Operation Wrath of God (Hebrew: מבצע זעם האל, Mivtza Za’am Ha’el), also called Operation Bayonet, was a covert operation directed by Israel and its security agency, Mossad, to assassinate individuals alleged to have been directly or indirectly involved in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Their targets included members of the Palestinian militant group Black September, who were responsible for the Munich attack, and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) accused of involvement. Authorized to begin by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the autumn of 1972, the operation may have continued for more than 20 years.
During this time, covert Israeli assassination units killed dozens of Palestinians and Arabs across Europe, including the mistaken murder of an innocent waiter in Lillehammer, Norway. An additional military assault was launched by Israeli commandos deep inside Lebanon to kill several high-profile Palestinian targets. This string of assassinations spurred retaliatory attacks by Black September against a variety of Israeli government targets around the world. It has also prompted criticism of Israel for its choice of targets, tactic of assassination, and overall effectiveness. Because of the secretive nature of the operation, some details are unverifiable beyond a single source.
The operation was depicted in the television film Sword of Gideon (1986), and later in Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Spielberg’s film attempted to depict the moral ambiguity and complexity of the Israeli position.
For many, the Munich massacre, Israel’s retaliation, and Palestinian counter-retaliation epitomized the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict that continues in different forms today.
Background and planning
The massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September moved Israel to consider measures to deter future similar actions. Soon after the incident, Prime Minister Golda Meir created Committee X, a small group of government officials tasked with formulating an Israeli response, with herself and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan at the head. She also appointed General Aharon Yariv as her Adviser on Counterterrorism; he, along with Mossad Director Zvi Zamir, took the principal role in directing the ensuing operation. The committee came to the conclusion that to deter future terrorist incidents against Israel they needed to assassinate those who had supported or carried out the Munich massacre, and in dramatic fashion. Pressured by Israeli public opinion and top intelligence officials, Meir reluctantly authorized the beginning of the broad assassination campaign. Yet when the three surviving perpetrators of the massacre were released just months later by West Germany in compliance with the demands of the hijackers of a Lufthansa aircraft, any remaining ambivalence she felt was removed. The suddenness of West Germany’s capitulation to the demands has since aroused suspicion as to whether the entire hijacking was simply a show to allow the nation to rid itself of the possibility of future retaliation. The committee’s first task for Israeli intelligence was to draw up an assassination list of all those involved in Munich. This was accomplished with the aid of PLO operatives working for the Mossad, and with information provided by friendly European intelligence agencies. While the contents of the entire list are unknown, reports put the final number of targets at 20–35, a mix of Black September and PLO elements. Reeve states that intelligence sources put the number at 20 , while Ostrovsky puts it at 35 Once this was complete, the Mossad was charged with locating the individuals and assassinating them.
Critical in the planning was the idea of plausible deniability–that it should be impossible to prove a direct connection between the assassinations and Israel. In addition, the operations were intended to strike a more general fear into Palestinian militants. According to David Kimche, former deputy head of Mossad, “The aim was not so much revenge but mainly to make them [the militant Palestinians] frightened. We wanted to make them look over their shoulders and feel that we are upon them. And therefore we tried not to do things by just shooting a guy in the street – that’s easy … fairly.”
Several descriptions have emerged about the groups formed by Mossad who carried out the assassination campaign. It is possible that different groups were formed for different objectives, and existed at different or overlapping periods of time, which may account for the variety of reports. Certainty exists solely about the assassinations that actually took place, while further information is based on limited sources as would be typical in such covert operations.
It is also known that Mossad agent Michael Harari led the creation and direction of the teams, although some may not have always been under government responsibility. Author Simon Reeve explains that the Mossad team consisted of:
…fifteen people divided into five squads: ‘Aleph,” two trained killers; “Bet,” two guards who would shadow the Alephs; “Heth,” two agents who would establish cover for the rest of the team by renting hotel rooms, apartments, cars, and so on; “Ayin,” comprising between six and eight agents who formed the backbone of the operation, shadowing targets and establishing an escape route for the Aleph and Bet squads; and “Qoph,” two agents specializing in communications. [squad names are letters of the Hebrew alphabet]
This is similar to former Mossad katsa Victor Ostrovsky’s description of the Mossad’s own assassination teams, the Kidon. In fact, Ostrovsky says in his book that it was Kidon units that performed the assassinations.
