Military history



The Raid on Entebbe and the Terrorism of the 1970s

AT 12:20 P.M. on Sunday, June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 made a smooth departure from Athens airport, where it had stopped en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The cabin crew was busy preparing lunch for the 246 passengers when a scream was heard from the first-class section. The flight engineer opened the cockpit door to investigate and found himself face to face with a young blond man waving a pistol and hand grenade. He had a Peruvian passport identifying him as Senor Garcia, but his real name was Wilfried Böse, and he belonged to an offshoot of the Red Army Faction—a German leftist group popularly known, after two of its founders, as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Also on board was his girlfriend and fellow Revolutionary Cells member Brigitte Kuhlmann, who was sporting a ponytail and glasses. Waving a gun and hand grenade of her own, she took over the first-class cabin. At the same time, in the economy section, two Arabs stood and grabbed hand grenades they had smuggled aboard in tin candy boxes past the notoriously lax Greek airport security. Kuhlmann referred to them as “Comrade 39” and “Comrade 55.” Fayez Abdul-Rahim Jaber and Jayel Naji al-Arjam were both senior members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)-Special Operations Command, one of numerous Palestinian splinter groups targeting Israeli interests.

The incongruous nature of this alliance—dispossessed Palestinians and “guilty white kids” from the West157—was made clear when Böse took to the intercom of the Airbus A300 to announce to the frightened passengers that they were under the control of the “Che Guevara Force and the Gaza Commando of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.” The links between far-flung terrorist organizations became clear, too, when the hijackers issued a demand for the release of fifty-three terrorists detained by countries as disparate as Israel, France, West Germany, Switzerland, and Kenya. Among them was one of the Japanese Red Army operatives who in 1972 had gunned down twenty-six travelers in Israel’s Lod Airport, today Ben Gurion Airport, at the behest of the PFLP. Those demands emanated from Entebbe airport in Uganda, where Flight 139 landed at 3:15 a.m. on Monday, June 28, after a refueling stop in Libya, and they received instantaneous coverage on television screens around the world.

Lenin had famously if perhaps apocryphally said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.” The anarchists of the Belle Époque had shown how newspapers and magazines could be used for that purpose, but the spread of television allowed their late twentieth-century successors to vastly amplify their message. This “hostage crisis,” like so many others in the 1970s–80s, received breathless coverage that, at least until its surprise dénouement, did much to achieve the hijackers’ objective—to terrorize Israel and its supporters.

The terrified hostages did not know what to expect when the Ugandan army surrounded the airplane. Were they about to be rescued? It soon became clear, however, that Uganda’s maniacal dictator, Idi Amin Dada, was working with the terrorists. Although Uganda had previously enjoyed good relations with Israel, Idi Amin, a Muslim, had embraced the Palestinian cause after seizing power in a military coup in 1971. He established close ties with Libya and Saudi Arabia, which provided him with financial aid that he could use to subsidize an economy badly battered by his decision to expel and expropriate the South Asians who had owned many of the country’s most successful businesses. In 1972 Idi Amin had publicly proclaimed his belief that Hitler had been right when “he burned over six million Jews.” The passengers therefore had much to fear as they were transferred to the airport’s old terminal under the guns of the Ugandan soldiery. Here the four terrorists who had taken control of the airplane were joined by six compatriots. They were under the command of Dr. Wadia Haddad, who was operating from a temporary headquarters in Mogadishu, Somalia. A dentist by training, the well-educated Haddad had founded the Marxist-oriented PFLP in 1967 with George Habash, a fellow Palestinian medical student he had met in Beirut. Their specialty was spectacular terrorism; their favorite target, airliners.

Aerial piracy was as old as commercial air travel; the first recorded instance occurred in 1931 when a Pan Am airliner was hijacked in Peru by local revolutionaries who wanted to drop propaganda leaflets. The first airline bombing occurred just two years later when a United flight was blown up en route from Cleveland to Chicago, killing all seven on board.158 But Habash and Haddad took airline attacks to new heights, making this the signature terrorist tactic of the 1970s, just as handheld bombs had been the signature weapon of the anarchist era and car bombs were to become the signature weapon of the 2000s. In 1968 PFLP operatives were the first to hijack an El Al aircraft; in February 1970 they blew up a Swissair jet in the air; and in September 1970, in a frenzy of attacks, they simultaneously seized four Western airliners. In response Israel dispatched commandos to blow up fourteen empty aircraft on the ground at Beirut airport in 1968 and, more importantly, introduced armed air marshals and other stringent and costly security measures on El Al. This forced the PFLP to set its sights on other nations’ aircraft that were not as well protected. By 1976 even Habash had decided that attacks on non-Israeli and nonmilitary targets had gone too far. Haddad broke away to form his own ultra-radical faction, PFLP-Special Operations Group, which received considerable covert support from the KGB,159 showing not for the first or last time the importance of outside backing for insurgents.

