It’s hard to believe this week marks the 40th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attack at the Munich Summer Olympics. At Fürstenfeldbruck air base near Munich, an attempt by West German police to rescue nine Israeli Olympic team members held hostage by Palestinian terrorists ended in an utter horror.
As they desperately tried to rescue the Israeli athletes who had been taken hostage, everything seemed to go wrong. When the firefight was over, all nine hostages were dead, as were three terrorists and a German police officer. The incident bears remembering because it was a wakeup call — that terrorism could intrude — even into the most pure and ecumenical global celebrations. In what has become a bitter irony, the Munich games were billed as “The Games of Peace and Joy.”
The hostage crisis began early the previous morning when Palestinian terrorists from the Black September organization stormed the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village, killing two team members and taking nine others hostage. The terrorists gained access to the Olympic Village by climbing over a wall, much as many athletes had done returning from a night of revelry in town. The men wore track suits. They blended in all too well.
Around 8 in the morning of September 5, the terrorists identified themselves as Palestinians and issued steep demands. They wanted the release of 234 Arab and German prisoners held in Israel and West Germany, as well as safe passage with their hostages to Cairo. The prisoners for whom they sought release included Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, founders of the Marxist terrorist group known as the Red Army Faction. The alternative was simple: Fail to meet the demands and the hostages would be killed.
Negotiators worked for hours, their efforts complicated by Israel’s stalwart refusal to bargain. In a heroic gesture, 10 West German Olympic organizers offered themselves as hostages in exchange for the Israeli team members, but the terrorists refused. German police proposed raiding the Israeli compound but abandoned the plan fearing for the safety of the hostages and other athletes in the Olympic Village.
A complicated plan of travel and exchange was agreed upon by the terrorists. Around 10 p.m., the terrorists and hostages emerged from the building; the Israelis bound together and blindfolded. They took a bus to a makeshift helicopter pad and were flown the 12 miles to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck.
Israel offered a crack assault team to engage the airliner at its final destination, Cairo. The German police had other plans. They mounted their own assault at the airfield. Whether it was hubris, ignorance, ill-preparedness or a combination of all three matters little in the face of the ensuing tragedy. The Germans realized there were eight terrorists, not three. They couldn’t coordinate their offense because they had no walkie-talkies. They also lacked bullet-resistant vests. Moreover, with too few snipers, they couldn’t cover all the targets — the snipers’ first volley missed. At the conclusion of the two-hour melee, the Palestinians gunned down four of the hostages in one of the helicopters and tossed a grenade into another helicopter, killing the other five. At approximately 1:30 a.m., the last terrorist still resisting was killed. All eight Palestinians were shot during the gun battle, five fatally.
Many of the lessons we could have — should have — learned about preparing to face and responding to terrorists went unlearned. Proper equipment, communication infrastructure, set chains of command, practiced response plans — and the big one — prevention, all fell aside. They lay fallow for three decades, until another early September morning brought them all back again.