External Affairs

Tackling Terror: Lessons for India from the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre

One of the most reproduced photos taken during the siege captured a kidnapper on the balcony attached to Munich Olympic village Building 31, where members of the Israeli Olympic team and delegation were quartered. Credit: AP/Wikimedia

One of the most reproduced photos taken during the siege captured a kidnapper on the balcony attached to Munich Olympic village Building 31, where members of the Israeli Olympic team and delegation were quartered. Credit: AP/Wikimedia

Exactly 44 years ago – to the month – the world witnessed a gut-wrenching terror attack on Israeli athletes in Munich. If the visually graphic nature of 9/11 triggered global outrage, the 1972 massacre shook the world in terms of sheer horror because the terrorists not only kidnapped (and later killed) 11 Israeli athletes but also perverted the symbolism of the games by mounting their attack during the Munich Olympics.

The 1972 massacre generated several consequences, three of which have lessons for India. We have learnt one of those lessons (albeit a tactical one) and benefitted from it; but there are two more that we perhaps need to learn from.

On September 5, 1972, terrorists from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September attacked the Olympic village, taking about a dozen Israeli athletes hostage and placed audacious demands for their release. A botched rescue attempt by the German police, that was ill equipped to handle a full blown terror attack, resulted in the death of all the Israeli hostages. The inadequacy galvanised the creation of a German specialist anti-terror unit called the GSG9. This elite outfit was one of the role models of our own National Security Guards. That is the one lesson India has already learnt.

The Munich massacre was made possible, largely due to lackadaisical security arrangements at the Olympic village. Ironically this was not because Germany did not know how to throw an iron tight ring of security around the village. After all, they had almost conquered the world just three decades ago. Instead, it was precisely because Germany was trying to downplay the shadow of the 1936 Berlin Olympics presided by Adolf Hitler and wanted to depict a ‘free and liberal’ atmosphere wherein security was deliberately pared down – so that athletes could literally jump over the fence and go in and out of the village when they pleased.

Despite the concerns of the Israeli contingent that security was very lax and that their athletes were housed in an isolated location with virtually no barrier, the German authorities did nothing that would go against their “free campus environment.” And sure enough, the terrorists used exactly the same ingress over the fence to accomplish their mission.

The second lesson India needs to learn is that security strategy is best left to professionals trained to get terrorists, rather than those trained to get TRPs or votes. Sometimes, tackling the terror threat means adopting policies that are not popular.

The third lesson has more strategic significance – fighting terror sometimes means invoking the ‘wrath of God’ upon those who sponsor violence.

Wrath of God was Israel’s code name for the operation involving systematic retaliation against the planners and financiers of the Munich massacre. Golda Meir, who was the prime minister of Israel at the time, realised the truism of all terror attacks – that killing the actual terrorists is merely a tactical riposte, because these foot soldiers are pawns whose liquidation only bestows martyrdom on them. If anything, killing them only serves as a rallying call for hundreds who willingly take up their place. But hitting out at the planners and financiers operating behind the scenes sends a much stronger message. That no matter where they hide, or how far they distance themselves from the gory business end of the terrorist acts, they and their families will have to pay a heavy price. Personally.

Golda Meir formed Committee X consisting of Zvi Zamir, who not only headed Mossad, but, unlike many other heads, was the kind who actually moved out from his chair and operated on the ground. (Zvi led the Israeli unit in Munich trying to coordinate the ill-fated rescue attempt.) Aharon Yariv, the second member of the committee, was a field soldier who worked his way up to the head of Israeli military intelligence.

The committee was headed by Moshe Dayan, one of the rare warriors in world history, who was already a legend in his lifetime. Dayan had begun soldiering at the tender age of 14 and not only battled personal physical trauma, losing his eye to a sniper and barely surviving that accident, but also overcoming the challenge he faced by going on to head one of the most formidable defence forces of the world.

That was the team set up by Tel Aviv to unleash the Wrath of God. The operation, captured beautifully in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, set a team of Israeli special operatives with the mandate to liquidate the key leaders behind the Munich massacre. This 20-year-long mission altered the game in terrorism. Leaders operating out of safe havens started to look over their shoulders. They knew retribution could strike anytime. Several countries other than Israel have demonstrated similar ‘offensive-defence’.

America’s propensity to vaporise terror hideouts anywhere in the world, or the Russian retaliation to attacks on their soil, strategically speaking, are positioned as defensive manoeuvres.

Everyone in the trade knows that Indian special forces are amongst the top players in the game when it comes to capability and lethality in deep interdiction missions. The world’s special forces train with ours in deserts, jungles and urban covert missions and acknowledge their prowess. Indian special forces proved how deadly they could be in Myanmar just last year. Our strike capability has never been in doubt. The government’s political will has. India’s national will has.

The latest attack on one of our elite infantry battalions in Uri in Kashmir is not just the result of Pakistani provocation. It is also a reflection of how we are viewed by our adversary. Let’s not make the cardinal mistake of underestimating our adversary’s intellect. If the Pakistani army – or as is more likely the case, organisations beyond the operational remits of the army – mounted this attack, they sense a weakness in India’s resolve.

Different stakeholders have different agendas. Some want to stay in power, others seek it. Some seek TRPs and others seek relevance. But many of these pursuits are parochial and damaging to the national good.

Terrorism is not about absolute body counts. Terrorism is an attack on the nation’s psyche; whatever form the response takes, its aim must be to hurt the terror organisations and their sponsors the most.

The author is former CEO, NATGRID and group president, Reliance Industries. He tweets at @captraman. Views are personal.

  • Anjan Basu

    I am afraid I will have to ask you to excuse me. I can take part in a civilised debate, not in competitive name-calling. If a champion of the Israeli state’s repressive apparatus believes that Israel has erned the world’s gratitude by ‘regulating’ population growth in the Arab world, I can only shudder at the thought and keep mum.