The PFLP-SOG members who had taken control of Flight 139 claimed that France and other countries were complicit in “Zionist crimes,” but their animus was directed primarily against Israelis and Jews. On the evening of Tuesday, June 29, Böse announced that certain of the passengers were going to be moved to a separate room in the old terminal. As he began reading off the names from their passports, it became apparent that all those he named were Jewish. For the Jewish passengers, who included Holocaust survivors, the reading of the names in a German accent was chillingly reminiscent of Auschwitz, where Dr. Josef Mengele had chosen who would die immediately and who would get to live a little longer. Over the next two days, 148 Gentiles were released and flown to France. Ninety-four Jews remained along with the 12 members of the Air France crew who courageously volunteered to stay behind.

The release of the Gentiles was, from the hijackers’ perspective, a fatal mistake. As soon as they arrived in Paris, they were debriefed by Israeli operatives who learned vital details about the layout at Entebbe. Further information was provided by Israeli officers who had served in a military assistance mission to Uganda and by two Mossad agents who rented a small airplane and flew over the airport taking pictures. Their findings made possible the planning of a rescue operation.

Ever since the hijacking had started, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, and fellow cabinet ministers had been debating whether to mount such an operation or whether to accede to the terrorists’ demands as Israel had done many times before. The record of past rescue missions did not inspire much confidence. The most famous failure occurred at Munich airport in 1972 when a clumsy German attempt to free Israeli Olympic athletes had resulted in the death of all nine hostages and one policeman along with five of eight terrorists. Israeli security forces were better prepared for such difficult operations but often no more successful. In 1974 three Palestinian infiltrators from Lebanon had seized a school at Ma’alot in northern Israel. Army commandos rushed in but did not get to the terrorists fast enough, allowing them to kill twenty-one children and wound dozens more. The following year eight PLO operatives, who had landed by Zodiac boat on a beach, took over the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv. Again army commandos attacked. This time five hostages were freed but eight were killed along with three soldiers.

Both of these operations had been carried out by the army’s elite Sayeret Matkal, known simply as “the Unit,” which was modeled on the SAS. It had had more luck in 1972 when four Palestinians landed a hijacked Sabena Airlines flight at Lod Airport. Sixteen commandos disguised as airport technicians in white overalls, including Lieutenant Colonel Ehud Barak and Lieutenant Benjamin Netanyahu, both future prime ministers, managed to free the airplane with the loss of only one passenger. But hostage rescue was not the unit’s specialty, and it had never conducted an operation so far from home. So few in the Unit believed that they would be given the order to fly to Entebbe. They did their best, however, to plan a successful operation.

Even as the attention of the world continued to be riveted on the plight of the hostages, who were growing worried they would never go home again, Israel’s senior military and civilian leaders became increasingly confident that Operation Thunderball, as the operation was code-named, could be pulled off with acceptable losses. Rabin decided it was worth doing if even fifteen or twenty hostages and rescuers died. Better that than give in to blackmail.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 3, 1976, four heavily laden C-130 cargo aircraft took off from the Sinai Peninsula bound for Entebbe, almost 2,500 miles away. Aboard was a 34-man assault team from the Unit that would free the hostages. There were also more than 130 other soldiers and four light armored vehicles to keep the Ugandan army at bay while the operation was going on.

A minute past midnight on July 3–4, 1976, the lead C-130 touched down at Entebbe. Within seconds the Unit’s men, dressed in Ugandan army uniforms, were rolling down the dark tarmac in a black Mercedes and two Land Rovers outfitted with mock Ugandan license plates. They had to cover a mile from their aircraft to the old terminal and hoped that this ruse would make the sentries think that Idi Amin or some other big shot was in the limousine. But almost three hundred yards short of their destination they were stopped by two guards. One of them raised his rifle. Sayeret Matkal’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, and another soldier in the Mercedes opened fire with silenced .22-caliber Beretta pistols. Their small-caliber ammunition did not stop the sentry, forcing another commando in a Land Rover to open fire with his unsilenced AK-47. The gunfire could have been disastrous by giving the terrorists time to kill their hostages. “I was seeing the entire element of surprise evaporate,” wrote one of the Unit’s officers. But luckily the hijackers were fooled by the Ugandan uniforms; they thought they were witnessing a coup attempt against Idi Amin—not a rescue attempt.

