For a citizen of a country manacled to its past, Dr. Georg
Sieber had a remarkable knack for seeing the future. In the
months leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West
German organizers asked Sieber, then a 39-year-old police
psychologist, to "tabletop" the event, as security experts call
the exercise of sketching out worst-case scenarios. Sieber looks
a bit like the writer Tom Clancy, and the crises he limned drew
from every element of the airport novelist's genre: kidnappers
and hostages, superpower patrons and smuggled arms, hijacked
jets and remote-controlled bombs. Studying the most ruthless
groups of that era, from the Irish Republican Army and the
Palestine Liberation Organization to the Basque separatist group
ETA and West Germany's own Baader-Meinhof Gang, he came up with
26 cases, each imagined in apocalyptic detail. Most of Sieber's
scenarios focused on the Olympic Village, the Games' symbolic
global community; one that did not--a jet hired by a Swedish
right wing group crashes into an Olympic Stadium filled with
people--foreshadowed a September day in another city many years
But on Sept. 5, 1972, at the Munich Olympics, history would not
wait. It hastened to crib from one of Sieber's scenarios
virtually horror for horror. The psychologist had submitted to
organizers Situation 21, which comprised the following
particulars: 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 enforce discipline," Sieber says today),
then demand the release of prisoners held in Israeli jails and a
plane to fly to some Arab capital. Even if the Palestinians
failed to liberate their comrades, Sieber predicted, they would
"turn the Games into a political demonstration" and would be
"prepared to die.... On no account can they be expected to
To Sieber, every terrorist organization has an M.O. that makes it
a kind of text to be read. With the Black September faction of
the PLO he hardly had to read between the lines. "I was simply
trying to answer the question, If they were to do it, how would
they do it?" Sieber says, in his house in the Nymphenburg
district of Munich, the Bavarian capital.
There was only one problem with Sieber's "situations." To guard
against them, organizers would have to scrap plans to stage the
Games they had been planning for years--a sporting jubilee to
repudiate the last Olympics on German soil, the 1936 Nazi Games
in Berlin. The Munich Olympics were to be "the Carefree Games."
There would be no place for barbed wire, troops or police
bristling with sidearms. Why, at an Olympic test event at
Munich's Dante Stadium in 1971, when police deployed nothing
more menacing than German shepherds, foreign journalists had
teed off on the organizers, accusing them of forgetting that
Dachau lay only 12 miles away. Nein, the organizers came to
agree, where Berlin had been festooned with swastikas and
totalitarian red, Munich would feature a one-worldish logo and
pastel bunting. Where Hitler's Olympics had opened and closed
with cannon salutes and der Fuhrer himself presiding, these
would showcase a new, forward-looking Germany, fired with the
idealism pervading the world at the time. Security personnel,
called Olys, were to be sparse and inconspicuous, prepared for
little more than ticket fraud and drunkenness. They would wear
turquoise blazers and, during the day, carry nothing but
The organizers asked Sieber if he might get back to them with
less-frightful scenarios--threats better scaled to the Games they
intended to stage.
Thirty years later Sieber recalls all this with neither
bitterness nor any apparent sense of vindication. He betrays
only the clinical detachment characteristic of his profession.
"The American psychologist Lionel Festinger developed the theory
of cognitive dissonance," he says. "If you have two propositions
in conflict, it's human nature to disregard one of them."
With security tossed aside, the Olympics became one big party.
Mimes, jugglers, bands and Waldi, the dachshund mascot,
gamboled through the Village, while uncredentialed interlopers
slipped easily past its gates. After late-night runs to the
Hofbrauhaus, why would virile young athletes bother to detour to
an official entrance when they could scale a chain-link fence
only 6 1/2 feet high? The Olys learned to look the other way. A
police inspector supervising security in the Village eventually
cut back nighttime patrols because, as he put it, "at night
nothing happens." Early in the Games, when several hundred young
Maoist demonstrators congregated on a hill in the Olympic Park,
guards dispersed them by distributing candy. Indeed, in a
storeroom in the Olympic Stadium, police kept bouquets of
flowers in case of another such incident. Hans-Jochen Vogel, who
as mayor had led Munich's campaign to land the Games, today
recalls the prevailing atmosphere: "People stood on the small
hills that had been carved out of the rubble from the war. They
could see into some of the venues without a ticket. And then
this fifth of September happened. Nobody foresaw such an attack."
