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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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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 later.

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 surrender."

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 F�hrer 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 walkie-talkies.

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 Hofbr�uhaus, why would virile young athletes bother to detour to an official entrance when they could scale a chain-link fence only 6� 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 F�rstenfeldbruck.

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."

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