How Jordan Shaped the Munich Massacre

Why you should care

Black September terrorists who killed 11 Israelis at the ’72 Olympics chose a name they thought exposed the treachery of the regime that exiled them from Jordan. 

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Five men in tracksuits carrying athletic bags swiftly moved through the early morning silence along the empty streets of Munich. It was 4:30 a.m. — the sky was still pitch-black. When the men reached the six-and-a-half-foot wall surrounding the Olympic Village, they began scrambling over.

On the other side, three additional collaborators met them, and together they used stolen keys to enter the apartments where the Israeli Olympic team was sleeping. Israeli wrestling referee Jossef Gutfreund tried to barricade the door, but it was too late. The Palestinians forced their way in, took the weapons out of their athletic bags and held 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. After a crisis lasting several hours followed by a bloody shoot-out, all 11 were killed, along with five Palestinian attackers and one West German policeman.

The Olympic Games symbolize international peace, which made the attack especially shocking. Still, it’s easy to look back on the 1972 terrorist attack and see it as yet another battle between two longtime foes. But another aspect of the story is largely unknown, and it centers on Jordan. A conflict in the small Arab state flanking Israel and the West Bank shaped the tragedy in Europe.

Black September is meant to call to mind what the Palestinian Liberation Organization thought was the perfidy of the Jordanian regime.

Mark LeVine, history professor, University of California, Irvine

After World War I, Britain mandated the geopolitical entity of Palestine in the area that is modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. A series of conflicts between the Arab and Jewish populations of Palestine eventually led to the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Afterward, the mandate was split between the new state of Israel; the Kingdom of Jordan, which annexed the Arab West Bank; and the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean coast adjacent to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

At the time, Jordan and Palestine were allied against Israel, with Jordan holding East Jerusalem until 1967, when Israel took control of the entire city during the Six-Day War. The alliance between Jordan and Palestine isn’t surprising, says Shale Horowitz, professor of political science at the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Most of the Jordanian population is Palestinian,” Horowitz says, “not Bedouin as most people think.”

Jordan’s initial strategy in the conflict was to represent itself as a broadly legitimate Arab regime, says Horowitz, but it later realized that absorbing Palestinians from the West Bank might threaten the kingdom’s Hashemite rulers. They withdrew their claim to the West Bank and took the position that it should form part of a Palestinian state.

After the Israeli Defense Forces ran the militant wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization out of East Jerusalem, PLO leader Yasser Arafat shifted operations to Jordan, setting up a state within a state to attack Israel and its occupied territories. Even though the PLO despised Israel, it was also ideologically opposed to traditional monarchies and soon set its sight on their host, King Hussein. Twice the PLO attempted to assassinate the Jordanian monarch, provoking the country to retaliate.

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A West German policeman, dressed as an athlete, positions himself around the corner from a dormitory room in the Olympic village where members of the Black September terrorist group are holding Israeli athletes hostage in Munich, West Germany, Sept. 5, 1972.

Source Co Rentmeester/Getty

In 1970, Jordan’s army, working with Israeli forces, struck back at Arafat. “Israel was not about to let the PLO take over the state that borders it,” says Mark LeVine, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. For two weeks in September that year, Jordanian and Israeli forces drove the PLO out of the kingdom, eventually declaring victory. The conflict became known as Black September, and shortly after, an offshoot of the PLO emerged with the same name.

Two years later, Black September spent weeks planning the attacks in Munich. Their goal: use Israeli hostages to secure the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners in Israel as well as the founders of the German Red Army Faction imprisoned in West Germany, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.

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A member of the International Olympic Committee (bottom right) speaks with a Black September terrorist.

Source Bettmann/Getty

They found a surprisingly soft target. In an attempt to appear less militaristic to the international community, West Germany had limited its security at the Olympics, which allowed the terrorists easy access to the athletes’ quarters. And, in the early hours of Sept. 5, they struck. But Israel refused to negotiate with terrorists, which prompted a botched rescue attempt by the West German police and the deaths of all 11 hostages.

The conflict in Jordan didn’t trigger the kidnappings and killings, but the PLO exploited it to their advantage. “Black September was using that name to publicize their cause,” Horowitz explains. “The more sensational the attack, the more publicity you get.”

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West German police drop into position on a terrace directly above the apartments where members of the Israeli Olympic team are being held hostage the Black September extremists. The terrorists raided the Israeli quarters in the early morning hours, killing a wrestling coach as they forced their way in.

Source Bettmann/Getty

LeVine tends to agree, though he gives some considerable weight to the name Black September as a strategy in the attacks. “Black September is meant to call to mind what the PLO thought was the perfidy of the Jordanian regime,” LeVine says. “It’s only one link in a long historical chain, but this attack gave the PLO a new level of worldwide prominence.”

Israeli intelligence declared war on Black September not long after the attack, eventually tracking down and killing some of its leaders. From 1973 to 1974, the PLO officially disbanded the organization. Jamal al-Gashey is believed to be the last surviving member of Black September. He managed to escape West Germany after the attack and has evaded capture ever since by hiding in Jordan. In his only interview, for the documentary One Day in September, he told filmmaker Kevin Macdonald he was proud of what he did in Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause. “On that day, the word ‘Palestine’ was repeated all over the world,” al-Gashey said.

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