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TERRORISM: Horror and Death at the Olympics

25 minute read

IN a world that thought itself accustomed to horror, it was yet another notch on an ever-rising scale of grotesquerie. The murders in Munich last week—preceded by 20 hours of high drama and precipitated by a horrendously bungled police shootout —gripped most of the world in attentive thrall. Because the drama was carried live on television, the suspense involved everyone, evoking memories of similarly intensely emotional events and a train of other murders that seemed to begin that day in Dallas in 1963. This time the final monstrous twist was that the killings were in Munich, the original spawning ground of Nazism—and the victims were Jews.

The guerrilla operation had evidently been planned to create maximum outrage. It succeeded, probably beyond its planners’ wildest dreams. By invading the Olympic Village and seizing nine Israeli athletes as hostages and killing two others, eight young Palestinians managed to expose every weakness in the forces of law and in the helpless governments involved in the crisis. The failures of security, of crisis judgment and of police operations and information will be debated for months to come. Beyond that, the guerrillas set off a widening wave of diplomatic, political and military consequences.

In the Middle East they provoked harsh Israeli retaliation that shattered the status quo peace in the area and left further moves toward a more formal accommodation in doubt. On the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, flights of Israeli jets swooped over the borders of Lebanon and Syria, carrying out the heaviest strikes on those countries since the 1967 war. About 75 planes took part in the raids, bombing eight presumed guerrilla bases in Syria and four in Lebanon. Arab sources said that the attacks had left 66 dead and scores wounded. Israeli jets shot down three Syrian planes over the Golan Heights in view of Israeli motorists out on holiday drives. Syria said it downed two planes in return. Israeli ground troops crossed the Lebanese border to battle commandos who had been mining roads in Israel. The Israelis seemed angry enough to do much more. On the chance that they might, the Syrian army hurriedly massed at the frontier.

Bruised Image. In West Germany, the Munich murders could be politically damaging to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. One object of the Olympic summer in Bavaria had been to demonstrate the contrast between the Nazi Germany of 1936—the last time the Games were held there—and the prosperous, benign Germany of today. That image was now dashed, however unfairly, by the brutal murder of eleven Israelis. Brandt could become the victim of West Germans’ disappointment when elections take place, probably in December. Brandt last week speedily called for a “ruthless” inquiry and frank presentation of facts.

On a much lower level, the benign image of the Olympic Games (see SPORT) was also bruised by the horror and bloodshed amid splendid surroundings. The morning after the murders, an audience of 80,000 filed into the Olympic Stadium for a hastily arranged memorial service. The surviving members of the Israeli team, heavily guarded, sat with the other athletes in the center of the field. The stand was draped in black, and for the first time in Olympic history the flags of 122 competing nations and the Olympic flag flew at half-staff. Munich’s Philharmonic orchestra played the sad strains of the funeral movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Declared West Germany’s President Gustav Heinemann: “We stand helpless before a truly despicable act.”

Should the Games continue? Crusty Avery Brundage, the 84-year-old retiring president of the International Olympic Committee, declared that “the Games must go on”—and the crowd in the stadium cheered. One obvious consideration was to deny the Arab terrorists the satisfaction of having halted the Olympics. But the decision was a troubling one, and the Israeli government justifiably protested that the Games should be halted while Israel mourned its Olympic dead. Many felt that the tragedy was of such magnitude that the remaining Games should be called off. Unwilling to continue, some Dutch and Norwegian team members quietly packed up and went home.

Relaxed Security. Until last week, the XX Olympiad had been a huge and happy success. Never before had so many records been toppled or so many political quarrels forgotten. West Germans even made a point of cheering whenever East Germans won. In that atmosphere, security was progressively relaxed. Initially, the West Germans planned to restrict entry into the Olympic Village, which was home to 12,000 athletes. But when reporters complained—and accused the security men of Gestapo tactics—officials all but abandoned efforts to limit press entry to the village. Forgotten, too, was earlier concern over security for the Israeli team. As the Israelis told it last week, they had asked two months ago for special protection at the Games, and had been promised that they would be safeguarded. The West Germans said that they had offered the Israelis special protection, and been turned down.