Nobody except Sieber. To be sure, he turned out to have been
slightly off. Black September commandos climbed the fence about
50 minutes earlier than envisioned in Situation 21. To gain entry
to the Israelis' ground-floor apartment at 31 Connollystrasse,
they did not, as Sieber had imagined, have to ignite a blasting
compound because they were able to jimmy the door open. But the
rest of his details--from the commandos' demands for a prisoner
exchange and an airliner; to the eventual change of venue from
the Village; even to the two Israelis killed in the first moments
of the takeover--played out with a spooky accuracy. By the early
hours of the next day nine more Israelis were dead, along with
five of the terrorists and a Munich policeman, after an oafish
rescue attempt at a military airfield in the suburb of
Following indignant words from the paladins of the Olympic
movement, after a little mournful Beethoven, the Games of Munich
went on. It's an article of faith that The Games Must Go On. For
the 30 years since, the Olympics--indeed, all sports events of any
great scale--have carried on, even if permanently altered by the
awareness that terrorists could again strike.
To revisit the Munich attack is to go slack-jawed at the official
lassitude and incompetence, and to realize how much has changed.
The Munich organizers spent less than $2 million to make their
Games secure; in Athens two years from now the Olympic security
bill will total at least $600 million, none of which will go
toward candy or flowers. "I don't see how the Germans could have
made any mistakes that they didn't make," says Michael Hershman,
a senior executive at Decision Strategies, a Fairfax, Va.-based
security consulting firm that has been involved in five Olympics.
"Over the years Munich has served as a model of what not to do in
every conceivable way."
But today the Munich attack is irrelevant in a sense, for
terrorists are unlikely to try to duplicate it. In the
cat-and-mouse world of terrorism and counterterrorism, the bad
guys strive for audacity, as only the unthinkable will both
confound security planners and achieve what terrorists truly
hope for, which is to galvanize the attention of the world. So
organizers think and think, to close that window of
vulnerability. For the most recent Summer Games, in Sydney, they
tabletopped 800 scenarios, even as they girded for that
unthinkable 801st. "You can't prepare for everything," says Alex
Gilady, an Israeli member of the International Olympic
Committee. "In Atlanta one of the scenarios was that a bomb
would go off in Centennial Park. When you're at the barn, you
don't believe the horse will run away until it runs away."
Late on the morning of Sept. 5, 1972, several hours after the
horse had left the barn, the director of security for the Games,
Munich police chief Manfred Schreiber, told Georg Sieber that his
help was no longer needed. "[Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir
is involved," he said. "This is no longer a psychological matter,
but a political one."
At this, Sieber resigned from the department. He returned to his
home in Nymphenburg, flicked on the TV and poured a cup of
"Consider yourself dead"
Details about the massacre in Munich have dribbled out since
1972, slowly at first, and then, over the past decade, in a
rush. First came interviews during the 1970s with the surviving
terrorists in France's Jeune Afrique and Germany's Stern. Then
came the 1978 memoir of late Black September leader Abu Iyad, in
which he explained how he handpicked the two commandos who led
the attack within the Village: Issa, who served as lead
negotiator and became known to millions of TV viewers as "the
man in the white hat"; and Tony, a short but fiery fedayee, or
"fighter for the faith," who was in charge of operations.
Excerpts from a long-suppressed Bavarian State Prosecutor's
Office report on the debacle surfaced in 1992, after an
anonymous whistle-blower leaked documents to the families of the
Israeli victims when he learned how his government had for 15
years stonewalled their efforts to learn the truth about what
happened that night. In 1999 the lone terrorist to have survived
Israel's furious revenge operation (page 66), Jamal Al-Gashey,
spoke to the producers of One Day in September, the Academy
Award-winning documentary about the attack. And another Black
Septembrist, Abu Daoud (page 65), perhaps gulled by the false
peace of the 1993 Oslo Accords, published a memoir in which he
described how he and Abu Iyad masterminded the operation. In
late July, Abu Daoud also answered SI's questions about the
attack. These accounts, most self-serving and some maddeningly
incomplete and contradictory, nonetheless reveal how a kind of
perfect storm gathered over the Munich Olympics, a confluence of
determination and naivete.
