Black September: The Origins of Palestinian Militancy


    1.0 Introduction

    The Black September Organization (BSO) (in Arabic: منظمة أيلول الأسود) was a Palestinian militant group that gained notoriety in the late 20th century for its involvement in a series of high-profile acts of terrorism. 

    The group’s name, “Black September,” comes from the conflict between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jordanian government in September 1970. This conflict started after PLO groups began calling for the overthrow of Jordan’s monarchy, which led to violent clashes in June 1970. Black September emerged as a splinter faction of the PLO and acted to promote the Palestinian cause by violent means. This division was because the PLO sought to dissociate itself from any terrorist activity in order not to lose international legitimacy.

    One of the most infamous incidents associated with the Black September Organization was the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre. A group of Black September militants kidnapped and subsequently killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. This event garnered worldwide attention and is considered one of the deadliest terrorist acts in Olympic history.

    The group’s actions during the 1970s and 1980s included a series of hijackings, bombings, and assassinations, primarily targeting Israeli and Western interests. The organisation’s activities led to significant international security concerns and heightened tensions in the Middle East, especially affecting Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

    Black September eventually disbanded in the late 1970s due to Israeli retaliation, the PLO’s strategic shift, and the lack of results. However, its legacy and the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict continue to have a lasting impact on the region’s politics and security dynamics. The group’s name and actions remain synonymous with terrorism and the complex, long-standing struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

    This article analyses the history and organisation of the group, as well as its history, organisation, tactics, and most relevant criminal activity.

    2.0 History and Mission

    2.1 Origins

    The group’s name comes from the Black September conflict in Jordan. This conflict began on 16 September 1970, when Jordan’s King Hussein declared military rule in response to the growing power of the PLO-affiliated Fedayeen. These were militants of a nationalist orientation from among the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world who were attempting to take over his kingdom. Throughout September, the Jordanian army launched attacks to expel the PLO from Jordan. These would be labelled “Black September” by the PLO and resulted in the death and expulsion of thousands of Palestinian fighters from Jordan. 

    On 25 September 1970, Hussein and the PLO signed a ceasefire mediated by Arab nations. The PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat was finally expelled from Jordan in early 1971 and moved to Lebanon. Here they created a state within a state, set up a dozen Palestinian refugee camps around Beirut and in southern Lebanon, destabilised the Lebanese government as they had done with the Jordanians, and played a leading role in two wars. The first, in 1973, was between the Lebanese army and the PLO. The second was a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. In this war, the PLO fought alongside left-wing Muslim militias against Christian militias. The PLO was eventually expelled from Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    King Hussein after checking an abandoned Israeli tank on 21 March 1968 during the Battle of Karameh. The perceived joint Palestinian-Jordanian victory led to an upsurge in support for the fedayeen in Jordan.

    2.2 The Creation of Black September

    In addition to sowing civil war and the disintegration of Lebanon, the 1970 Jordanian-Palestinian war led to the creation of the Palestinian Black September movement. The BSO was created in 1971, as a small cell or commando faction that split from the PLO, specifically the Fatah faction. Recruits from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as-Sa’iqa and other groups also joined. 

    While information about the group remains unclear, the US believes that BSO was created by Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, within Fatah. According to the CIA, the group was headed by Salah Khalaf (code name Abu Iyad) and was staffed by Fatah intelligence personnel and used Fatah facilities and funds. Abu Iyad was deputy head and intelligence chief of the PLO, and the second most senior Fatah official after Yasser Arafat.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

     2.3 Fatah and Black September

    Initially, most BSO  members were Fatah dissidents who had been close to Abu Ali Iyad, the commander of Fatah forces in northern Jordan. He continued to fight the Jordanian army after the withdrawal of the PLO leadership. He was killed, allegedly by execution, by Jordanian forces on 23 July 1971. According to them, the Jordanian Prime Minister at the time, Wasfi Tal, was personally responsible for his torture and death.

    To this day, doubts persist about who founded it and its leadership and hierarchy. On the one hand, the US and Israel considered Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) to be the group’s founder. However, other sources name Ali Hassan Salameh (code name Abu Hassan) as leader. Salameh was the head of Black September operations and founder of Force 17. Force 17 was a commando and special operations unit of Fatah and, later, of the Office of the President of the Palestinian Authority.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    2.4 The Era of Black September Terrorism 

    The BSO engaged in several terrorist plots to avenge Palestinian losses in Jordan and weaken Israel. These included kidnappings, the assassination of Jordanian Prime Minister Wasif al-Tel in Cairo on 28 November 1971 and, most notoriously, the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Other attacks included the hijacking of several commercial flights, the mailing of hundreds of letter bombs and the assassination of prominent figures such as a Mossad agent and Saudi Embassy diplomats in Khartoum (Sudan). In total, BSO claimed or was attributed to at least 120 attacks.

    Israel, in turn, unleashed its own Black September operation when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the creation of a hit squad that deployed throughout Europe and the Middle East. This group assassinated numerous Palestinian and Arab agents, including those suspected of links to Black September.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    Photo of Israeli hostages Kehat Shorr and Andre Spitzer during the events leading up to the Munich massacre.