Incredibly, neither side apparently had second thoughts, even when rumors spread that Arabs intended to cause trouble at the Games. In addition, U.S. businesses were told by the State Department to be on the lookout for Arab terrorist bombs.

The most extreme of all Arab terrorist groups, the Black September group (see story, page 33), already had some members in Germany, among the Palestinians attending universities there. But the planning and training for last week’s attack, according to Israeli intelligence, was carried out in Syria. Israel also accused Syria of helping the fedayeen get German work permits in order to reconnoiter and perhaps even using embassy radio facilities to speed situation reports back to commando headquarters in the Middle East. The week before the Olympics started, several members of Black September set out for Munich, traveling separately and by various means of transport. They brought an arsenal of deadly Russian-built Kalashnikov submachine guns, pistols and hand grenades.

Once they reached Munich, they carefully surveyed the Olympic Village; some got jobs among the 30,000 workers in the village. Athletes from Uruguay, who occupied quarters next to the Israelis, later remembered having seen Arabs in the vicinity.

The Arabs made their move at 4:20 a.m. as the sprawling Olympic Village (see map) lay quiet and sleeping in the predawn darkness. Two telephone linemen saw a group of young men wearing sporty clothes and carrying athletic equipment scale the 6 2/7-ft. fence surrounding the village. It was a fairly common occurrence; many of the Olympic athletes had broken training to enjoy a night on the town, and then scaled the fence to re-enter the compound. But once out of sight, the Arab group stopped to blacken their faces with charcoal or put on hoods, and pull weapons out of their bags. Then they set off toward the Israeli quarters at 31 Connollystrasse, named, in an Olympic tradition, after U.S. Hammer Thrower Harold Connolly and his Czech-born wife, Olga, a discus thrower.

Crisis Center. The 22 male Israeli athletes, coaches and officials shared five apartments in the modernistic three-story building. Uncertain how many of the three-room apartments housed Israelis, the intruders knocked on one of the doors and asked in German, “Is this the Israeli team?” Wrestling Coach Moshe Weinberg, 32, opened the door a crack, then threw himself against it when he saw the armed men, and yelled for his roommates to flee. Weinberg was hit by a burst of submachine-gun fire through the door. Boxer Gad Zavary bounced out of bed, broke a window with his elbow and climbed out. “They fired after me,” he said. “I heard the bullets whistling by my ears.”

Virtually the same scene was repeated at a second apartment. Wrestler Joseph Romano apparently fought off the intruding Arabs momentarily with a knife, but he was mortally wounded. Yosef Gottfreund, a 6-ft. 1-in., 240-lb. wrestling referee, held a door shut despite the efforts of five Arabs pushing from the other side. “Hevra tistalku!” Gottfreund yelled in Hebrew [Boys, get out!]. It was too late, when the door was finally forced, for Gottfreund to get out. In all, however, 18 Israelis managed to escape. Nine who did not make it to the exits were taken hostage. They were bound hand and foot in groups of three and pushed together onto a bed.

By 6 a.m. Munich police, alerted to the situation by escaping Israelis, had arrived and begun to take the measure of the situation. A Krisenstab, or crisis center, was set up in the village administration building 220 yards from 31 Connollystrasse. Police Chief Manfred Schreiber called up 600 men, along with armored cars, to cordon off the area. Meanwhile an ambulance crew had already been summoned to retrieve the body of Moshe Weinberg, which had been dragged onto the steps of the Israeli compound and left there by two Arabs.

Schreiber boldly walked up to the besieged apartment house, and was met by a terrorist in a white tennis hat and sunglasses. He was apparently the leader of the group—and, as it turned out, the most fanatical. “It occurred to me,” the police chief said later, “that I might try to take him hostage. He must have sensed what I was thinking. ‘Do you want to take me?’ he asked, opening his hand. I saw a hand grenade. He had his thumb on the pin.”

