In the summer of 1972 the world convulsed with shock after nine members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed during a failed rescue attempt by West German police at the airport of Fürstenfeldbruck near Munich. They were killed after a fire fight erupted between police officers and eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Germany at the time did not have special forces, and thus were completely unprepared. Nine athletes died at the airfield, while two other Israelis were killed in the Olympic Village. The Palestinians took advantage of lax security procedures at the event and climbed the fence close to the Israelis’ apartment complex in the early hours of the morning of September 5. After the terrorists stormed the apartment, some of the athletes tried to fight back, but were quickly overpowered.
Hours of painful negotiations were to follow as the Palestinians demanded that the Israeli government release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The West German authorities were caught completely off guard and it didn’t help that TV networks were broadcasting images of police men climbing the roof over where the hostages were staying. All negotiating techniques proved hopeless as the Palestinians were not tempted by financial settlements or other incentives. Finally the Germans decided that they would have a better chance to rescue the hostages if they agreed to the Palestinians’ demand that both they and the hostages be allowed to fly to a friendly Arab country. Helicopters were brought to take the men to Fürstenfeldbruck, where an aircraft would be waiting to fly them to an unknown location. The hasty arrangements gave the Germans little time to consider worst case scenarios and make the necessary contingency plans. When the Palestinians and the Israelis arrived at the airport, the German police were planning to shoot the terrorists by firing from a nearby tower. Yet they were outnumbered. The police had no training in marksmanship, and as a result, chaos ensued. The Palestinians, realising they didn’t stand a chance as more armoured vehicles arrived, took the opportunity to kill the Israeli athletes still waiting in the helicopters. A grenade was lobbed into one, while another gunman shot the remaining athletes in their seats. All but three of the Palestinians were killed and those remaining were soon arrested. However their time in detention was short-lived, as just seven weeks later, a Lufthansa Boeing 727 was hijacked after leaving Beirut by two Black September operatives, who demanded the West German government release the Munich attackers. The German government wasted no time in releasing the men who set off for Libya. In the aftermath of the Munich attack, the world was left reeling as it awoke to the reality of international terrorism.
The shock of Munich was felt with the greatest impact in Israel where Prime Minister Golda Meir knew she owed it to the families of the victims and the Israeli public to bring those responsible to justice. At the time of the attack, Golda Meir ordered Zvi Zamir, head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad, to send the counter terrorism group Sayeret Matkal to Munich. However the West German authorities refused to let them take part in the rescue effort, on the grounds of legal complexities. The mishandling of the hostage crisis and the lack of impetus on the part of European governments to address the threat of terrorism, increased Israeli resolve to take matters into their own hands.
Meir called on the Mossad to track down the individuals linked to the attack. The mission was code-named “Wrath of God” and the sequence of events that were to take place is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”. Just forty days after Meir declared the mission, the first assassination took place. First Wael Zwaiter, suspected of being Black September’s leader in Rome, was killed on his way home. Afterwards in December Dr. Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO’s representative in France, but who Israelis suspected of being the head of Black September in France, was wounded in his Paris apartment after a device exploded in his telephone receiver. He would later succumb to his injuries. Killings connected to “Wrath of God” continued to take place across Europe and even in Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut. The obvious pattern between each assassination was enough to signal to the remaining members or co-conspirators of the Munich attack, that they would be next unless they went into hiding. The message from Mossad was being received, yet over the course of seven years, not everything would go according to plan.
One man who proved an elusive figure on Mossad’s hit list was Black September’s chief of operations, Ali Hassan Salameh. He managed to survive five assassination attempts, but since he was considered the architect of the Munich attack it was vital for the Israelis to find him. Salameh’s nom de guerre was Abu Salameh, but the Israelis referred to him as the “Red Prince” due to his involvement in deadly terror attacks. He was one of Yasser Arafat’s confidantes and commanded his personal security squad known as Force 17. In July 1973, the Israelis believed they had located Salameh in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer. A hit squad planned to ambush him as he walked home with his Norwegian wife, who was pregnant at the time with his daughter. Sadly, they mistook his identity and instead killed an innocent Moroccan waiter. The botched covert operation meant assassinations were put on hold and would only resume after Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1977.
Ali Hassan Salameh was born in 1940 in the Palestinian village of Qula in the British Mandate District of Ramle. His father Sheikh Hassan Salameh was a leader during the Arab revolt of the 1930s, but who later died in 1948 during Israel’s war of independence. His exploits earned him the respect of Yasser Arafat, who took a shine to his young son. The young Salameh travelled to Jordan to receive training and was ordered to track down suspected Israeli agents attending Palestinian guerrilla training camps. He also carried out acts of sabotage in Europe; many in the lead up to the Munich attack.