It turns out that Georg Sieber envisioned the events of Sept. 5
even before Black September had planned them. The plot wasn't
hatched until July 15, when Abu Daoud and Abu Iyad joined another
Black September leader, Abu Mohammed, at a cafe in Rome's Piazza
della Rotonda. Leafing through an Arabic newspaper, they spotted
a report that the IOC had failed even to respond to two requests
from the Palestinian Youth Federation that Palestine be permitted
to take to Munich an Olympic team of its own. "If they refuse to
let us participate, why shouldn't we penetrate the Games in our
own way?" Abu Mohammed asked. They conceived their plan, giving
it the code name Biraam and Ikrit, after two Palestinian villages
from which Zionists had evicted Arab residents in 1948.
Two days later Abu Daoud was in Munich to reconnoiter the
Olympic Village, then still under construction. On Aug. 7 he
returned, this time with Tony. Together they determined that the
commandos could hurdle the fence now ringing the Village by
jumping off one another's backs. "Each of you will boost the
other," Abu Daoud said, likening the maneuver to what tumblers
do when they dismount from human pyramids.
"But then one of us will be left behind," Tony replied.
"I'll be there to help the last man over," Abu Daoud told him.
On Aug. 24, two days before the opening ceremonies, Abu Iyad flew
from Algiers to Frankfurt via Paris with a male and a female
associate and five identical Samsonite suitcases as checked
luggage. As Abu Daoud watched through plate glass outside the
baggage claim, customs officials picked out one of the five bags
and popped it open. They saw nothing but lingerie. The female
associate looked on indignantly, which may explain why the other
four bags went uninspected. Taking a separate taxi, Abu Daoud met
Abu Iyad and his colleagues at a hotel in downtown Frankfurt,
where they consolidated the contents of the five suitcases--six
Kalashnikovs and two submachine guns, plus rounds of
ammunition--into two bags. Later that day Abu Daoud transported
the weaponry by train to Munich, where he stored it in lockers at
the railway station.
Over the following days Abu Daoud took delivery of another two
Kalashnikovs and a cache of grenades, and regularly moved the
weapons from locker to locker. And he returned once more to the
Village, this time with a Syrian woman, a friend who was
visiting a sister married to a professor in Munich. As a group
of Brazilian athletes, back from training, made their way
through one of the gates, she told the guard, in German, "My
friend here is Brazilian and just recognized an old schoolmate.
Can we say hello? Only for 10 minutes." The guard waved them
through. It made sense to pass as Brazilian, Abu Daoud says,
given his complexion and the unlikelihood that anyone would chat
him up in Portuguese. On this visit he was able to inspect the
quarters of the Saudis and the Sudanese, thereby getting a sense
of the layout of Village housing.
Two days later, back this time with Tony and Issa, Abu Daoud
approached the same guard.
"Ah! You come every day!"
"Naturally--we've come all the way from Brazil to cheer our guys
The guard gestured at Abu Daoud's two companions. "Brazilians
too?" he said.
"My friends are upset with me. I told them yesterday that I'd
been able to enter the Village and meet our athletes."
"That's why I'm asking this favor."
"Fine, go with your friends."
In his memoir Abu Daoud writes, "It couldn't have begun
better--but the best was yet to come. Five minutes later we
arrived in front of 31 Connollystrasse, and suddenly I saw a
young, tanned woman coming out the door."
She was attached to the Israeli delegation. They chatted her up,
telling her they were Brazilians who had always wanted to visit
Israel. She escorted them through the foyer by the stairwell and
through the doorway into the ground-floor apartment, a duplex
with an interior stairway. "For six or seven people, this is
sensible, don't you think?" she said. "The rest of the
delegation is in other apartments just like this." Inside, the
Palestinians took note of the details of each room, including
the locations of telephones and TV sets and the sightlines from
"She gave us a fistful of flags, and we had no recourse but to
thank her," Abu Daoud writes. "She had no way of knowing that she
had considerably facilitated our task. We now knew our first
mission would be to take control of this ground-floor apartment.