Another report by author Aaron Klein says that these teams were actually part of a unit called “Caesarea,” which would be renamed and reorganized into “Kidon” in the mid-1970s. Harari eventually commanded three Caesarea teams of around 12 members each. They were each further divided into logistics, surveillance, and assassination squads.
One of the covert teams was revealed in the aftermath of the Lillehammer affair (see Ali Hassan Salameh section below), when six members of the Mossad assassination team were arrested by Norwegian authorities. Harari escaped to Israel, and it is possible that others were able to evade capture with him. An article in TIME magazine immediately after the killing put the total number of Mossad personnel at 15, which would be in keeping with other accounts.
A much different account comes from Yuval Aviv in the book Vengeance, where he states that the Mossad set up a five-man unit of trained intelligence personnel which he led in Europe. Aviv also says that the team operated outside of direct government control, and that its only communications were with Harari.
The first kill occurred on October 16 1972, when Palestinian Abdel Wael Zwaiter was shot 12 times in his apartment building in Rome. Two Israeli agents had been waiting for him to return from dinner, and after the shooting they were spirited away to a safe house. At the time Zwaiter was the PLO representative in Italy, and while Israel privately claimed he was a member of Black September and was involved in a failed plot against an El Al airliner, members of the PLO have argued that he was in no way connected. Abu Iyad, deputy-chief of the PLO, has stated that Zwaiter was “energetically” against terrorism.
The second target of the Mossad was Dr. Mahmoud Hamshari, who was the PLO representative in France. Using an agent posing as a journalist, the Mossad lured him from his apartment in Paris to allow a team to enter and install a bomb underneath a desk telephone. On December 8, 1972, the “journalist” called Hamshari, who received the telephone call to his apartment, and once it was confirmed that he had picked up the phone a signal was sent through the telephone to detonate the bomb. Hamshari was not immediately killed by the blast, but died within a month from the injuries. Israel chose him as a target because it was believed that he was the leader of Black September in France.
On the night of January 24 1973, Hussein Al Bashir (Jordanian) (Hussein Abad Al Chir), the Fatah representative in Cyprus, turned off the lights in his Olympic Hotel room in Nicosia. Moments later, a bomb planted under his bed by the Mossad was remotely detonated, killing him and destroying the room. Israel believed him to be the head of Black September in Cyprus, though another reason for his assassination may have been for his close ties with the KGB.
The assassins returned to Paris on April 6, 1973, when Dr. Basil al-Kubaissi, a law professor at the American University of Beirut suspected by Israel of providing arms logistics for Black September as well as involvement in other Palestinian plots, was gunned down while returning home from dinner. Like previous assassinations, he was shot around 12 times by two Israeli agents.
Several of the targets on the Mossad’s list lived in heavily guarded houses in Lebanon that were beyond the reach of previous assassination methods. In order to assassinate them, Operation Spring of Youth was launched as a sub-operation of the larger Wrath of God campaign. During the night of April 9, 1973, Sayeret Matkal commandos and other Israeli support teams, including future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, launched multiple raids into Beirut and Sidon. There, they succeeded in assassinating a number of high-level PLO officials, including Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar (Abu Youssef), Kamal Adwan, a Fatah veteran, and Kamal Nasser, PLO spokesman. Rami Adwan, who is the son of Kamal Adwan, was in the apartment when his father was killed, and has said that his father was not at all involved in Munich, but did organize resistance against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. “So the Munich attack,” Rami says, “was a godsend opportunity for the Israelis to actually kill people.”
Three assassinations quickly followed the Lebanon operation. Zaiad Muchasi, the replacement for Hussein Al Bashir in Cyprus, was blown up in his Athens hotel room on April 11. Two minor Black September members, Abdel Hamid Shibi and Abdel Hadi Nakaa, were injured in their car in Rome.
