This weekend in world history: the Munich Massacre (1972)

This weekend is the 43rd anniversary of the two day terrorist attack against the Israeli team competing in the 1972 Munich Olympics. On the morning of September 5, 1972, eight members of the radical PLO group Black September infiltrated Munich’s Olympic Village and broke into apartments that were housing members of the Israeli team, killing two and taking nine more hostage. After more than a full day of negotiations, the terrorists and their hostages were transported to the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck air base to wait for what they were told was a flight to Cairo. In reality, German police had set a trap, but its execution was so horribly botched (for example, the German “snipers” set up around the airfield to shoot the terrorists were given medium-range battle rifles without scopes rather than proper sniper weaponry and equipment) that all nine hostages were killed by the terrorists during the firefight (five terrorists were also killed, along with one German police officer). The three remaining Black September attackers were captured by German police, but were all released in October in exchange for the safe release of the hijacked Lufthansa Flight 615 and all passengers and crew.

Munich had a number of repercussions. Germany’s mishandling of the effort to take out the terrorists, for example, led to the creation of specially trained and equipped counter-terrorism forces in many European countries, most prominently Germany and France. Israel responded to the attack with “Operation Wrath of God,” an effort to track down and kill Palestinians suspected of involvement in the Munich attack. That operation missed as frequently as it hit, assassinating many relatively low-level PLO figures who had no connection to Munich and, in at least a couple of cases, were believed to have actually been opposed to violence. Black September was disbanded after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, not really because of anything Israel did, but because the PLO decided to stop carrying out terrorist attacks abroad and to instead pursue diplomatic efforts to gain support for the Palestinian cause.

The one Munich terrorist to survive both the September 6 German assault and Operation Wrath of God was Jamal al-Gashey, who may still be alive today somewhere in North Africa (he was in Libya for a while, but probably not any more). The last time anybody asked him, he said that he was “proud of what [he] did in Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously.” You have to admit, the Palestinians sure do have it pretty sweet these days thanks in part to all the terrorist attacks that the PLO (and, more recently, Hamas) have carried out over the years. Although, hey, it’s not like diplomacy has gotten them very far either.

This is obviously the very short version of events. Since I’m still not back in the swing of things around here, I suggest that if you’re interested in reading more, you may want to start with this piece by The Guardian‘s Simon Burnton, written in 2012 as part of a series on major Olympic moments put together in advance of that year’s London Summer Olympics, and this CNN piece, written for the 40th anniversary of the attack and based on an interview with a surviving member of that 1972 Israeli Olympic team named Shaul Ladany.


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