In the months leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West German organizers asked Dr. Georg Sieber, a police psychologist, to sketch out various worst-case scenarios that the security teams might have to deal with. He came up with 26 cases, each imagined in apocalyptic detail. Most of his scenarios focused on someone attacking the Olympic Village, home of the athletes and symbol of the global community that the Games tried to represent. One scenario that did not concern the Village involved a jet hired by a right wing terrorist group crashing into an Olympic Stadium filled with people.
One of the scenarios submitted to security officials was known as Situation 21. At 5:00 one morning, a dozen armed Palestinians would scale the perimeter fence of the Village. They would invade the building that housed the Israeli delegation, kill a hostage or two to show they meant business, then demand the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails and a plane to fly to an Arab capital somewhere.
Of course, it wasn't like Sieber’s scenario was completely right. The terrorists chose to attack at 4:00 a.m., not 5:00.
Security at the Games was unbelievably lax. The organizers were insistent on repudiating the last Olympics held in Germany, the 1936 games in Berlin, and there would be no place for armed guards or barbed wire. No shows of force by the German state. When security officials deployed German Shepard guard dogs at an Olympic test event in 1971, they were attacked for their insensitivity. Had they forgotten that the death camp at Dachau was only 12 miles away? As a result of this, the only security around the Village was an easily scalable 6 1/2 foot high fence. Athletes coming home from a night on the town would often just scale the fence instead of walking to one of the entrances. This became such a common occurrence that the security guards decided to just look the other way rather than deal with the problem.
Shortly after 4:00 a.m. on September 5, 1972, eight Arabs from the terrorist organization known as Black September scaled the perimeter fence. They approached the fence at the same time as a group of drunken Americans coming back from a night out, and the two groups helped each other over the fence. Little did the Americans know that the regular-looking athletic bags the other men were carrying were in fact filled with AK-47s and grenades. The terrorists quickly made their way to the building that housed the Israeli Olympic team.
As the gunmen tried to come though the front door of the building, wrestling referee Yossef Gutfreund could make out the barrels of several weapons poking through the doorway. He threw his 290 pounds against the door and shouted a warning: "Danger, guys! Terrorists!" Gutfreund succeeded in delaying their entrance by critical seconds, allowing his roommate, weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolovsky, to break a rear window and run to safety through a backyard garden. But the Arabs were still able to get inside and were able to quickly capture Gutfreund, track coach Amitzur Shapira and shooting coach Kehat Shorr. As they tried to enter one of the downstairs bedrooms, wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg lunged at one of them with a kitchen knife that had been lying on a bedside table. A shot from one of the Kalashnikovs tore through the side of Weinberg’s mouth and he was disarmed.
The terrorists moved through the building and captured seven other Israeli team members. As the hostages were being led through the foyer on the first floor, one of them made a dash down the stairs and into the parking garage, where he zigged and zagged, taking cover behind concrete support posts as a Palestinian shot after him. The already injured Moshe Weinberg tried to take advantage of the chaos by tackling one of his captors and knocking his gun free. The hostage-takers gave up on the escapee and killed Weinberg. The hostages were then taken up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Once they got there, Yossef Romano, a Libyan-born weightlifter and veteran of the Six Day War who was on crutches from an injury suffered in competition, grabbed an AK-47 from one of the terrorists and attempted to fight back. He was shot dead, and his bloody corpse kept the other athletes company for the next 17 hours.
A cleaning woman on her way to work had called the Olympic security office at 4:47 a.m. to report the sound of gunfire. At 5:08 a.m., a half hour before dawn would break over the Village, two sheets of paper fluttered down from the balcony, into the hands of a policeman. The communiqué listed the names of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails, and, in a gesture to win the sympathy of radical Europeans, those of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, Germany's most notorious urban guerrillas. If all of them weren't released by 9 a.m., a hostage would be executed every hour.
The Germans assembled a crisis team and quickly contacted Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Meir immediately responded that “Under no conditions will Israel make the slightest concession to terrorist blackmail.” The Germans, however, desperate to buy time, kept feeding the Palestinians excuses: that some members of the Israeli cabinet couldn't be reached; that not all the prisoners could be located; that phone lines to Jerusalem had broken down. The terrorists knew all along that the Israelis weren't likely to give in to their demands. Still, they extended their deadline to noon.