Israel also began to follow Mohammad Boudia, an Algerian-born director of operations for Black September in France known for his disguises and womanizing. On June 28, 1973, Boudia was assassinated in Paris by a “pressure activated ‘land mine’, packed with heavy nuts and bolts,” and placed under his car seat by the Mossad.
Ali Hassan Salameh
The Mossad continued to search for Ali Hassan Salameh, nicknamed the “Red Prince,” who was the head of Force 17 and the Black September operative believed by Israel to be the mastermind behind the Munich massacre. This belief has since been challenged by accounts of senior Black September officials, who say that while he was involved in many attacks in Europe, Salameh was not at all connected with the events in Munich.
Ali Hassan Salameh (above), considered by Israel the mastermind of Munich, was assassinated in 1979.
Almost a full year after Munich, the Mossad believed they had finally located Salameh in the small Norwegian town Lillehammer. On July 21, 1973, in what would become known as the Lillehammer affair, a team of Mossad agents killed Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter unrelated to the Munich attack and Black September, after an informant mistakenly identified Bouchiki as Salameh. Six Mossad agents, including two women, were captured by the Norwegian authorities, while others, including the leader Mike Harari, managed to escape back to Israel. Five of the captured were convicted of the killing and imprisoned, but were released and returned to Israel in 1975. Victor Ostrovsky claims that Salameh was instrumental in leading the Mossad off course by giving the Mossad false information about his whereabouts.
In the aftermath of the affair, international outrage over the mistaken murder forced Golda Meir to order the suspension of Operation Wrath of God. The ensuing Norwegian investigation and revelations by the captured agents compromised Mossad assets across Europe, including safe houses, agents, and operational methods. Yet five years later it was decided to recommence the operation under new Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and find those on the list still at large.
The Mossad began surveillance of Salameh’s movements after tracking him to Beirut during late fall of 1978. In late 1978 or early 1979 a Mossad agent identifying herself as Erika Mary Chambers entered Lebanon with a British passport issued in 1975, and rented an apartment on the Rue Verdun, a street frequently used by Salameh. Several other agents arrived, including two using the pseudonyms Peter Scriver and Roland Kolberg, traveling with British and Canadian passports respectively. Some time after their arrival a Volkswagen packed with plastic explosives was parked along Rue Verdun within view of the rented apartment. At 3:35 p.m. on January 22, 1979, as Salameh and four bodyguards drove down the street in a Chevrolet station wagon, the explosives in the Volkswagen were detonated from the apartment with a radio device, killing everyone in the vehicle. After five unsuccessful attempts the Mossad had assassinated Salameh. However, the blast also killed four innocent bystanders, including an English student and a German nun, and injured 18 other people in the vicinity. Immediately following the operation the three Mossad officers fled without trace, as well as up to 14 other agents believed to have been involved in the operation.
Three of the eight militants that carried out the Munich massacre survived the German rescue attempt at Fürstenfeldbruck airbase on the final night of the hostage crisis and were taken into German custody: Jamal Al-Gashey, Adnan Al-Gashey, and Mohammed Safady. They were released several weeks later after hijackers of a Lufthansa airliner demanded their release from the German government.
It had been thought that Adnan Al-Gashey and Mohammed Safady were both assassinated several years after the massacre; Al-Gashey was found after making contact with a cousin in a Gulf State, and Safady was found by remaining in touch with family in Lebanon. This account was challenged by a recent book by Aaron Klein, who claims that Adnan died of heart failure in the 1970s and that Safady was either killed by Christian Phalangists in Lebanon in the early 1980s or, according to a PLO operative friendly with Safady, is still living today. Jamal Al-Gashey went into hiding in North Africa; he granted an interview in 1999 to director Kevin MacDonald for the documentary One Day in September, and is believed to still be alive.