When Schreiber asked about the hostages, he was told that the Palestinians would shortly deliver their demands. At 9 a.m. the Arabs tossed out of a window a message in English that listed 200 Arab prisoners presently held in Israeli jails and demanded their release. Also on the list were the names of Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, leaders of a gang of German leftist terrorists that had robbed at least eight banks, bombed U.S. Army posts and killed three policemen before the last members were captured in June, and Kozo Okamoto, the Japanese terrorist who took part in last May’s massacre at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport, in which 26 people died. As the police read the list, the Olympic Games continued only 400 yards away, and 2,000 cheering fans —many of them still unaware of the drama—watched a volleyball game between West Germany and Japan.

The Palestinians insisted that they and their prisoners must be flown out of West Germany to any Arab nation except Lebanon or Jordan, aboard three airplanes that would leave at intervals. The youth in the white hat, who had pulled a stocking over his face as a disguise, said that authorities had three hours, until noon, to comply. If they did not do so, the hostages would be executed at the rate of two every 30 minutes.

By then a hot line was humming between Munich, Bonn—where Chancellor Brandt had been awakened with the news at 6:35—and Jerusalem. In Israel, where it was one hour later, Premier Golda Meir summoned her senior advisers to the subterranean Cabinet room of the Knesset building. It did not take them long to decide: 1) not to negotiate with the terrorists or release any prisoners, 2) to tell the Germans that they had full responsibility for any rescue action and 3) to indicate that Israel would not object should the Germans give the terrorists safe-conduct out of the country—provided that they received ironclad guarantees that the hostages would then be freed.

Thus West German Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, taking charge of the negotiations, was tightly limited in the decisions that he could make. Genscher bargained with the terrorists personally, and offered them an unlimited sum of money for the release of the Israelis; the Palestinians brusquely turned down the offer. Genscher then offered himself and other West German officials as hostages in the Israelis’ place, but again he was rebuffed. He stalled for time by insisting that he was slowly persuading the Israelis to change their decision about releasing prisoners. In fact, as Police Chief Schreiber later put it, the Germans were convinced that “the hostages were already dead” —meaning that their fate had been sealed by the decision not to comply with the terrorists’ demands.

Genscher boldly demanded to see the hostages. Taken to a bedroom in one of the apartments, he saw the nine bound men sitting on the beds. “I talked to one,” the Interior Minister reported after he came out. “I asked him how he felt. He said all right. He hoped we were doing something, he said.” At Genscher’s pleading, the Arabs pushed back their deadline for executing the hostages if their demands were not met first to 3 p.m. and then to 5 p.m. In all, they were to change it four times before the climactic shootout that ended the tragedy; it is at least conceivable that they might have been stalled even longer, and with less horrible results.

West German authorities had by now brought up 15 volunteer police sharpshooters, who wore armored vests under athletic uniforms. They were tracked by zoom-lens television cameras from atop the Olympic TV tower, though TV audiences could not hear the strange coded radio messages that accompanied their moves: “Samira to Eagle, the sky is clear.” “Akal to 25, take the iron but be careful.” Finally the TV channel was switched off altogether on the chance that the Arabs were also watching the stealthy sharpshooters edge up on them. But there were not enough targets to fire at. If a sharpshooter hit one of the Arabs who peered out from time to time his colleagues inside would undoubtedly retaliate against the hostages.

Governments in Motion. Meantime crowds drawn by the live television and radio reports poured into the area. A German Olympic hostess walked boldly up the street and spotted a guerrilla peering out from a half-open door of the apartment house. “If you give yourselves up,” she called to him in English, “nothing will happen.” He answered gruffly in the same language: “No.” A chorus of a hundred young Jews broke through police cordons and loudly sang the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, followed by the U.S. civil rights hymn We Shall Overcome. “We’ve got to let them know in there that we are with them, that they’re not alone,” explained one. The eerie wah-wah, wah-wah of police sirens echoed everywhere while army helicopters fluttered overhead. The mood inside Olympic Village changed under the stress from Gemütlichkeit to outrage. At one point, when a terrorist appeared on a balcony of the Israeli quarters, athletes badgered him from adjacent rooftops: “Take your guns and get out of here.”

