When The Terror Began

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OLYMPIC SYMBOL: A Black September commando appears on the balcony of the building where the Israeli team members were held

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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 scenario 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 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.

"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, 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, 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 — in hiding since his memoir was published — also answered our questions about the attack. These accounts, most self-serving and some contradictory, nonetheless reveal how a kind of perfect storm gathered over the Munich Olympics, a confluence of determination and naiveté.

It turns out that 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 caf´┐Ż in Rome's Piazza della Rotonda. Leafing through an Arabic newspaper, they spotted a report that the I.O.C. had failed even to respond to two requests from the Palestinian Youth Federation to let Palestine 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.

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. "But then one of us will be left behind," Tony pointed out. "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. Customs officials opened only the woman's bag — and saw nothing but lingerie. 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 took 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 AK-47s 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. "My friends are upset with me," Abu Daoud said. "I told them yesterday that I'd been able to enter the Village and meet our athletes." The sympathetic guard let the three "Brazilians" pass. 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 apartments just like this." Inside, the Palestinians took note of each room's details, including the locations of telephones and TV sets and the sightlines from each window. "She had no way of knowing that she had considerably facilitated our task," Abu Daoud writes. "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 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. Only on the eve of the attack did they assemble and learn the details of their mission.

That evening, in his room at the Hotel Eden Wolff, near the train station, Abu Daoud stuffed ammo, grenades, food and a first-aid kit into eight 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 AK-47s, Issa and Tony kissed each of the weapons and said, "Oh, my love!"
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