Along with direct assassinations, the Mossad used a variety of other means to respond to the Munich massacre and deter future terrorist actions. Victor Ostrovsky says that this included psychological warfare, such as running obituaries of still living militants and sending highly detailed personal information to others. Reeve further states that the Mossad would call junior Palestinian officials, and after divulging to them their personal information, would warn them to disassociate from any Palestinian cause. More directly, the Mossad engaged in a campaign of letter bombs against Palestinian officials across Europe. Historian Benny Morris writes that these attacks caused non-fatal injuries to their targets, which included persons in Algeria and Libya, Palestinian student activists in Bonn and Copenhagen, and a Red Crescent official in Stockholm. Klein also cites an incident in Cairo where a bomb malfunctioned, sparing the two Palestinian targets.
Several assassinations or assassination attempts have been attributed to the Wrath of God campaign, although doubt exists as to whether the Mossad was behind them. The first such assassination occurred on July 27, 1979, when the head of PLO military operations, Zuheir Mohsen, was gunned down in Cannes, France, just after leaving a casino. Responsibility for the attack has been placed by various sources on the Mossad, other Palestinians, and possibly Egypt. Abu Daoud, a Black September commander who openly claims to have helped plan the Munich attack, was shot several times on July 27, 1981 by a gunman in a Warsaw hotel lobby. He has stated that the Mossad was behind the attempt, but it is unclear whether it was the Mossad or another breakaway Palestinian faction. On June 8 1992 the PLO head of intelligence, Atef Bseiso, was shot and killed in Paris by two gunmen with silencers. While the PLO and a recent book by Israeli author Aaron Klein blame the Mossad for the killing, other reports indicate that the Abu Nidal Organization was behind it.
Black September response
Black September never succeeded in carrying out another operation of the magnitude of the Munich massacre after Operation Wrath of God, although it did attempt and carry out a number of attacks and hostage takings against Israel.
Similar to the Mossad’s letter bomb campaign, dozens of letter bombs were sent from Amsterdam to Israeli diplomatic posts around the world in September and October of 1972, killing Israeli Agricultural Counselor Ami Shachori in Britain.
On December 28, 1972, four Black September terrorists took over the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, holding 12 hostages. Though their demands were not met, negotiations secured the release of all the hostages and the Black September terrorists were given safe passage to Cairo.
An attack was planned by Black September when it learned that Prime Minister Golda Meir would be in Rome to meet with Pope Paul VI in January 1973. Several shoulder-launched Strela 2 missiles were smuggled into Italy and positioned around Fiumicino Airport as Meir’s plane approached. The attack was foiled at the last minute by Mossad agents at the airport, who succeeded in stopping all of the missile teams before the plane arrived.
Beyond this, two Israelis suspected of being intelligence agents were shot and killed, as well as an Israeli official in Washington. Baruch Cohen, a Mossad agent in Madrid, was killed on January 23, 1973 by a young Palestinian contact. Vittorio Olivares, an Italian El Al employee suspected by Black September, was shot and killed in Rome in April 1973. A third man, Col. Yosef Alon, who was the Israeli military attaché to the U.S., was assassinated on July 1, 1973 in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Black September conducted several other attacks only indirectly against Israel, including the seizure of Western diplomats in the Saudi embassy in Khartoum but the group was officially dissolved by al-Fatah in December 1974.
While the first wave of assassinations from October 1972 to early 1973 caused greater consternation among Palestinian officials, it was Operation Spring of Youth in April 1973 that truly shocked the Arab world. The audacity of the mission, plus the fact that senior leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Abu Iyad, and Ali Hassan Salameh were only yards away from the fighting, contributed to the creation of the belief that Israel was capable of striking anywhere, anytime. It also brought about popular mourning. At the funerals for the victims of the raid, half a million people came into the streets of Beirut. Nearly six years later, 100,000 people, including Arafat, turned out in the same city to bury Salameh.
The operation also caused some of the less radical Arab governments to begin putting pressure on Palestinians to stop attacks against Israeli targets. Threatening to pull support for the Palestinians if they used their governments’ passports during the course of attacks against Israel, some militants began to instead use forged Israeli documents.
