Eleven Israeli athletes were massacred in a terrorist attack.
The beginnings of the modern phase of terrorism exploded into global consciousness on the morning of September 5, 1972, in the German city of Munich during the summer Olympics of 1972 that were being held there. Early in the morning of that day, six days before the games ended, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the residences of the Israeli athletes. They were dressed in sweat suits and their guns were hidden in athletic bags so for a short time no one noticed them. Before the day was over eleven Israeli athletes, one German policeman, and five terrorists were dead. The remaining three terrorists were taken into custody.
In 1972, the summer Olympics returned to Germany for the first time since 1936 when Adolf Hitler was head of state with his extreme notions of racial purity. This attitude greatly shocked people at the 1936 event when he refused to congratulate a successful black runner from the United States because he thought that blacks, like Jews, were part of an inferior race. Everyone hoped that the Olympics in 1972 would help to remove the bad memories associated with Germany from Hitler’s time.
However, six days before the end of the games, Palestinian terrorists killed eleven athletes. The terrorists attacked around 4:00 A.M., and two athletes were killed at the beginning of the attack while nine others were taken hostage. A long day of negotiating followed immediately after. The terrorists were in a hurry to get results and kept threatening to kill the hostages if their demands—the immediate release of two hundred Palestinians from Israeli jails—were not met. German police kept stalling for time and were able to let three of the terrorists’ deadlines for results pass without risking the lives of the athletes.
Israel traditionally refuses to enter into any negotiations with terrorists and this was no exception. German authorities were in constant touch with the government of Israel throughout the day and knew that there would be no concession from the athletes’ home country. The Israeli authorities did immediately offer to fly in a group of their antiterrorist soldiers; unfortunately, the German government did not accept the offer. This was unfortunate because the German police on hand at the Olympic site were ill equipped to cope with terrorism.
Late in the day, German authorities decided to let the terrorists take the nine hostages with them to Egypt. They were taken to the airport but, in a parallel move, the German police made preparations to free the hostages by force. Gunmen were stationed on roofs at the airport and they opened fire as soon as there was some space between terrorists and hostages. The tactic did not work. The gunmen were poor marksmen, they had no night lights, the Palestinians had shot out all the lamps around the area and, to make matters worse, the police thought there were only five terrorists, not the eight that were actually present.
A free-for-all firefight broke out and went on for more than an hour. In the course of the fight, one Palestinian, knowing that he had been double-crossed, threw a grenade into one helicopter where five hostages were being held, blowing it up and killing all five. A second terrorist went into another helicopter that held the other four hostages and shot them. The final death toll was nine hostages, one policeman, and five terrorists. Three terrorists were taken into custody. The Olympic games were cancelled for a day, then resumed by the decision of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) President, a move that greatly angered many people all over the world.
About a year later, while the three hostages were still in a German prison, some of their friends hijacked a German plane and demanded the release of the three. German authorities gave in and released the men. Israel took note and, over a period of time, hunted down and killed the three along with all but one of the others who had helped in planning the coup. Beginning with plans for the next summer Olympics in 1976, a new and much stricter approach to security began to appear.
The IOC insisted on it and such security changes have been evident in all succeeding games. The new face of terrorism, however, did not change and soon the world at large learned that terrorism constantly changes its tactics and its locations, always with the same goal of securing a surprise event that will get global attention. The Pan American flight of 1988 was one of these surprise events.
The flight left London’s Heathrow Airport on December 21, 1988, on a nonstop flight to New York. Less than hour after takeoff it exploded over Lockerbie, a small town in the south of Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew and a further eleven people on the ground. Memories of the tragic fate of Air India 182 three years earlier were still fresh, so terrorism was the first thought on peoples’ minds. It was soon confirmed. At the time, terrorist cells from the Middle East were quite active and first suspicions focused on Iran.
Earlier in 1988 the U.S. Navy, which was patrolling the Gulf, accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing all aboard, so many assumed that this was a revenge attack. Wreckage from flight 103 was scattered over a wide area and the first task for investigators was assembling an army of searchers to scour the area for every fragment of the plane and its contents. It was a massive task and it took a lot of time.
Within a few weeks an area of eight hundred square miles had been thoroughly searched and toward the end of that time the first significant clue came to light. Someone found a tiny piece of the bomb’s timer circuit board from a Toshiba radio-cassette player. Very few details were available to help find the places where these instruments were sold. Intensive worldwide inquiries were launched and these led to a European retailer but what followed was an even greater surprise. Most of the sales of the type of player found on Pan Am 103 had gone to government officials in Libya. The focus of the investigation suddenly switched to that country, one that was already well known for its support of terrorism.