By then, governments were in motion everywhere, but there was more protocol than practical effect in most of their communications. An exception was Willy Brandt; after a special Cabinet meeting in Bonn, he headed for Munich to guide the decision-making personally. Mrs. Meir, in a ten-minute address to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, asked that the Games be suspended—and they were, at 3:45 p.m. She also seemed to hint that Israel was still debating whether or not to release its Arab prisoners, though the decision had already been made not to do so. President Nixon, awakening in San Clemente when it was already early afternoon in Munich, sent an expression of sorrow to Jerusalem and ordered U.S. ambassadors in Arab capitals to press for the release of the hostages.

Reluctantly, Brandt had already made the day’s most important decision. He had ruled out completely the possibility of permitting the terrorists to fly away with the prisoners, taking them to what West German authorities were convinced would be certain death. “That would be impossible for an honorable country to allow to happen,” said the Chancellor. “We are responsible for the fate of these people.”

In Bonn, Foreign Minister Walter Scheel made contact with as many Arab capitals as he could, but he got little assistance or advice. In fact, they made it plain that they did not want to become involved at all. The Tunisian ambassador and an Arab League representative from Bonn unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the terrorists, who then announced that they would receive no more such emissaries.

Brandt decided to try one more call, to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. At 8:15 p.m.—10:15 in the Egyptian capital—the Chancellor got through to Sadat’s office, but was told that the President would be unavailable for at least 90 minutes. Finally, Brandt was connected to Premier Aziz Sidky, who said tersely, according to Munich reports: “We can do nothing. We do not want to get involved.” The Egyptians demurred, they explained later, because they had not been asked to intercede by the guerrillas. They also argued that the Germans had already arranged an ambush when Brandt was talking.

The terrorists, meanwhile, had also been telephoning the Middle East from inside the apartments—and getting no answer. At one point the guerrillas called a fedayeen office in Lebanon, but it refused to accept the call. To the Germans, that sounded ominously as if the guerrilla movement had written off the Munich attack and was deserting the attackers; if that was true, the Munich Arabs might become even more desperate than they already were.

Interior Minister Genscher reported to Brandt that he could not stall the increasingly edgy terrorists very much longer. Genscher and the Arabs agreed to a new plan. The fedayeen and the hostages would be taken to Munich’s airport and flown out on a Lufthansa 727 jet to any place they named. The Arabs selected Cairo as their destination and agreed to a new 7 p.m. deadline.

Both sides had other intentions. A 727 was flown to Fürstenfeldbruck, a West German airbase 16 miles outside Munich. No crew could be found that was willing to take the plane out again loaded with Arabs and Israelis; that scarcely mattered, since the Germans did not intend to let them leave. Already, plans were under way to transfer sharpshooters to Furstenfeldbruck. The Germans hoped that if the intransigent white-capped leader of the Arabs could be killed, his followers might surrender. The Arabs, as it turned out, were equally misleading about Cairo. When they finally did reach the airfield, they demanded a crew of eight to take them to a destination that they would reveal only after they were airborne.

At 10 p.m., nearly 18 hours after they had started their assault, the eight guerrillas herded their prisoners, who were now tied together in chain fashion and blindfolded, out of the building and into a gray German army bus.

They were driven through a tunnel under the village to a strip of lawn 275 yards away that had been converted into an emergency helicopter pad. Two choppers took the Arabs and their hostages on a 25-minute ride to Fürstenfeldbruck airport; a third preceded them, carrying German officials and Israeli intelligence men.

The airport had been ringed by 500 soldiers. Sharpshooters were staked out, but, strangely and disastrously, there were only five of them to pick off eight Arabs; the rest had been left at Olympic Village in case the Arabs presented targets of opportunity there.

