directly or indirectly involved in the massacre of the Israeli athletes. The various targets included members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September and members of the PLO who were involved. 

In one legendary operation that I still can’t believe actually happened, a group of Israeli commandos including future Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his deputy Muki Betser disguised as women, left Haifa for Lebanon by boat. Their targets were PLO leaders involved in the planning of the attack. Upon arriving at the Lebanese shore on April 10th, it took the commandos only 30 minutes to drive to their intended targets, assassinate the three top PLO leaders, drive back to the beach and board their boats for the return trip home to Israel. I know, it sounds like it’s like an episode of Fauda, but this is real life. This generated serious fear of the Mossad from the Arab world, and Arab leaders started pressuring Palestinians to cut the terrorism in foreign countries. 

The second reason why this specific terror attack is so important: Some ethical/moral dilemmas emerged. 

Of course, not all of these operations in response to the massacre went according to plan. For example, in 1973, the Mossad was in search of the elusive chief of operations for the Black September group, Ali Hassan Salameh, comically known as the Red Prince. The Red Prince (let’s keep calling him that) was handsome, charismatic and rich. That’s a solid trio… In one of the Mossad’s let’s call it less than stellar moments, Salameh was incorrectly identified in a cafe in Lillehammer, Norway. Salameh was said to have been one of the masterminds of the Mossad massacre though he denied it (this is significant because terrorists often like taking credit, it’s good for street cred). Either way, this was quite the important guy to nab. A Mossad hitman fired eight shots at him, killing him on the spot. The only problem was they had the wrong guy. Instead, they had killed Ahmed Bouchikhi, an innocent Moroccan waiter and cleaning man who had a pregnant wife. The botched assassination was a major blow to the Mossad’s reputation, and five of the Israeli agents involved ended up serving jail time in Norway. 

The Red Prince mocked Israel, saying “When they killed Bouchiki, I was in Europe…I was not saved so much because of my skills, but rather because of the weakness of Israeli intelligence.”

Ultimately, Salameh was assassinated on January 22, 1979 in Beirut while leaving his home when a bomb was detonated killing him and his bodyguards. In all, dozens of terrorists were killed in the operation, and there were also civilian collateral casualties often as well.

These events raise a lot of questions.

Let’s work our way backwards.  The ethical implications of Operation Wrath of God remain controversial to many. Revenge likely motivated many of the Israeli leaders but it was not their goal. Perhaps, their goal was spreading fear throughout the PLO as a method of preventing future attacks. Did that work? Depends on who you ask. Israeli leaders would probably give a resounding yes.  In many ways it actually worked. After Munich, there were no other Munichs.  Terror against Jews in Europe definitely stopped for a bit.

Representatives of the PLO would probably have a different take, that it wasn’t the Operation Wrath of God that stopped the organized terror in Europe, but that they just decided to stop on their own. No way of knowing, really.

And, now we also have to ask the most difficult question from my vantage point: Does terrorism work?  In the case of Munich, the answer seems to be an unequivocal yes.  The Olympics provided a televised audience for terrorism and the whole world learned about Palestinian aspirations. 

Years later, one of the only surviving terrorists looked back at 1972 with pride. 

“It helped the Palestinian cause enormously … Before Munich the world had no idea about our struggle. But on that day the word Palestine was repeated all over the world.”

And was he wrong?

Looks like he was right. In fact, only two years after the massacre, Yasser Arafat spoke to a standing ovation at the UN. 

It is a pretty upsetting realization that terror can work when given such a huge platform — and lends understanding to why Israeli reacted with such intensity and determination to find and kill those involved.

So that’s the story of the Munich massacre, and why it matters so much. I think we covered a lot.

Five Fast Facts

  1. One of the goals of the 1972 Munich Olympics was for Germany to show the world how peaceful and tolerant they had become, only 27 years after of the fall of Nazi Germany.
  2. The Black September Palestinian terrorists were able to take the Israeli athletes hostage because the Olympic village in Munich, Germany had little to no security in their effort to promote “Peace”.
  3. Germany refused help from the Mossad during the hostage situation, and led terrible negotiations and a faulty plan of action.
  4. The Munich Massacre was instrumental in gaining international acknowledgement and support for the Palestinian cause.
  5. For 20 years, the Mossad hunted down the terrorists involved in the Munich Massacre through Operation Wrath of God.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. The Munich massacre was not just another terrorist attack. At all. For Jews around the world, and on the international stage, when the Jewish people — represented by Israel — had the opportunity to be like every other nation, the freaking Olympics,  the Jews again felt like Israel was the “Jew of the nations.” Again, it was an outsider, a victim, the vulnerable, the oppressed with no one to support them. This was an image Israeli leaders refused to see. With the State of Israel, Jewish leaders hoped it would give the young Jew confidence, the ability to stand straight up with heads held high and a straight back, with  the right to never cower to terror again. 

Never again? Well, the fact that this happened on German soil was salt in the wound. There is a reason that this is viewed as Israel’s 9/11. And this is why Israel, led by Golda Meir, refused to back down.  In the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, of course there were controversial aspects about Operation Wrath of God, but regardless of where one stands on the specifics of different operations, it showed many Jews that thanks to the State of Israel, Jewish blood would not be viewed as “cheap” and that every Jewish person has a country who will defend them…no questions asked.

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