Terrorists at the Summer Olympics

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Terrorists at the Summer Olympics


By: Anonymous

Date: September 5, 1972

Source: Bettman/Corbis

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken in Munich, Germany, during the 1972 Olympics hostage crisis by an unidentified photographer.


The Summer Olympics of 1972 were held in Munich, West Germany. On September 4, eight members of a sub-group of the Fatah organization, a Palestinian group using terrorist methods to resist the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, entered the Olympic Village compound and sought out the apartments of the Israeli Olympic team. In the process of taking hostages, two Israelis were killed and several escaped. Nine were taken alive.

The terrorists demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian and other prisoners being held in Israel. Israel refused to negotiate. The German government sent in police untrained in counter-terror operations, who bungled the operation: it also offered the terrorists the substitution of high-ranking Germans as hostages and the payment of an amount of money to be named by the terrorists. However, the terrorists refused these offers.

After some hours, the terrorists changed their demand: now they wished safe passage to Egypt. The German authorities had two helicopters transport the kidnappers and their hostages to a nearby military airbase, telling the terrorists that they were being taken to an international airport. The terrorists discovered the ruse and the ambush turned into a chaotic gun battle. In the resulting shooting, explosions, and fires, all the hostages were killed and one German police officer was killed. Three terrorists were captured alive.

The Olympic Games, with the endorsement of the Israeli government, continued after a brief pause.

On October 29, other terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa (German state airline) passenger jet and demanded the release of the three surviving Munich kidnappers. Germany complied.



See primary source image.


The Israeli government's response to the kidnappings was a series of extrajudicial international killings known officially as Operation Wrath of God. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the operation, which was in fact a cluster of operations. Within a few weeks of the disaster, agents of Mossad (the Israeli secret service) tracked their first target, a Palestinian man named Wael Zwaiter, to Rome. Two Mossad agents shot Zwaiter sixteen times in the lobby of the apartment building where he lived. Whether Zwaiter was actually involved with the Munich kidnappings has been disputed. The next to die was Mahmoud Hamshire, spokesman in France for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mossad agents removed the marble top of the table on which Hamshire's telephone sat, replaced it with an explosive-filled copy, and blew up the table when Hamshire answered the phone, taking care to do so while his wife and daughter were out. Further killings occurred in Paris, Cyprus, and, in 1973, in Lebanon. In contrast to the highly selective killing of Hamshire, the Lebanon operation killed at least nine bystanders: a neighbor, seven Lebanese police, and the wife of one of the targeted Palestinians.

The assassination campaign against the Munich terrorists broadened into a campaign against other high-level Palestinian militants. In 1973, Mossad assassinated three more Palestinians using hidden bombs. Also in 1973, Mossad agents flew to the Norwegian city of Lillehammer—site of the 1994 Winter Olympics—and gunned down a man they assumed was one of the Munich terror planners, but who was in fact an innocent Moroccan waiter who had been living in Norway for five years. Five Mossad agents were arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder. They were only briefly imprisoned, however, and went back to Israel in 1975.

All of Mossad's operations took place without the permission of the countries in which they occurred and were illegal according to local and international laws, but only in Norway were the criminals apprehended and tried. The bystander death toll of Operation Wrath of God was almost as high as the number of hostage deaths. The Mossad agents taking direct part in the Lebanon operation, which killed more bystanders than targets, were never prosecuted. One, Ehud Barak (1942–), later became prime minister of Israel (1999–2001). Not all Israelis were sympathetic with the methods used by their government: the widow of the Israeli Olympic fencing coach taken hostage and killed at Munich said, "It should have happened in a different way, taking out these people, not by shooting them but by bringing them to justice, to trial."

Mossad's methods have been employed by the intelligence agencies and secret police of many major military powers. Operations on the soil of other states have been carried out, for example, by the United States and France. In 1985, French secret agents exploded the Greenpeace sailboat Rainbow Warrior while it was docked in New Zealand, killing a photog-rapher, and in 2005 in Italy, Europe-wide arrest warrants were issued for the arrest of 22 American agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who allegedly kidnapped a Muslim cleric from Rome for "special rendition" to Egypt for torture.



Meyer, Josh. "CIA Expands Use of Drones in Terror War." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 29, 2006. Available at 〈http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/012906G.shtml〉 (accessed March 20, 2006).

Web sites

Calahan, Alexander B. "Countering Terrorism: The Israeli Response to the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre and the Development of Independent Covert Action Teams." Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Military Studies. April, 1995. Available through the Federation of American Scientists, 〈http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/calahan.htm〉 (accessed March 20, 2006).

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