It had the most exits and controlled access to the upper floors
and basement. Once the building was taken, the commandos would
regroup here with the captured Israelis."
In the meantime six junior Palestinians--mostly shabab, "young
guys" culled from refugee camps in Lebanon--were training in
Libya, with an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and jumping from
high walls. Black September commanders told them that they had
been selected for an unspecified mission in a foreign country.
Using fake passports, they converged on Munich in pairs soon
after the Games began. Although it is unclear where in the city
they stayed, some attended Olympic events. Only on the eve of
the attack did they assemble and learn the details of their
That evening, in his room at the Hotel Eden Wolff, near the train
station, Abu Daoud stuffed ammunition, grenades, food and a
first-aid kit into eight sport duffel bags, each graced with the
Olympic rings. He also included nylon stockings for making masks,
rope precut to use for binding hostages and a supply of the
amphetamine Predulin for keeping his men alert. Before Abu Daoud
added the Kalashnikovs, Issa and Tony kissed each of the weapons
and said, "Oh, my love!"
At 9 p.m. the Palestinians gathered at a restaurant in the train
station for final instructions. Once the Israelis had been
seized, no one was to be admitted to the building except a
senior German official who might want to check on the condition
of the hostages. Abu Daoud says he told the eight fedayeen to
exercise restraint: "The operation for which you've been chosen
is essentially a political one...to capture these Israelis
alive.... No one can deny you the right to use your weapons to
defend yourselves. Nonetheless, only fire if you truly can't do
otherwise.... It's not a matter of liquidating your enemies, but
seizing them as prisoners for future exchanges. The grenades are
for later, to impress your German negotiating partners and
defend yourselves to the death."
To which Issa added, "From now on, consider yourself dead. As
killed in action for the Palestinian cause."
Each was issued a packed duffel and a track suit with the name of
an Arab nation. Abu Daoud collected everyone's passports.
Sometime after 3:30 a.m. they took off in taxis for the Village.
As they approached the fence, they noticed another group in
warmup gear: American athletes back from a night on the town,
laughing and tipsy. Abu Daoud urged his comrades to join them,
to use the Americans' innocent comportment as cover while they
all scaled the fence. "Not only did our men mix in with the
Americans, we helped them over," he says. "And they helped us.
'Hey, man, give me your bag.' This was surreal--to see the
Americans, obviously far from imagining they were helping Black
September get into the Village."
Much of the Israeli delegation had been out on the town that
night, too--at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof.
"Danger, guys! Terrorists!"
Perhaps Yossef Gutfreund was at the Games to provide security
for his fellow Israelis. Perhaps not. An Israeli government
report, commissioned by the Knesset in the aftermath of the
massacre, surely settled that question, but the earliest the
report would be made public is 2003. In its next-day account
of the incident, The New York Times suggested that both
Gutfreund, a wrestling referee, and Jacov Springer, a
weightlifting judge, doubled as security personnel. "Rubbish,"
says Gilady, the Israeli IOC member. "Simply not true."
In any case Gutfreund apparently heard the rattling of the door
at the threshold of that ground-floor duplex, the apartment the
other Israelis called the Big Wheels' Inn because it housed
senior members of the delegation. When the door cracked open in
the darkness, he could make out the barrels of several weapons.