The Mercedes and Land Rovers screeched to a halt farther than planned from the terminal as “long bursts of fire shattered the night air.” Running toward their objective, the Israelis were astonished to discover that one of the entrances they had planned to use was blocked. Their intelligence had been faulty. The whole assault was in danger of stalling until Netanyahu rushed to the front, urging his men forward. At the very moment a terrorist inside the terminal fired a shot that hit him. He fell, mortally wounded, but his men kept moving, obedient to his orders not to pause for casualties. They burst into the hall where the hostages were being kept and quickly cut down all seven terrorists on the premises, including the Germans, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann. In the confusion three hostages were also killed, but the others were safe. Just four minutes had passed since the first C-130 had landed.

Meanwhile the backup Israeli force was securing the rest of the airport, despite constant if inaccurate fire from a determined defender in the control tower. The Israelis killed as many as fifty Ugandan soldiers and blew up seven MiG fighter aircraft on the ground to make pursuit impossible. By 1:40 a.m. the last C-130 had taken off, heading for refueling in Kenya before a return journey to Israel. Only one hostage was left behind—seventy-five-year-old Dora Bloch, who had been removed to a Kampala hospital and was murdered a few days later by Idi Amin’s henchmen.

The hostages and their saviors were met by a rapturous Israeli public eager to erase the foul memories of military unpreparedness that had nearly led to catastrophe in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Only the members of the Unit were not rejoicing; they were mourning their commander, Yoni Netanyahu, the only soldier who lost his life in Operation Thunderball. (Another soldier was crippled for life.) Yoni’s memory would be carried on, burnished to superheroic proportions, by his family, including his younger brother, Benjamin, the future prime minister. The operation as a whole was celebrated not only in the news of the day but in books and films such as Raid on Entebbe (1977), in which Charles Bronson, Peter Finch, and other American actors played the Israeli principals.

For all the fame of the Entebbe operation, its aftermath was shrouded in considerable secrecy. Two years later, in 1978, Wadi Haddad died in an East German hospital from a mysterious ailment that attacked his immune system. Not until nearly three decades later would it be revealed that he had been poisoned by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, which, knowing of his sweet tooth, had used a Palestinian agent to slip him doctored Belgian chocolates.160

THE ENTEBBE HIJACKING was only one of many storied terrorist acts carried out in the 1970s by Palestinians and their sympathizers and collaborators among Western terrorist groups. There had been terrorist groups before, and even transnational terrorism was not new—it had been pioneered by the anarchists nearly a century earlier. But in the 1970s, the second great age of international terrorism, this trend reached new heights with terrorists attending each other’s training camps in countries ranging from East Germany to Libya and even collaborating on attacks.

The Palestinians’ motivations were obvious: they felt they had been robbed of their birthright and wanted back the land occupied by the state of Israel. What of their Western counterparts?

The Western terrorist organizations of the 1970s—Action Directe (France), the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigades (Italy), the Communist Combatant Cells (Belgium), the Japanese Red Army, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, the Greek Revolutionary Organization 17 November, the Quebec Liberation Front, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and others—were, like many of their Latin American contemporaries and their Russian Nihilist predecessors, composed mostly of current or former college students. The most radical members of the sixties generation were not satisfied with peaceful demonstrations, building occupations, and draft-card burnings. Their rage against the “system”—and, truth be told, their love of adventure and rebellion for its own sake—led them to assaults on riot police, window breaking, and eventually, in a few cases, to bank robbery, murder, and hostage taking. They were aptly summed up by the East German spy chief Markus Wolf, whose service supported many of the European terrorist groups, as “spoiled, hysterical children of mainly upper-middle-class backgrounds.”161

