The Black September group was formed in September 1971, ostensibly as a splinter from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but in reality the PLO retained control of Black September and used it to carry out terrorist operations that raised the Palestinian organisations’ profile, without staining the PLO with these atrocities.
THE STRUCTURE OF BLACK SEPTEMBER
The Black September name came from the moniker given to the events of September 1970, when the FATAH/PLO forces tried to expand their state-within-a-state in Jordan by launching a war against the Jordanian monarchy. The PLO, despite support from the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, was defeated, and the PLO expelled from Jordan. (King Hussein of Jordan had asked for Israeli support at one point, though it proved unnecessary.)
Black September was announced with the mission to take revenge against Jordan, and indeed its first act was the assassination of Jordan’s Prime Minister, Wasfi Tell, in a hotel room in Cairo on November 28, 1971. The scope of Black September’s activities rapidly expanded.
Officially the PLO expelled the Black September operatives; in reality, PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s second-in-command, Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), oversaw Black September, and Khalaf’s deputy, Muhammad al-Najjar (Abu Youssef), was the chief of operations for Black September. Ali Hassan Salameh (Abu Hassan), the man responsible for Arafat’s personal security through Force 17 or Squad 17, was also a key architect of the Black September group.
For the PLO, Black September was to revive the Palestinian issue after the reversal in Jordan, bringing attention to “the cause”, while not politically implicating the PLO in a campaign of global terrorism, and giving the PLO plausible deniability in Lebanon, to which it had relocated, where the government was not keen to be seen as hosting terrorists.
MUNICH AND THE WRATH OF GOD
Black September’s most infamous atrocity is the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics on September 5, 1972. Mohammad Daoud Oudeh (Abu Dawud), another PLO operative who was involved with Black September from its founding, is usually “credited” as the mastermind of the Munich massacre; the Israelis believed it was Salameh.
The Israeli response to Munich is known as Operation WRATH OF GOD. The Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (MOSSAD) began with a series of assassinations in Europe against Black September operatives, some of whom were official representatives of the PLO. Wael Zuwaiter, a writer representing the PLO in Italy who Israel had linked to Black September and an attempted hijacking, was the first to fall, struck down in Rome on October 16, 1972. In December 1972, Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO’s representative in France, was blown up in his apartment in Paris. Hussein al-Bashir, the PLO representative in Cyprus, was blown up with a carefully placed charge under his bed at the Olympic Hotel in Nicosia. In Paris, on April 6, 1973, two MOSSAD operatives shot dead Bassel al-Kubaysi in the street with silenced weapons. Al-Kubaysi had managed logistics for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), George Habash’s sometimes-separate organisation, and was suspected of having tried to murder Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Israel decided to launch a raid into Beirut, Lebanon, on April 9, 1973, a sub-operation dubbed SPRING OF YOUTH, which targeted areas previously considered out-of-bounds. The naval assault by the Sayeret Matkal, led by Ehud Barak, who would later be Israeli Prime Minister, killed the PLO number-three and Black September operations director al-Najjar, the PLO operations chief Kamal Adwan, and the PLO official spokesman Kamal Nasser.
Israel had feared the global condemnation for the Beirut raid, though judged it worthwhile trade-off to eliminate such important adversaries. The PLO/Black September rather blunted whatever outrage there might have been in the West, especially at an official level, by murdering Cleo Noel, the American ambassador to Sudan, and two other Westerners in Khartoum on March 1, 1973.
The hunt for the Munich criminals never did end, though. In January 1979, the Israelis finally caught up with Salameh and killed him with a bomb under his car in Beirut. An interest discovery in later years was that Salameh had been the PLO point-of-contact with the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon and with the CIA.
Khalaf was killed in January 1991 at the PLO’s Tunisian headquarters, along with two of his most trusted aides: Fakhri al-Umari (Abu Muhammad), Khalaf’s head of security and a man deeply involved in the Munich conspiracy, and Hael Abdel Hamid, a senior PLO official. Khalaf had been hosting refugees from Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal), the for-hire terrorist based at that time in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya. A number of intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had been running an operation to convince al-Banna his ranks were filled with spies and have him destroy his own organisation, which he largely did. Al-Banna remained capable of espionage work, however, and it was one of his agents, Hamza Abu Zaid, who cut down Khalaf and his officials in Tunis. Whether al-Banna orchestrated Khalaf’s killing on his own account, or at the behest of Saddam Hussein, one of al-Banna’s many patrons down the years, is unclear. The date—January 14, just as Operation DESERT STORM began to get Saddam out of Kuwait—is suggestive.