Salameh spent much of his young life in Beirut, as it was where his mother chose to live after the death of his father. He grew into a man who enjoyed the city’s famous nightlife, wore expensive western clothes and gained the reputation of being a womaniser. During the late 1960s he moved onto the radar screen of the CIA, since the agency was looking for a way to infiltrate al-Fatah. According to various sources, he was approached by the CIA on a number of occasions to work as an agent. In 1970 he was offered the opportunity, but turned it down. Nevertheless the PLO agreed not to target Americans in Beirut. Many believe the reason behind Salameh’s seamless ability to evade death so often was due to his role as an intermediary between Yasser Arafat and the Americans. Salameh would play an important role in protecting US Embassy staff in 1976 as fighting worsened in Beirut. His association with the Americans convinced him that he would be protected in the event of any Israeli assassination plot. It also allowed him to lead a relatively open lifestyle. He married Miss Universe 1972 winner Georgina Rizk, a Christian from Beirut and according to a number of reports, it was the CIA that helped pay for their honeymoon. However, according to some sources, Rizk claims her former husband was never on their payroll.
After the election of Likud’s Menachem Begin in 1977, the order was given for Israel’s intelligence service to resume the hunt for Salameh. This was given an additional boost once the Israelis understood that the Black September organiser had rebuffed attempts by the Americans to act as an infiltrator. According to Aaron J. Klein in his book “Striking Back”, the Israelis believed that Salameh was now “fair game”.
Mossad devised a plan for an agent to go to Beirut and work their way into the Palestinian social scene and become close to Salameh. Mossad sought the aid of a British woman studying in Israel to perform the role of the honey trap, and later an assassin. In 1978 a young woman known as Penelope moved to West Beirut. She soon gained a reputation of being a bohemian and a pro-Palestinian activist. In reality her name was Erika Chambers, a geography graduate from the University of Southampton, who grew up in an Anglo-Jewish home. She spent one year training in Israel before moving to Germany to live as a sleeper agent. She then headed for Beirut. It was through her association at a Palestinian welfare organisation that she was able to become close to PLO members such as Salameh. His reputation as a playboy and his frequenting of nightclubs, made it easy for women to get close to him, including Chambers. Her job was to monitor his comings and goings. Before the assassination was scheduled to take place, a member of the hit squad arrived in Beirut using a Canadian passport with the name Ronald Kolberg. A second agent soon joined him carrying a British passport in the name of Peter Hugh Scriver. Scriver was tasked with renting a vehicle that would be used to contain 100kg worth of explosives. According to the hotel in which he was staying, Scriver claimed to be a “technical consultant”. A Volkswagen was issued to Scriver who set about wiring the vehicle and then another agent was responsible for parking it close to Salameh’s apartment. Within days of arriving in the city, both men left without anyone noticing their movements.
The assassination was scheduled for January 22, 1979. Nearer to the date, Chambers rented an apartment overlooking Rue Verdun, which was close to where Salameh’s lived. On that day, he was planning to head to a birthday party and was travelling in a convoy with his bodyguards. Chambers waited in her apartment and watched over her balcony for the moment when Salameh’s Chevrolet would pass the parked Volkswagen. At approximately 3.35pm in the afternoon, Salameh’s car neared the booby-trapped car and it is thought that Chambers activated the charge by using a remote control device. Her timing was exact and the size of the bomb killed Salameh instantly and all four of his bodyguards. A number of passers-by were killed, including a teenage boy and a 34-year-old British woman. The bomb shook the city. The Montreal Gazette reported that it knocked out a 40 square section of stone wall next to the car and smashed every window within fifty feet. In the mayhem that ensued, Erika or rather Penelope informed her neighbours in a state of shock that she would feel safer if she moved into a hotel. Penelope never returned and it was in the weeks that followed as investigators combed through the apartment that a British passport bearing the name Erika Chambers was found. The Volkswagen rented by Scriver was traced back to a rental company that had been used previously by a Mossad squad in 1973 for a raid against two Black September members. Once it became clear who the intended target of bombing was, the PLO was enraged. Yasser Arafat announced that, “We have lost a lion”. The death of Ali Hassan Salameh was one of many assassination plots that served to instil fear in the PLO for years to come, as it proved that even in Arab countries, they were not safe. The lone surviving member of the Munich attack, Jamal al-Gashey, who was only 18 when he took part, has spent the past forty years in hiding and is believed to be living in North Africa. None of the agents responsible for Salameh’s killing were found, but it is thought they all escaped to Israel. Chambers has never returned to England for fear of reprisals by Palestinian groups. After seven years Operation “Wrath of God” came to an end. Nevertheless, for many Israelis, the death of Salameh was the final nail in the coffin in putting the memory of Munich to rest.