When the helicopters set down at Fürstenfeldbruck, two Arabs hopped out and walked over to check out the 727. Two more jumped out and, although they had promised not to use Germans as hostages, ordered the helicopter crews to get out and stand by their choppers. The sharpshooters —three of them posted in the control tower 40 yards from the helicopters and the other two on the field—had been instructed to fire whenever the Arabs presented the greatest number of targets. The cautious terrorists never exposed more than four of their number at a time. To complicate matters, the local police sharpshooters had turned down infra-red sniperscopes offered by the West German army because they had never been trained to use them. They sighted through regular scopes at a field illuminated by floodlights and stippled by shadows. Nonetheless, one marksman squeezed off a round and the others quickly followed suit.

The two Arabs guarding the helicopter crews were hit, and in the firefight that followed one of the pilots was wounded. A third guerrilla on the tarmac was killed. But the Arab leader, whom the police wanted to hit most of all, dived under a helicopter and fired back. His shots somehow knocked out the lights as well as the radio in the control tower. Ricocheting bullets also killed a Munich police sergeant who had crouched beside the control tower.

The battle continued sporadically for another hour before five guerrillas, including the leader, were killed and three surrendered. In that interval the hostages died too. One group of four burned to death when a terrorist tossed a grenade and set fire to the helicopter in which they were being held. The rest were machine-gunned by the Arabs.

Rumors spread, however, that the Arabs had been captured and the Israelis had been freed alive. Strangely, the government accepted the rumors without checking them and gave out the good news (see THE PRESS). The world prematurely rejoiced. Even Willy Brandt went to bed shortly afterward convinced that his men had scored a triumph. In Jerusalem, Israelis celebrated and Mrs. Meir opened a bottle of cognac, ready to propose a toast.

Four hours later, West German authorities finally admitted the truth. Police Chief Schreiber tried to minimize the lag by insisting that “the hostages were as good as dead from the minute the Israeli government refused to hand over prisoners. We only tried to free some of the hostages or possibly all of them, in the event that the terrorists made a mistake.”

Schreiber’s men had captured three of the fedayeen, two of whom were wounded, but the Germans were not even sure who they were. The names they gave—Samer Mohamed Abdulah, 22; Abed Kair Al Dnavy, 21; and Ibrahim Mosoud Badnar, 20—were more than likely false. Their pictures were flashed on television to see if viewers could identify the men and help trace their path to Munich. Black September demanded their release under threat of further atrocities. Reports circulated that police were seeking 14 other Arabs as terrorists.

Official Arab reaction to the events in Munich was diverse. Jordan’s King Hussein appeared on Amman television to offer condolences in Arabic and English to bereaved Israeli families. The murders, the King declared, were “an abhorrent crime” conceived by “sick minds.” Egypt, on the other hand, blamed Bonn for everything. “The commandos and the Israeli hostages were killed in a German ambush, by German bullets and in a U.S. base in Germany,” said a government spokesman, ignoring the fact that Fürstenfeldbruck is a German airbase and that the hostages, according to all evidence, died from fire or automatic weapons like the fedayeen Kalashnikovs, rather than the sharpshooters’ rifles.

Sad New Year. Libya offered to send a chartered plane for the bodies of the dead Arabs. Guerrilla leaders were defensive. “They didn’t want to kill,” said one. “The Israelis wouldn’t have been killed if the Germans hadn’t trapped the operation. And no one would have been killed if the Israelis had released their prisoners.”

In Israel a crowd of 3,000 met the pine coffins of the victims as they arrived at Lod airport aboard a special El Al plane.* Israelis traditionally bury their dead in shrouds, but these were too burned and broken. Deputy Premier Yigal Allon presided in place of Golda Meir. For the Premier, who is 74, the tragedy was compounded by the death of her older sister, Sheineh Korngold, 83, who emigrated from Milwaukee to Israel with her 51 years ago.

As the bodies were borne off for individual services, 4,000 students demonstrated in Jerusalem’s Independence Park. Ma’ariv, Israel’s biggest newspaper, said: “We must cut off the arm of terrorism before it is raised to strike us again.” Although Rosh Hashana is the nation’s heaviest shopping season, stores were generally deserted. The customary greeting of “Shana Tova” (Happy New Year) was passed with ironic emphasis on the “happy.”

