After the Munich Massacre of 1972, Israel's intelligence agency Mossad launched a top-secret assassination campaign against the militants involved — but it all unraveled when they killed an innocent man.
In 1972, the Israeli government launched Operation Wrath of God, a covert assassination campaign devised to seek revenge against Palestinian militants involved in the Munich Massacre at the Olympic Games. Over the next 20 years, operatives with Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, would kill at least 18 men they believed to be connected with Black September and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The operation began to unravel in 1973 after Mossad agents killed an innocent man in Norway, leading to an investigation that brought the secret mission to light. However, despite international criticism, Mossad continued with their plot.
Israeli officials claimed their targets were terrorists — but some doubted the extreme reaction.
How The Munich Massacre Led To Operation Wrath Of God
An attack at the 1972 Olympic Games rattled the world. In the hours before dawn, eight members of a Palestinian militant group called Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village in Munich. An offshoot of the PLO, Black September was formed in 1971.
Armed with Kalashnikov rifles and carrying grenades, the men targeted Israeli athletes. After killing two members of Israel’s Olympic team, the attackers seized nine hostages. In exchange for their lives, the Palestinians wanted Israel to release 236 prisoners.
For several hours, athletic events continued as police in West Germany scrambled. Then, all eyes turned to the Olympic village. For the first time in history, a terrorist standoff was broadcast globally on live television — and 900 million people tuned in.
During a tense hostage exchange, gunfire rang out. Snipers took out five of the terrorists — but not before they had killed all nine hostages and a police officer.
Nearly a billion people watched the Munich Massacre unfold. But Israel’s response would be top-secret.
Inside Israel’s Secret Assassination Campaign
Immediately after the massacre, Israel bombed PLO bases. Airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon left an estimated 200 people dead.
Just weeks later, Black September members hijacked a Lufthansa airplane and demanded the release of the three surviving terrorists, who were being held in a West German jail.
Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, demanded action. Meir turned to Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, to devise a covert mission. Dubbed Operation Wrath of God, the campaign would target anyone believed to have been involved in the planning or execution of the massacre.
The first assassination of Operation Wrath of God took place in Rome just six weeks after the attack in Munich. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Mossad agents fatally shot Wael Zwaiter, a Palestinian translator suspected of aiding Black September, in the lobby of his Rome apartment building.
Next, agents targeted Mahmoud Hamshari, a suspected PLO representative in Paris. Disguised as an Italian journalist, an Israeli operative lured Hamshari from his apartment so that explosives experts could plant bombs beneath his telephone.
The next day, the “journalist” called Hamshari again. When he answered, Mossad detonated the bomb.
Future Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak led another mission in Beirut. Disguised as a woman, Barak hid hand grenades in his bra.
“I wore a pair of trousers because the skirts in fashion then were a little short and narrow,” Barak later recalled, per the Independent. “I also had a very stylish bag, big enough for plenty of explosives.”
The killings continued throughout 1972 and into 1973. One target died when agents shoved him under a bus in London during rush hour. A bomb hidden in a bedside lamp killed another suspected Black September member in Cyprus.
Then, in July 1973, Mossad agents misidentified one of their targets. While trying to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of operations for Black September, they instead killed an innocent Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchikhi in Lillehammer, Norway.
While investigating Bouchikhi’s death, Norwegian authorities uncovered the Israeli mission, along with a network of secret agents and safehouses across Europe. While this revelation didn’t bring an end to the operation, it did invite criticism from other nations.
The Controversy Surrounding Operation Wrath Of God
For two decades, Mossad agents targeted Palestinians linked to the Munich Massacre. But the case of mistaken identity in Norway was only one of several problems with Operation Wrath of God.
Critics claimed that many of the Palestinians targeted by Mossad had no connection with the Munich attack. Some of them were intellectuals and politicians that had only tenuous ties to Black September and the PLO.
“They didn’t get all the culpable figures involved,” noted Professor David Clay Large, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, per the Independent. “This was not a delicate operation on the part of Israel. And it further inflamed the extreme tensions in the Middle East.”
Operation Wrath of God ushered in a new era for Israel’s intelligence organization. It was only after the Munich Massacre that assassination became a frequently used tool. By authorizing the secret campaign, Meir ensured that targeted assassinations became a standard counterterrorism procedure.
Years later, one Mossad agent identified only as “Yonatan” shared his reservations about Operation Wrath of God. “We identified completely with our mission after what the terrorists did to our athletes in Munich,” Yonatan told an Israeli newspaper, according to The Guardian. “I never asked myself… if I was doing the right thing.”
Without Operation Wrath of God, the Mossad agent worried that Israel might have faced more terrorism. “But what could we have done after Munich?” he said. “If we had given in, the Palestinians would have thought they were stronger and carried out even worse attacks.”
David Kimche, the former deputy head of Mossad, said that the elaborate phone bombs and assassinations were the point of Operation Wrath of God.
“We tried not to do things just by shooting a guy in the streets, that’s easy — fairly,” Kimche admitted. “By putting a bomb in his phone, this was a message that they can be got anywhere, at any time and therefore they have to look out for themselves 24 hours a day.”
While Israel was once alone in using assassination as a counterterrorism tool, the United States adopted the tactic in the wake of 9/11. Still, questions about the ultimate impact of targeted assassinations remain.
At least 18 targets died during Operation Wrath of God. But did their deaths prevent further attacks? Or did the dramatic assassinations serve as a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations?
After reading about Operation Wrath of God, Israel’s secret assassination campaign, learn about Operation Finale, Mossad’s plot to bring Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann to justice. Then, go inside the most sinister CIA programs ever carried out.