While the source of the Toshiba player was being investigated, the picture at the crash site was becoming clearer by the day. The container for the player that carried the bomb was found to be a solid-sided Samsonite case. The case had been loaded into a forward compartment below the cockpit and that meant it was put on Pan Am 103 at Frankfurt. The investigators now knew that the bomb must have been in the suitcase on a flight to Frankfurt on the day of the crash. Had Pan Am 103 not been delayed for about forty minutes at London, the bomb would have gone off over the ocean, making it almost impossible to get sufficient evidence to catch the criminals. A net was beginning to tighten on the terrorists.
Security conditions at Frankfurt Airport on December 21 were anything but good. Despite evidence from the Air India tragedy, only three years earlier, and the new stringent regulations that had followed, passengers and baggage were not properly checked. The critical procedure of matching passengers with luggage was not followed. Whether or not the terrorists knew of this laxity at the airport, it was clearly easy for them to have a suitcase transferred to Pan Am 103 at Frankfurt without anyone accompanying it. The deadly suitcase traveled on a flight from Malta and was put on 103. No one seemed to know about the serious breach of protocol.
The discovery of the Toshiba player and its connection with Libya was a key piece of evidence. It helped at a later time to convict one of the two terrorists involved, but the critical bit of information came along several months later. Searchers at the crash site found the manufacturer’s label from a baby’s jumpsuit and bomb experts identified it as having been inside the famous Samsonite suitcase. Further investigations traced this jumpsuit to a Maltese clothing manufacturer. There were also other fragments of clothing discovered at Lockerbie that, like the jumpsuit, came from the same location in the plane as the bomb. Investigators went off to Malta to search for answers.
In Malta they had an extraordinary piece of luck, one of those things that happens frequently in television detective stories but rarely in real life. They found a store where the owner not only recognized the list of clothing items as having come from his shop but also remembered when the purchases were made. He explained it was easy to recall the details because they were so unusual. The buyer wanted a tweed jacket, umbrella, and a baby’s suit along with a few other things. He paid no attention to the sizes. The storeowner was particularly glad to sell the Harris Tweed jacket. It had been in the store for years because no one wanted it in Malta’s warm climate. The description of the buyer closely matched the man who was later convicted, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer.
The story gradually unfolded in 1989 and 1990. Al-Megrahi, aided by another Libyan national, a former airport manager for Libya’s Arab Airlines, booked in at Malta’s airport on December 21 for a flight to Frankfurt and checked his suitcase. Malta’s security was worse that Frankfurt’s and the high status of the two men, especially the airport manager, made it easy for them to bypass normal procedures. The role of the Libyan government quickly came into question. Few countries of the world have Libya’s strict central control. Nothing of any importance ever happens there without the personal knowledge of the country’s president, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. In the view of many countries, if two senior Libyan nationals were involved, then others at the very top levels of government were also involved. Most observers were convinced that this was an act of state terrorism.
British and American courts indicted the two suspects in 1991 and asked Libya to hand them over for trial in a Scottish court. Libya refused, so the United Nations Security Council, after making its own request of the same kind, imposed sanctions. Air travel to and from Libya and sales of arms were forbidden as part of the sanctions. Finally, in 1999, inspired in part by a desire to remove sanctions, the Libyan leader agreed to release the men. The United Nations Secretary General, accompanied by Nelson Mandela of South Africa, a longtime friend of Colonel Gadhafi, were key influences in persuading Gadhafi to release the men. They were able to arrange an internationally neutral site in Holland at which Scottish judges would conduct the trial.
Gadhafi, as part of the arrangement to release the two men, was able to limit the scope of the trial so it focused only on the two men. No accusations against Libya or any other country were permitted. The trial in Holland went on for a year and on January 31 2001 the verdict was handed down. Al-Megrahi was found guilty, mainly on the circumstantial evidence of the Toshiba recorder and the clothing purchases in Malta, and sentenced to life in prison in Scotland. His fellow criminal was set free due to lack of evidence. Additional perpetrators of the bombing have yet to be identified and punished. Few believe that the two men who were indicted were the only terrorists.
State terrorism was a common feature of several countries in the 1980s and Libya was one of these. Despite the sophistication of terrorist acts that had the support and resources of a state, the bombing of Pan Am 103 showed that persistent investigation and skill can find and convict the culprits. One outcome of this tragedy was the awareness by rogue states, as those who condone terrorism are known, of the high cost to themselves of their actions. A second outcome was a renewed determination by airport authorities worldwide to improve security.