In the Knesset, Deputies argued about whether the death penalty should be invoked in Israel, where it has been applied only once, against Adolf Eichmann. As long as captured terrorists remain alive and in jail, goes the argument, they will be an incentive for other terrorists to capture hostages with an eye toward making a trade.

Could the tragedy have turned out differently? Once the basic policy decisions had been made—not to release Arab prisoners in Israel for the hostages in Munich, not to allow the terrorists to leave the country with their Israeli captives—there was no choice but to try to stop the Black September gang by force. The decision not to trade off prisoners was up to Israel alone. Although the confrontation was in Germany, the hostages were Jews and the West Germans bear such a psychological burden of guilt from the past that they felt that they had to defer to Israel. Jerusalem intervened early in the decision-making with telephone calls, cables—and the dispatch of two high Israeli intelligence officers who sat in with the West German government officials from about 2 p.m. until the end. Mrs. Meir later shared the burden with the West Germans, publicly thanking them for their decision “to take action for the liberation of the Israeli hostages and to employ force to that end.”

The final decision to stage an ambush was based on the West German conviction that if the terrorists were allowed to fly out with the hostages, they would shoot their prisoners elsewhere. The Arabs had told them that they would shoot them next morning if Israel had not released its prisoners. That was probably indeed the Black September gang’s intent—but there is still room for a nagging doubt. The Arabs, after all, had ignored their own ultimatums and let their deadlines go by before —and the hostages were worth more to them alive than dead. Presumably, the terrorists still wanted to trade their captives for imprisoned comrades.

The real fault was in the bungled execution of the basic decision. The police operation was badly mismanaged, and that failure was compounded by a lack of zeal in the task. Bavarian police were seemingly determined to carry off the ambush without loss of German life, though they were unsuccessful even in that. “If you want to know what I reproach myself for,” Schreiber told a press conference afterward, “it is that I had to sacrifice one of my officers.” He added quickly, “And that innocent Israeli athletes died.” Such an attitude made a bold operation impossible. There was also a question of pride. The Israelis have had considerable experience in dealing with terrorists, but their intelligence men on the scene were allowed only a liaison role.

Impossible Task. German planning, as it turned out, was inadequate —and German caution led to disaster. The five sharpshooters at the airport were expected to stop eight men as rapidly as possible under bad lighting conditions—an impossible task. The small German force of police held back for more than an hour after the first shots were fired. Some of the 500 German soldiers on hand, who were under control of Interior Minister Bruno Merk of the Bavarian government, were being used to control crowds on the perimeter of the airfield. They would have been more usefully employed in assaulting the helicopters. By holding back after committing themselves, the Germans wasted their advantage of surprise.

For the rest of the world, an equally urgent question was whether the Black September brand of violence could be stopped. President Nixon last week formed a special intelligence committee composed of CIA, FBI and State Department experts to cope with international terrorism. Secretary of State Rogers, on Nixon’s orders, launched a diplomatic drive to persuade Arab governments to deny sanctuary to the fedayeen. But the guerrillas are popular heroes in many Arab countries, and the Arab governments’ range of action is severely limited by the political consequences of a crackdown. The difficulty of concerting international action was demonstrated last week when 17 nations met in Washington to seek agreement on measures against skyjackers —and failed. Even if governments could agree, the Black September gangsters would be hard to eliminate, since they move so stealthily. Quite probably, the world will have to endure more Munichs before it learns how to curb them.

To counter the guerrilla terror, governments everywhere will have to pay far closer attention to security—not only on airliners, as they are learning to do, but at almost any public event or occasion that terrorists could disrupt, as they did the Olympics. Perhaps the ultimate significance of last week’s horror in Munich is that the historic, bloody conflict between the Israelis and Arabs has now been exported from the Middle East to the rest of the world, first to Western Europe, and maybe eventually even to the U.S.

*The eleventh victim, Weight Lifter David Berger, was a U.S. citizen who had moved to Israel last year. A U.S.A.F. C-141A StarLifter was dispatched to bring his body home hurriedly for burial in Cleveland before the Sabbath, as required by Orthodox law.

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