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WHEN THE TERROR BEGAN
Alexander Wolff
August 26, 2002
Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts
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August 26, 2002

When The Terror Began

Thirty years later, the hostage drama that left 11 Israeli Olympians dead seems even more chilling and offers grim reminders to today's security experts

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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, Andr� 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 the bus.

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."

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