Forty years ago today on October 18, 1977, West German counter-terrorist commandos from the GSG-9 stormed a hijacked airliner in Mogadishu, Somalia during Operation Fire Magic (Feuerzauber) and freed 86 hostages and took down the terrorists after five days of airport hopping thru Europe and the Middle East.
On October 13, four terrorists onboard Lufthansa Flight 181, a Boeing 737-230 aircraft named Landshut hijacked the aircraft about 30 minutes after takeoff en route from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt. The plane was piloted by Jürgen Schumann, with co-pilot Jürgen Vietor. Both were former German military pilots, Schumann with the German Air Force, was an F-104 pilot, and Vietor was a German Navy aviator.
The four terrorists, comprised of two men and two women were from the terror group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who called themselves Commando Martyr Halima. That was in honor of one of their own, Brigitte Kuhlmann, a terrorist who had been killed in the Israeli operation at Entebbe in 1976.
The terrorists were all young, between 22-23 years of age.Their leader was a Palestinian named Zohair Youssif Akache who called himself “Captain Martyr Mahmoud”. The other three were another Palestinian, Suhaila Sayeh and two Lebanese, Wabil Harb and Hind Alameh.
Hijacking and Airport Hopping: About 30 minutes after their 1100 hrs takeoff from Palma de Mallorca and approximately over Marseilles, Akache/Mahmoud burst into the cockpit with a pistol and ordered the co-pilot, Vietor, out and to join the other passengers. He then ordered Schumann to fly to Cyprus. Schumann told Mahmud that they didn’t have enough fuel, that they’d have to stop in Rome.
Once on the ground in Rome, the Red Army Faction, operating in concert with the hijackers, had kidnapped a German industrialist, Hanns Martin Schleyer five weeks earlier demanded the release of 10 Red Army Faction terrorists held in prison in Stuttgart, and two Palestinians held in Turkey along with $15 million dollars U.S.
German officials, speaking with the Italian government, specifically Interior Minister Francesco Cossiga, suggested that the Italians shoot out the tires of the aircraft to keep it in Rome. Cossiga was already facing several outbreaks of unrest in Italy and was considered a hard-line strongman. But in this case, much like a situation that would play out less than 10 years later with the Achille Lauro, the Italians decided that to let someone else handle the problem. The plane was refueled and took over at 1745 hrs without being granted air traffic control clearance.
Flight 181 landed in Larnaca, in Cyprus just prior to 2030 hrs. A local PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) official met the plane at the airport and began talking with Mahmoud over the radio. The PLO urged Mahmud to release the hostages. This infuriated the young terrorist, who began screaming at the PLO official over the radio. He then ordered the plane be refueled or he would blow it up. Then the plane took off at 2250 hrs en route to Beirut. But it was then the chaos ensued. The plane was denied permission to land at Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Kuwait, Mahmoud ordered the pilots to fly them to Bahrain. Once again the plane was refused permission to land. But Schumann told the air traffic control that they had insufficient fuel to fly elsewhere and they were given landing instructions. They touched down at 0152 hrs on the 14th.
Upon landing, soldiers surrounded the plane, which further infuriated Mahmoud. He threatened to shoot the copilot unless the troops were withdrawn. After taking on more fuel, the plane was off once again to Dubai.
Officials in Dubai blocked the runways with trucks and fire engines and denied Flight 181 permission to land. Schumann informed the tower that they were going to land regardless and made a low pass over the airport. The airport moved the obstacles on the runway and the plane touched down at 0540 hrs.
In Dubai, Mahmoud demanded the government service the aircraft, and bring food water, medicine and newspapers onboard. Schumann passed the word to the authorities that there were four terrorists in all, two men and two women. Mahmoud, once he became aware of this, pistol-whipped Schumann and threatened to kill him.
The plane was stuck there as the Dubai authorities stalled as long as they could. The West German minister responsible for the hijacking, Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski and Colonel Ulrich Wegener, commander of the GSG 9, had arrived in Dubai and convinced the government to allow the commandos to storm the plane.
In 1977, there were very few counter-terrorist units in existence. Germany learned the hard lessons from the disaster at Munich in 1972 that such a force was needed. Wegener was tasked with putting theirs together. In those days two of the only units operational were the British SAS and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal. Delta Force, America’s first counter-terrorist unit hadn’t yet been created, they would be founded a month later and not be operational until much later.
Wegener trained with both units extensively learning the tips of the trade from both of those organizations. One interesting fact was that Wegener was involved with Israeli operation at Entebbe just the year before where they rescued hostages at the airport. Wegener was part of a small group who went to Entebbe before the raid to gather as much intelligence as possible before the raid took place. He was smart and had plenty of experience to carry this off.
Conditions in the aircraft were getting bad, there was a time where they lost electricity and temperatures soared in the cabin.GSG-9 with 30 commandos and two British SAS operators landed in Dubai where they conducted a dry-run of the operation they were about to conduct.