The crisis team groped for a plan that would save the hostages. First they offered the terrorists an unlimited amount of money. Then, several politicians offered themselves as substitute hostages. They tried to have policemen disguised as cooks deliver food to the compound and overpower the terrorists, perhaps after igniting a flash bang to blind them, but the terrorists weren’t going to fall for that and ordered that food be left at the building's doorway. In the late afternoon one more plan, to have 13 policemen infiltrate the building through the heating ducts, advanced far enough that the men, dressed in track suits, began to loosen ventilation grates on the roof. But this operation too was called off. Television cameras had long since been trained on the building and were broadcasting the police team's movements live to a worldwide audience, including the terrorists inside.
The terrorists pushed back their deadline twice more, to 3 p.m., then to 5, knowing that each postponement only redoubled the TV audience. Shortly before 5 p.m. the terrorists made a new demand. They wanted a jet to fly them and their captives to Cairo. The freed Palestinian prisoners were to be waiting on the tarmac in Cairo by 8 the following morning. If not, Black September would execute the hostages before leaving the plane. For hours the Germans tried to reach Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, to secure permission for an aircraft to land and a guarantee of safety for the hostages. Sadat didn't come to the phone. Finally, at 8:20 p.m., they spoke to Egyptian Prime Minister Aziz Sidky, who would not or could not pledge his government's help.
The Germans were screwed. A final deadline of 9 p.m. had been set and a hostage would be killed every hour until the jet was provided. The Israeli government would never allow the kidnapping of its citizens to a hostile destination. Certainly Germany, given its history, couldn't allow the Jewish athletes to die due to their inaction. Perhaps they could allow a jet to appear to be at the disposal of the terrorists, but under no circumstances could it be permitted to take off. So the Germans told the Arabs that a jet had been found that would take them to Cairo. Two Iroquois helicopters were sent to the Village to take the captors and their captives to the airport.
The Germans had a plan. The two helicopters would land 100 or so yards from a Lufthansa 727 ostensibly ready to fly to Cairo. After the terrorists brought their captives over to the plane, 17 police officers, some disguised as crew, would ambush them -- if, that is, police sharpshooters couldn't get a clear shot at the terrorists first as they made their way across the tarmac. But 15 minutes before the helicopters touched down, the policemen on the plane were in an uproar over what they regarded as a suicide mission. Many of the police were stuffed in the rear of the plane, where they believed a single grenade could incinerate them. The officers posing as the pilots were in the direct line of fire from the police in the rear and they had been issued incomplete uniforms for disguises. These men were just regular city cops, West Germany didn’t have a special forces unit. The police officers on the plane voted unanimously to abandon the mission.
The entire plan then rested on the five sharpshooters surrounding the tarmac. But to call them sharpshooters is an overstatement. The men had no formal sniper training, three of them were regular Munich police officers. The only reason these five men were chosen was because they shot competitively on weekends in their spare time. None of them were issued night-vision goggles or even told where the helicopters would be landing. As a result, they were stuck in bad positions and were literally firing shots in the dark.
They were also outnumbered and didn’t even know it. As the men took their positions, they were told there were only five terrorists, when in reality there were eight getting off the choppers. The choppers landed at 10:35 p.m. and six of the Arabs emerged. The shooters opened fire, quickly taking out three of them. But the other three ducked beneath and behind the helicopters, from where they shot out as many of the airport lights as they could. That flurry of gunfire gave way to an eerie stalemate of more than an hour, during which neither side got off more than a few shots.
The German forces had sent six armored personnel carriers to the airport to help with the operation, but they had gotten caught in traffic on the way there. The carriers finally arrived just after midnight. Upon seeing the arrival of the APC’s, the terrorists emerged from their hiding places and turned their weapons on the hostages, who were still strapped into the helicopters. Eight of the nine athletes were killed immediately, with the final one, American-born weightlifter David Berger, eventually succumbing to smoke inhalation inside the one of the burned-out helicopters. The APC’s continued their assault, killing two more of the terrorists. Three of them were captured alive.
The Games were halted and a memorial service was held on the next day on September 6th, but it was decided that the Olympics must continue and the events were started up again the day after that. On October 29, 1972, Germany released the three remaining terrorists in reaction to the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet by other members of the Black September organization. It was obvious that this release had been pre-planned between the two sides as a way for the Germans to get the captured terrorists off their hands without angering Israel. Golda Meir gave free reign to the Mossad to hunt down and kill anyone involved in the planning and execution of the attack on the 1972 Games. Over the next six years, more than twenty Palestinians would be killed for their supposed connections. Three of the assassinations would be carried out by future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak while dressed in drag and carrying grenades in his brassiere.
One of the Munich terrorists, Jamal Al-Gashey, is still alive and is presumed to be hiding in North Africa.