Possible wrong targets
Since the knowledge of the assassinations has become known, Israel has faced accusations that it targeted people that were not involved in the Munich massacre or in terrorism at all.
In the 2005 book Striking Back, author Aaron Klein (who says he based his book in large part on rare interviews with key Mossad officers involved in the reprisal missions) contends that the Mossad got only one man directly connected to the massacre. The man, Atef Bseiso, was shot in Paris as late as 1992. Klein goes on to say that the intelligence on Zwaiter, the first Palestinian to die, was “uncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced. Looking back, his assassination was a mistake.” He argues that the real planners and executors of Munich had gone into hiding along with bodyguards in Eastern bloc and Arab countries, where Israel could not reach them. Klein asserts that only minor Palestinian activists who happened to be wandering unprotected around Western Europe were killed. “Israeli security officials claimed these dead men were responsible for Munich; PLO pronouncements made them out to be important figures; and so the image of the Mossad as capable of delivering death at will grew and grew.” The operation functioned not just to punish the perpetrators of Munich but also to disrupt and deter future terrorist acts, writes Klein. “For the second goal, one dead PLO operative was as good as another.” Klein quotes a senior intelligence source: “Our blood was boiling. When there was information implicating someone, we didn’t inspect it with a magnifying glass.”
Abu Daoud, one of the main planners of the Munich massacre, has said in interviews before the release of the movie Munich that Israel did not assassinate people in the operation’s group responsible for conducting the Munich attack. He supports this by saying that “I returned to Ramallah in 1995, and Israel knew that I was the planner of the Munich operation.” The leader of Black September, Abu Iyad, was also not killed by Israel, although he was assassinated in 1991 in Tunis by the Abu Nidal Organization. Former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir has countered this in an interview in 2006, when he said that Israel was more interested in striking the “infrastructure of the terrorist organizations in Europe” than those directly responsible for Munich. “We had no choice but to start with preventive measures.”
Other criticism has been directed at the tactic of assassination itself. As the campaign continued, relatives of the athletes killed at Munich were informed of the latest Mossad killings. Simon Reeve writes that some felt vindicated, while others, including the wife of fencer Andre Spitzer, felt ambivalent. The wife of assassinated Mossad agent Baruch Cohen has called the operation, especially a side operation directed against those who had murdered her husband, sickening.
Effect on terrorism
Still others have questioned the effectiveness of the operation in meeting its goals. According to Ronen Bergman (security correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth and expert on Mossad): “This campaign stopped most PLO terrorism outside the borders of Israel. Did it help in any way to bring peace to the Middle East? No. Strategically it was a complete failure.”
Former katsa Victor Ostrovsky has said that the direction Meir set the Mossad on—focusing heavily on the people and operations of the PLO—took energy away from intelligence gathering on Israel’s neighbors. This led the Mossad to miss the clear warning signs of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which caught Israeli defenses by surprise.
Vengeance Historical Ficiction?
The 1984 book engeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, by Canadian journalist George Jonas, tells the story of an Israeli assassination squad from the viewpoint of a self-described former Mossad agent and leader of the squad, Avner. Avner has since been revealed as a pseudonym for Yuval Aviv, an Israeli who now runs a private investigation agency in New York. However, Aviv’s account of the operation has not been independently verified beyond the fact checking Jonas says he has done. Jonas points to a former Director General of the RCMP Security Service, John Starnes, who he says believes Aviv’s essential story. In spite of this, the Mossad director at the time of the operation, Zvi Zamir, has stated that he never knew Aviv. Several former Mossad officers who took part in Operation Wrath of God have also told British journalists that Yuval Aviv’s version of events is not accurate. After its 1984 publication the book was listed on the fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists in Britain.
Since its release two films have been based on Vengeance. In 1986, Michael Anderson directed the HBO film Sword of Gideon. Steven Spielberg released a second movie based on the account in 2005 entitled Munich, which was nominated for five Academy Awards. Both movies use Yuval Aviv’s pseudonym Avner and take a certain amount of artistic license with his account.