Politics & Policy

Black September

How terrorism got its start.

Before September 11, there was Black September.

Those earlier terrorists, spouting anti-imperialist third-world rhetoric, seem almost trivial in comparison to the religiously inspired mass murder we have since come to know. Yet, as America remembers 9/11, we should also remember the Black September terror attacks from decades ago, which set the stage for that awful day five years ago.

Having failed in their efforts to launch a traditional insurgency against Israel (due to a combination of incompetence and a lack of interest on the part of the West Bank Palestinians), the PLO and its affiliates initiated the age of modern terrorism. The Black September attacks do not compare to the destruction of 9/11 — but they were harbingers of the terror to come. The 1970 hijackings shocked the world, but it was a hostage crisis, not suicidal mass murder.

On September 6, 1970, two planes were hijacked and taken to Dawson’s Field, an airstrip in Jordan. A third was taken to Cairo, where it was blown up after the crew and passengers were released. The terrorists attempted to hijack a fourth airliner, an El Al flight, and the passengers fought back and overpowered the hijackers. One hijacker was killed. The lead hijacker, Leila Khaled (a young woman who was celebrated in the international press as “Deadly Beauty”), was arrested when the plane landed at Heathrow.

The hijackings were conducted to obtain the release of Palestinians held by the Israeli, Swiss, and German governments. To emphasize their seriousness, Palestinian terrorists hijacked another plane the next day and diverted it to Jordan. On September 12, the three planes in Jordan were blown up. The hostages were no longer on them, yet the world was shocked nonetheless — it was a more innocent time.

Ultimately, the British government released Khaled to obtain the release of the hostages.

The hijacking triggered a civil war in Jordan. King Hussein, worried about the establishment of a PLO mini-state in his country, turned on the Palestinian terrorists. In two weeks of bloody fighting, as many as 10,000 Palestinians were killed, and the PLO and its factions were forced to relocate to Lebanon.

In Lebanon, the PLO unbalanced the fragile sectarian democracy, thereafter cursing Lebanon to decades of civil war. Lebanon became a training ground for terrorists from all over the world. It was also in Lebanon, under the direction of former PLO operative Imad Mughniyah, where Hezbollah introduced the world to suicide bombing.

To avenge the expulsion from Jordan the PLO founded a secretive front group, Black September. Black September’s first victim was Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal, who was gunned down in November 1971 at a Cairo Hotel. Newspapers around the world reported that one of the assassins lapped up al-Tal’s blood from the hotel floor — foreshadowing today’s grisly beheading videos.

However, it was in September 1972 at the Munich Olympics, where Black September took the Israeli athletes hostage, that terrorists learned the tremendous power of television. Although the 1970 hijackings were covered extensively in the world press, it was the Munich hostage crisis when the terrorists really began how easily they could use the mass media to their advantage. With TV crews from around the world already present in Munich to cover the Olympics, the crisis quickly became a media circus, and people everywhere were glued to their television screens.

Black September’s operations foreshadowed 9/11: in targeting airplanes, in bloodthirsty viciousness, and in holding the gaze of the international media. Five years ago these elements, combined with the innovation of suicide bombing, brought the world to a standstill. It was unprecedented, but its roots were in the events of Black September nearly three decades earlier.

— Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations, researches terrorism at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland and is a Contributing Expert to the Counterterrorism Blog. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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