He threw his 290 pounds against the door and shouted a warning:
"Danger, guys! Terrorists!" For critical seconds Gutfreund
succeeded in staying their entrance, allowing his roommate,
weightlifting coach Tuvia Sokolovsky, to shatter a rear window
and flee to safety through a backyard garden. But the terrorists,
using their rifle barrels to crowbar their way inside, soon had
Gutfreund subdued on the floor. Quickly they prized track coach
Amitzur Shapira and shooting coach Kehat Shorr from one
downstairs bedroom. When Issa opened the door to the other
downstairs bedroom, wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg lunged at him
with a kitchen knife that had been lying on a bedside table. Issa
stumbled to the side, unhurt, while another fedayee fired a round
from his Kalashnikov that tore through the side of Weinberg's
The terrorists pushed their unharmed captives up the stairs of
the duplex and overpowered the two occupants of the bedroom
there, Springer and fencing coach Andre Spitzer. Leaving their
first group of captives behind, under guard, Tony and five other
fedayeen nudged Weinberg--he was able to walk, holding a scarf
to his bleeding mouth--out onto Connollystrasse and two doors
down, where another apartment filled with Israelis issued
directly onto the street. There they seized David Berger, a
weightlifter from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who had recently
immigrated to Israel (page 62); another weightlifter, Yossef
Romano, who was on crutches from an injury suffered in
competition; and wrestlers Eliezer Halfin, Mark Slavin and Gad
Tsabari. Most had heard the shot that wounded Weinberg, and,
curious, left their rooms, only to walk into captivity. The
fedayeen led their five new hostages the few steps back to join
The stairwell by that first apartment led up to other lodgings,
but also down to a parking garage. As soon as the group had
reentered the foyer, Tsabari made a dash down the stairs and into
the garage, where he zigged and zagged, taking cover behind
concrete support posts as a Palestinian shot after him. Weinberg
tried to take advantage of the chaos. He tackled one of the
fedayeen, knocking his gun free--whereupon another terrorist gave
up on Tsabari, who escaped, and finished Weinberg off.
The commandos herded their captives to the second floor of that
first duplex apartment. Romano, a Libyan-born weightlifter and
veteran of the Six Day War, gimped along, but here he threw down
his crutches and grabbed a Kalashnikov from one of the
terrorists. Another fedayee shot him dead. For the next 17 hours
the pulpy corpse of their countryman would keep the Israelis
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. An
unarmed Oly dispatched to 31 Connollystrasse found a hooded
commando with a Kalashnikov in the doorway. "What is the meaning
of this?" he demanded. The gunman ignored him, but the
intentions of Black September--a group that took its name from
the loss in September 1970 of 4,000 fedayeen in fighting in
Jordan with King Hussein's Jordanian army--would become clear
soon enough. The fedayeen rolled Weinberg's body into the street
as a sign of their seriousness.
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 communique 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 the lot
weren't released by 9 a.m., a hostage would be executed. "One
each hour," Issa told the policeman. "And we'll throw their
bodies into the street."
At 8:15 a.m. an equestrian event, the grand prix in dressage,
went off as scheduled.
"Trying to bring the dead back to life"
That morning the Germans assembled a crisis team whose
composition further underscored the shadow cast by Germany's
past. The council included both city police chief Schreiber and
West German interior minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. To further
distance itself from the Nazi era, the West German government
strictly limited federal power, leaving responsibility for
domestic security to the country's 11 states. So the triumvirate
also included Genscher's Bavarian counterpart, Bruno
Merk--perhaps one too many cooks for a simmering broth.
Soon came word, through West German chancellor Willy Brandt, of
Meir's summary response to the Black September demands: "Under no
conditions will Israel make the slightest concession to terrorist
blackmail." That position remained firm throughout the day. The
Germans, however, desperate to buy time, would keep 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 fedayeen knew all along that the Israelis weren't likely to
accede to their demands. Still, they extended their deadline to
noon. Issa would emerge from the building from time to time to
confer with German officials, usually with a grenade conspicuous
in his shirt pocket, its pin sometimes pulled.
The crisis team groped for a plan. First Schreiber offered the
terrorists an unlimited amount of money. Genscher, who would
later become West Germany's foreign minister, pleaded with Issa
not to subject Jews once more to death on German soil, then
offered himself as a substitute hostage. Vogel, Schreiber, Merk
and Walther Troger, the ceremonial mayor of the Olympic Village,
joined Genscher in that offer, but Issa refused. Avery Brundage,
the president of the IOC, said he recalled that in the 1920s,
the Chicago police had piped knockout gas into buildings to
overpower gangsters. But after placing fruitless calls to U.S.
police departments asking for more information, the authorities
abandoned Brundage's idea. They tried to have policemen
disguised as cooks deliver food to the compound and overpower
the terrorists, perhaps after igniting a "blitz bomb" to blind
them. But the fedayeen weren't going to fall for that; they
ordered that provisions be left at the building's threshold.