Government attempts to stall further were dashed when Mahmoud, now with the aircraft refueled took off suddenly on a course for Oman just after midnight on the 17th of October. The plane was denied landing permission and made for Aden. The authorities in Aden also refused Flight 181 permission to land and blocked the runways with vehicles. Schumann realized they were nearly out of fuel and landed on a sand strip immediately adjacent to the runway. Authorities told Mahmoud they would have to leave immediately. But Schumann was concerned about the state of the landing gear after the dirt landing. Mahmoud allowed the pilot to exit the aircraft to check on the status of the gear and the engines. While on the ground, Schumann tried to convince authorities to not allow the plane to leave. Mahmoud was getting increasingly irrational and threatened to blow the plane and the hostages up. As soon as Schumann reentered the cabin, he was forced to kneel on the floor where Mahmoud shot in the head, killing him instantly. By 0600 hrs the plane was refueled and took off for Mogadishu, Somalia.
Upon arriving in Mogadishu, Mahmoud told the copilot Vietor that he was free to go. But he and the other crew of Lufthansa opted to remain with the passengers. Mahmoud then dumped Schumann’s body out on the tarmac and told Somali authorities that they had until 1600 hrs to release the Red Army Faction prisoners or they would blow up the plane. Mahmoud and the other terrorists began to dump alcohol over the passengers as a precursor to setting them and the aircraft on fire. The German government then sent a message to Mahmoud that they agreed to their demands but that the plane bringing the Red Army prisoners to Mogadishu wouldn’t arrive until 0230 hrs on October 18. Mahmoud agreed to the extension. The Somali government gave the go-ahead for GSG-9 to land in Mogadishu, which they did, blacked out to avoid detection at 2000 hrs. The stage was set for the Germans to act.
The Assault: The Germans arrived and spent the next four hours unloading their equipment and finalizing their assault plans. There would be six assault teams led by Wegener and his second in command, Major Klaus Blatte. They would approach the aircraft from the rear, the blind spot. The assault was to begin at 0200.
Somali authorities filled Mahmoud with a false sense of security by radioing false status reports of the “flight” of Red Army prisoners en route to Mogadishu. At 0200, Mahmoud was radioed that the flight took off from Cairo after refueling and was on the way. That was one of the final actions to distract him from the attack which was about to begin. The other was from Somali soldiers who lit a huge bonfire 65 yards in front of the aircraft. That final distraction brought Mahmoud and two other terrorists into the cockpit to see what was going on.
At 0205 hrs, the Germans using blacked out aluminum ladders began climbing up the fuselage. Despite the ladders having rubber ends to quiet the noise, they were still a bit noisy. The Germans discovered (how we may never know) that K-Y jelly applied to the rubber at the top would muffle any noise of the ladder.
Wegener led the group opening the forward door, Sergeant Major Dieter Fox and Sergeant Joachim Huemmer opened the emergency doors over the wings at precisely the exact same time. The German commandos screamed in German for the passengers and crew to hit the floor. The Germans killed two of the terrorists with gunfire, Wabil Harb, and Hind Alameh. Alameh the female Lebanese terrorist, tried to hide as a passenger, but hostages pointed her out and a German commando put two rounds in her head.
Mahmoud was shot but managed to throw a grenade that landed under a seat and absorbed most of the blast. He died a short time later. The fourth terrorist and second female, Suhaila Sayeh was wounded and disarmed. One commando was wounded in the action. Three passengers and one flight crew member were slightly injured in the shootout.
The aircraft’s emergency chutes were deployed and the passengers and crew were evacuated as quickly as possible. At 0212, just five minutes after the assault began the Germans sent the codeword, “Frühlingszeit! Frühlingszeit!” (“Springtime! Springtime!”), which signified that the operation was successful. Moments later Wegener sent the laconic message to the German government in Bonn, “Four opponents down – hostages free – four hostages slightly wounded – one commando slightly wounded”.
The crew and passengers of Flight 181 were flown back to Germany and given a hero’s welcome that afternoon.
Aftermath, Suicides, Murder: Once the word got out about the successful assault on the airliner, the blowback was immediate. Many members of the world condemned the Germans for the risky assault. Many of these were the same ones who criticized the Germans for their lack of action in Munich in 1972.
Members of the Red Army Faction in prison also known as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe committed suicide at JVA Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. Red Army Faction member Irmgard Möller also attempted suicide by stabbing herself in the chest several times but survived her injuries.
The day after the assault on October 19, the body of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who had been kidnapped by the Red Army more than a month before the hijacking, was found in the trunk of a car. Once the Red Army Faction heard of the deaths of their comrades, he was murdered as he could no longer be used as a bargaining chip. The Red Army Faction tipped off the Paris newspaper Libération to announce his execution. He had been killed the day prior, probably as soon as they heard of the successful plane assault.
The Germans announced that they would no longer negotiate with terrorists after this latest incident, unlike two earlier hijackings. Irmgard Möller was released from prison in 1995. Now 70, she lives in anonymity.
Many thanks to my friend, “The Silver Fox”. Before there was a Delta Force, the US Army Special Forces had a liaison senior NCO embedded in the GSG-9. He was there for about five years until 1980 when he returned to the states. He provided some nice information on the GSG-9 and the people. But was quick to point out, that he wasn’t in the Mog. “No I didn’t get to go…that was a good mission.”
But upon his return, he returned to 7th SFG (A) and never joined the unit. Once I asked him why, since it would have been an easy fit. “Arrogance on my part,” was the quick answer. “I had been operational for about five years, and they, at that time were the newcomers. I didn’t feel like I needed to go to Selection, as I thought I was better trained at that time,” he said. “And there was no way in hell, they were letting me in the door without going to Selection….So I went to 732.”