Influenced and encouraged by radical philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse, Régis Debray, and Frantz Fanon, who provided them with justifications for their acts, sixties radicals thought that they could emulate the Vietcong, M-26-7, or the Chinese Red Army without pondering the considerable differences between their own societies and Diem’s South Vietnam, Batista’s Cuba, or Chiang Kai-shek’s China. Or, rather, they fell under the illusion that there was no real difference between such authoritarian regimes and the liberal democracies where they lived. They decided, in the face of all evidence to the contrary (the sixties was also the decade of the civil rights movement), that the only way to bring about change in corroding societies such as “Amerikkka” was through violent revolution.162

The Weathermen, an outgrowth of the Students for a Democratic Society, were the most restrained. In spite of their bloodcurdling promises to “tear up pig city” and “bring the war home,” they largely desisted from murderous attacks after three Weatherman died in 1970 in the accidental explosion of a Greenwich Village town house where they were manufacturing pipe bombs. They would continue to set off bombs but typically would issue warnings to prevent injury. The worst blot on their record, and the coda to a rapidly fading era, was a 1981 armored car robbery that led to the death of two police officers and one security guard.163

The Symbionese Liberation Army was even shorter-lived but more violent. Its ideology was Maoist; its slogan, “Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys upon the Life of the People.” Its membership consisted of ten white, middle-class Berkeley radicals led by an escaped African-American convict named Donald DeFreeze, who styled himself “general field marshal.” The SLA became infamous for the 1974 kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst. After a few weeks of threats and indoctrination, she became their collaborator in bank robbery under the name “Tania,” the nom de guerre of one of Che Guevara’s followers. The group, which committed its first attack in 1973 (the murder of the black Oakland school superintendent), went out of business in 1975 following the arrest of Hearst and three of her captors-cum-comrades. In between, in 1974, DeFreeze and five other members had been slain in a two-hour shoot-out with police, shown on live television, in a house in South Central Los Angeles where they had stockpiled seventeen guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Like John Brown, these radicals thought that they could spur a massive African-American rebellion with a spectacular act of violence and, like him, they were fatally disappointed.164

The West German Red Army Faction and its offshoots were larger, longer-lasting, and more destructive but no more successful. Their members killed more than thirty people and wounded more than ninety, including police officers, judges, prosecutors, businessmen, and American soldiers. In 1977 a dozen of its operatives even penetrated a U.S. military base in Germany in an unsuccessful attempt to steal nuclear munitions. Nor was the Entebbe operation their only foray into airline hijacking. In 1977 German radicals again cooperated with the PFLP to seize a Lufthansa Boeing 737, which they diverted to Mogadishu. Here a newly formed German counterterrorist unit, GSG-9, bettered Sayeret Matkal by storming the aircraft without any loss of life among the captives. (Three hijackers were killed and one wounded.) Back home the West German police mounted a massive manhunt that led to the incarceration of most of the Red Army Faction, which apparently never numbered more than thirty full-time operatives and a few hundred active sympathizers. Its early leaders, Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, killed themselves in prison in 1976–77. Thereafter the group showed an impressive ability to regenerate itself into second and third generations of militants with the aid of the East German secret police and various Palestinian groups and Arab states that provided access to training camps, financing, and weapons.

The sheer ability of this small band of militants to stay on the loose in a society as orderly and stable as West Germany—waging a “war of six against sixty million,” in the only slightly exaggerated phrase of the Nobel laureate novelist Heinrich Böll—shows the difficulty of eradicating any determined insurgency, no matter how small. The Red Army Faction’s failure to achieve any results, on the other hand, shows the difficulty of shaking a democratic government by force. The Baader-Meinhof Gang did not formally suspend operations until 1992, but long before then it had become an anachronism—another musty holdover from an era of tie-dyes and “be-ins.”165

The same fate was suffered by the Italian Red Brigades (notorious for the kidnapping and murder of the former premier Aldo Moro in 1978), the Japanese Red Army, and similar groups. They all faded out around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, in no small part because of a decline in support from communist regimes. Their popular appeal was almost nil—less even than that of the anarchists, who could at least tap into the labor movement. Through their wanton cruelty the New Left terrorists, much like the anarchists, forfeited whatever public sympathy they might have generated.

Terrorist groups with a nationalist appeal, such as the ETA, IRA, and PKK, proved more enduring. They managed to achieve some political reforms even if they failed in their ultimate goal of secession. The most famous group of all was the Palestine Liberation Organization, which combined terrorism with shrewd diplomacy and savvy press operations. Under its longtime chairman, Yasser Arafat, the PLO proved to be a study in resiliency if not statesmanship.

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