The terrorists pushed back their deadline twice more, to 3 p.m.,
then to 5, knowing that each postponement only redoubled the TV
audience. "The demand to free our imprisoned brothers had only
symbolic value," Al-Gashey would say later. "The only aim of the
action was to scare the world public during their 'happy Olympic
Games' and make them aware of the fate of the Palestinians."
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 ludicrously in track suits, began to
loosen ventilation grates on the roof. But this operation, too,
was called off, mercifully: 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
Shortly before 5 p.m. the terrorists made a new demand. They
wanted a jet to fly them and their captives to Cairo. "I did not
believe [the Israelis] would negotiate with us in Germany, and
that is why we made a plan to take a plane and the hostages to
another Arab country," Abu Daoud told SI. "From there I believed
they would negotiate the release of our prisoners." The freed
Palestinians were to be waiting on the tarmac in Cairo by 8 the
following morning, Issa told the Germans. If not, Black
September would execute the hostages before leaving the plane.
"These are innocent people," Genscher told Issa.
"I am a soldier," Issa said. "We are at war."
Yet here, finally, the Germans saw a potential opening. If the
crisis relocated, there would be buses and helicopters and
planes, embarkations and disembarkations, the agora of an airport
tarmac--perhaps an opportunity to draw a bead on the fedayeen. But
before going forward, the Germans wanted to make sure of two
things: that the hostages were still alive and that they were
willing to fly to Cairo.
Genscher and Troger were escorted into the second-floor room of
Apartment 1. The hostages told them that yes, if they had to be
routed through an Arab capital to freedom, they would be willing
to go. But the hostages' spokesman, Shorr, the senior member of
the delegation and a resistance fighter during World War II,
added that in such a case, they assumed that "our government
would meet the demands of the terrorists. For otherwise we would
all be shot."
"In other words," said Genscher, "if your government did not
agree to the prisoner exchange, you would not be willing to leave
"There'd be no point to it," Shorr said.
Genscher tried a stab at bravado with his reply: "You will not be
abandoned." But to be an Israeli is to know well your
government's policy toward terrorists. Surely each hostage must
have suspected that his fate rested in the hands of the German
government--that the episode would end in Munich, not Cairo, for
better or worse.
Nonetheless, Brandt would try for hours 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., Brandt spoke to Prime
Minister Aziz Sidky, who would not or could not pledge his
The Egyptian response plunged the Germans back into despair. Issa
had set a final deadline, 9 p.m., and renewed his promise to kill
one hostage an hour until the Germans provided the jet. The
Israeli government would never countenance the kidnapping of its
citizens to a hostile destination. Certainly Germany, given its
history, couldn't acquiesce in such an endgame. Perhaps a jet
could appear to be at the disposal of the terrorists, but under
no circumstances could it be permitted to take off.
The Germans entertained one last plan to liberate the hostages
before they were to be helicoptered out of the Village to this
supposed jet to Cairo. Schreiber proposed to place police gunmen
behind the concrete pillars of the underground garage, the same
obstructions that had saved Gad Tsabari's life. The police would
pick off the fedayeen while they walked the hostages from the
apartment complex to the helicopters. But a suspicious Issa
demanded that the transfer be by bus; the bus pulled up to the
doorway, and the fedayeen with their captives piled directly into
the vehicle, affording the police no clear shot. Moments later,
in the plaza of the Village, 17 captors and captives boarded two
By now, the crisis team had essentially accepted the hostages'
deaths as inevitable. "We were 99 percent sure that we wouldn't
be able to achieve our objective," Schreiber would later say. "We
felt like doctors trying to bring the dead back to life."
No Israelis survive to dispute him, but if you believe
Al-Gashey, the mood on board the helicopter was lighter, if only
from the change of scenery. "Everyone seemed to be relaxed, even
the Israelis," he has said of the flight to Furstenfeldbruck.
"For our part, in the air we had the feeling that somehow we had
achieved what we'd wanted. For the first time I really thought
about the hostages sitting so close--in physical contact. My
cousin [Adnan Al-Gashey, another commando] was talking above the
noise of the blades with an Israeli about personal things. I
think they talked about his wife and kids. Even the Israelis
realized our lives were inextricably linked.
"I remembered our orders to kill the hostages if it were to
become a hopeless military situation. But I also thought how
nobody had trained us how to kill bound, unarmed people."
"Condemned to fail from the beginning"
Schreiber had entrusted the operation at Furstenfeldbruck to his
deputy, Georg Wolf, and Wolf 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 fedayeen as they made their way across
But on the plane, not 15 minutes before the helicopters touched
down, the policemen were in an uproar over what they regarded as
a suicide mission. Most of the officers were to be holed up in
the rear of the aircraft, where they believed a single terrorist
grenade could incinerate them. As for the officers posing as
pilots, they would be in the line of fire from the police at the
rear of the plane--and were unpersuasively disguised besides,
having been issued incomplete Lufthansa uniforms. After hearing
them out, the officer in charge, Reinhold Reich, polled his men,
who voted unanimously to abandon the mission. It was a mutiny
inconceivable to an Israeli, and Ankie Spitzer, Andre Spitzer's
widow, still fumes at the Germans' lack of courage. But West
Germany, not to be trusted with soldiers and guns, had no special
forces unit, nothing like Israel's Sayeret Matkal or the U.S.
Army's Delta Force.
With the helicopters moments from touchdown, Wolf's plan, such as
it was, now rested on the police sharpshooters--five of them.
The helicopter pilots had flitted about the sky to give the
Germans time to prepare the assault and permit a third
helicopter, carrying Schreiber, Genscher and Merk, to beat the
others to the airfield.
"Lousy thing to happen at the last minute," Schreiber told Wolf
when he found him.
"What lousy thing?" asked Wolf.
"That there are eight of them."
"What? You don't mean there are eight Arabs?"
"You mean you're just finding that out from me?"
Wolf was. For unknown reasons, he thought that there were only
five terrorists. No one had told him that three postal workers
headed for work that morning had seen the Palestinians scaling
the fence and had already provided police with their best guess
as to the number: seven or eight, according to two of the
postmen; 10 or 12, according to the third. In the underground
garage, a policeman had counted the eight terrorists boarding
Yet now, critically, the snipers didn't know they were
outnumbered, even though German TV had reported the postal
workers' accounts. Schreiber's testimony to investigators from
the Bavarian prosecutor's office as to why he hadn't focused
early in the day on the number of terrorists would reflect the
crossed signals characterizing the operation: "I was sure
somebody"--somebody else--"would count them as soon as an
opportunity presented itself."
Now the plan rested on the accuracy of five sharpshooters, none
of whom deserved the title. Two had been picked from the
Bavarian riot police. The other three were Munich police
officers. None had any special training. All had been chosen
simply because they shot competitively on weekends.
Nevertheless, three took positions on the terrace of the control
tower. A fourth lay on the tarmac, behind a low concrete parapet.
The fifth took cover behind a fire truck.
The helicopters touched down at 10:35 p.m. The four pilots and
six of the fedayeen emerged. As other Black Septembrists held the
pilots at gunpoint, Issa and Tony walked over to inspect the jet.
Their suspicions already aroused by the lengthy helicopter
transfer, they must have gone on full alert when they found the
plane empty. As they jogged hastily back toward the helicopters,
Wolf gave the order to open fire.
The events that followed are still a Rashomon-like fog of chaos,
gore and contradiction. This much seems likely, however: Gunfire
filled the air for the first four minutes. With six terrorists
visible, snipers killed two and mortally wounded a third. But the
other three, including Issa and Tony, scrambled to safety. As the
pilots dashed for cover, the Palestinian survivors of that first
fusillade ducked beneath and behind the helicopters, from where
they shot out as many of the airport lights as they could. Anton
Fliegerbauer, a police brigadier posted near a window at the base
of the control tower, took a fatal bullet.
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. At this point some sort of SWAT team might have stormed
the Palestinian positions. But a police "special assault unit,"
helicoptered in about an hour after the shooting began, for some
reason landed at the far end of the airfield, more than a mile
from the action, and was never deployed. "The biggest failure
was not having enough sharpshooters," says Ulrich Wegener, a
lieutenant colonel in the Bundeswehr who served as Genscher's
aide-de-camp that day and went on to lead the GSG-9, the
special-forces unit that the West German government established
within two weeks of the fiasco. "The second biggest failure was
not having special forces that could storm the helicopters."
Alternatively, German forces might have attacked with armored
personnel carriers. But six such carriers ordered to the scene
had gotten stuck in traffic, much of it caused by curiosity
seekers flocking to Furstenfeldbruck, as if it were the venue for
another Olympic event. One carrier had mistakenly lit out for
Riem, Munich's civilian airport, on the other side of town, as
had scores of police. In a Keystone Kops moment, the driver of
one police car happened to hear the correct destination on the
radio, slammed on the brakes and caused a pileup.
Just before midnight the carriers finally arrived to bear down on
the helicopters. Only here did the hostages lose their lives, to
judge by what can be pieced together from portions of that
long-suppressed Bavarian prosecutor's office report. A terrorist
strafed the four hostages inside one helicopter, killing
Springer, Halfin and Ze'ev Friedman and wounding Berger. Then he
sprang to the ground, wheeled, and flung a grenade back into the
cockpit before being shot dead as he fled.
Before fire from that explosion reached the fuel tank and turned
the helicopter into an inferno, Issa emerged defiantly from
beneath the other chopper with Kalashnikov blazing, strafing the
Germans. Police killed him and a second fedayeen with return
fire. At this point another commando, believed to be Jamal
Al-Gashey's cousin Adnan, raked the remaining five
hostages--Gutfreund, Schorr, Slavin, Spitzer and Shapira--with
Berger would be the last hostage to die. He had taken two
nonlethal bullets in his lower extremities, only to perish of
smoke inhalation. (Firefighters at one point braved gunfire to
douse the helicopter with foam but were forced to retreat to
cover.) Three fedayeen, alive and largely unhurt, lay on their
stomachs nearby, two of them playing dead. They were captured,
and 40 minutes later, with the help of dogs and tear gas, police
tracked Tony to the refuge he had taken beneath a railroad car on
the fringe of the airfield, killing him during a brief gun
The last shot, fired at about 12:30 a.m., ended nearly three
hours of an operation that, as an official involved later put
it, "was condemned to fail from the beginning." To this day the
Germans have never satisfactorily explained why they didn't
deploy two or three snipers for each terrorist. The gunmen had
neither precision rifles nor bulletproof vests. The military
airfield was only moderately lit, so the police had erected
three mobile lighting towers, but on this moonless night the
towers cast stark shadows, as did the helicopters' long rotor
blades, and none of the snipers had been issued night-vision
goggles. Several nights later, during a reconstruction exercise,
members of a team from the Bavarian prosecutor's office
positioned themselves exactly where the five police gunmen had
been. With night-vision goggles, each was able to distinguish
figures within the helicopters.
Indeed, the police shot as much in the figurative as the literal
dark. They hadn't merely been kept ignorant of how many
terrorists to expect; no one had told them precisely where the
helicopters would be landing and hence what might be the optimal
positions to take up. "The helicopters landed directly in front
of me and thus exactly in the line of fire of the shooters on the
tower," the policeman behind the concrete parapet told the
inquiry of the prosecutor's office. "Had I known they were
landing where they actually did, I would have chosen another
Finally, the policemen had no two-way radios with which to
coordinate an operation that had to take out the commandos
virtually at a stroke. When Wolf, from his post in the tower,
gave the order to fire, only three gunmen were in a position to
hear him; the other two, who were to begin shooting when they
noticed the first three doing so, found themselves in the line of
fire of their comrades and had to take cover. So in effect three
riflemen were left to take out the eight terrorists. That trio's
shooting was only enough to disable three of the fedayeen
immediately and to alert the other five that the day's
negotiations had been a ruse.
In their negligence suit the families of the victims charged that
saving the hostages became subordinate to Brundage's desire to
remove the crisis from the Olympic Village. Wegener suggests as
much. "The Village," he says, "was like a church, a cathedral."
It was almost as if the Germans had said, There's no way we can
save the hostages. Let's at least save the Games.