    2.5 Decline 

    Black September as a distinct entity gradually dissolved in the years following the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Several factors contributed to the group’s decline and eventual dissolution:

    • International pressure: The Munich Olympics bombing was widely condemned by the international community. International outcry increased pressure on the PLO to disassociate itself from BSO. The PLO, under Arafat, sought to improve its international standing and diplomatic efforts. This required it to distance itself from the group´s tactics. Therefore, in September 1973, on the anniversary of its creation, Arafat announced its dissolution under the justification that terrorism abroad was not doing any good for the Palestinian cause.
    • Israeli retaliation: Israel pursued a policy of targeted assassinations against key members of Black September and other Palestinian militant groups. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad conducted operations to eliminate individuals associated with the Munich attack and other acts of terrorism. This would be called Operation Bayonet (Hebrew: “Operation Wrath of God”). This operation along with ongoing Israeli military operations, disrupted the group’s operations and leadership.
    • Internal conflicts: There were internal divisions within Black September, including disputes over tactics, objectives and leadership. These internal conflicts weakened the group’s cohesion and effectiveness.
    • Declining popular support: As the group’s violent actions continued and failed to make significant progress towards their goals, popular support for Black September and similar organisations declined among Palestinians.
    • Broader geopolitical evolution: The dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional politics evolved. The PLO shifted from armed struggle to diplomatic negotiations, culminating in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. This shift marginalised groups such as Black September, which focused primarily on violent means.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    2.6 Israeli Retaliation and Suspension

    Of particular relevance is the role of Israel and the PLO in the dissolution of the group. In response to the Munich massacre, Israel declared war on terrorist activity and attacked Black September and Fatah alike. Israeli authorities called this Operation “Wrath of God”, a campaign to assassinate the BSO and PLO agents involved in the massacre. The Mossad managed to eliminate dozens of important people involved in the group, such as Wael Zwaiter, Mahmoud Hamshari, Hussein Al Bashir, Basil Al Kubaisi and Ali Hassan Salameh (one of the leaders of the BSO). These aggressive, imaginative and lethal operations gave Israel, and in particular the Mossad and the elite IDF military units, a reputation that they still enjoy today.

    The consequences of these actions were such that in the autumn of 1973, the PLO disbanded Black September. A year later, PLO leader Yasser Arafat ordered his followers to withdraw from acts of violence outside Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin sign Oslo Agreements
    Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat after signing the Oslo Agreements.

    2.7 Dissolution

    By the mid-1970s, Black September was largely inactive as an organised group and many of its members had been killed, arrested, or marginalised. Although there were no attacks by the group after 1973, some cells remained operational to some extent until at least 1981. This year the group claimed responsibility for their last attack, the Antwerp synagogue bombing. After that, there were no further attacks (source).

    Their dissolution was part of a broader transformation of the Palestinian liberation movement, as the PLO sought recognition on the international stage and engaged in diplomatic relations with Israel. 

    Although Black September as an organisation is no longer active, its name and infamy persist as a symbol of the violent terrorism associated with the Palestinian cause.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    3.0 Ideology 

    The BSO was a Palestinian nationalist and anti-Zionist organisation. Its ideology and goals were primarily focused on promoting the Palestinian cause and seeking to redress what it perceived as historical injustices against the Palestinian people, particularly related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their ultimate goal was to achieve a free Palestinian state and the destruction of the state of Israel.

    Black September | The Palestine Poster Project Archives
    Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) propaganda poster. Arabic translation: “On the anniversary of the September 1970 massacre in Jordan. Beware of the Jordanian regime because it will rise again”.

    4.0 Organisation 

    The BSO originated within the PLO as a small cell of Fatah men. The US believe that the PLO publicly distanced itself from terrorism and, at the same time, created the Black September Organisation in 1971. This tactic was intended to continue violent attacks in a deniable manner. The BSO was a loosely structured and secretive organisation, with a changing membership. The group’s main members were mostly drawn from Palestinian militant factions that often worked together on operations. 

    According to the CIA, the group was staffed by Fatah intelligence personnel and used Fatah facilities and funds. Although Arafat and other Fatah leaders publicly claimed to be unaware of BSO’s existence, the CIA soon learned that it was run by Fatah’s intelligence organisation, that it used “Fatah funds, facilities and personnel” and that “for all intents and purposes, no meaningful distinction can now be made between BSO and Fatah”.

     (Source), (source)

    5.0 Tactical-Operational Information 

    5.1 Leadership  

    Given the secretive nature of the organisation, its relations with the PLO, and the need to remain hidden from Israel and Western secret services, its leadership and hierarchy remain to this day something of a mystery.

    • According to a CIA report, BSO was a Fatah cell organised by PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The report stated that publicly, Arafat showed a pretence of moderation. However, the Fatah leadership, including Arafat, were at the time committed to the revolution.
    • The US and Israel considered Salah Khalaf (codename Abu Iyad) to be the founder and leader of the group. Khalaf was deputy head and intelligence chief of the PLO and the second-highest-ranking Fatah official after Yasser Arafat.
    • Another possible leader was Ali Hassan Salameh (codename Abu Hassan). Salameh was the head of Black September operations and founder of Force 17. Force 17 was a commando and special operations unit of Fatah and later of the Office of the President of the Palestinian Authority. Under Salameh’s leadership, BSO was responsible for carrying out high-profile international attacks.
    • Another important member was Abu Daoud, a planner, architect and mastermind of the Munich massacre. Moreover, Amin al-Hindi is also suspected of involvement in the Munich massacre.

    (Source), (source)

    Salah Khalaf (aka. Abu Iyad), the head of the security section of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a member of the Central Committee of Fatah.

    5.2 Core Purpose

    The initial aims of the Black September Organisation were to seek reprisals against the Jordanian military and to assassinate King Hussein of Jordan after the events of September 1970. At the same time, the group aimed to draw attention to the Palestinian issue and pressure international actors to address it. They demanded, among other things, the release of Palestinian prisoners, an end to Israeli “occupation”, and self-determination for the Palestinian people.

    (Source), (source)

    5.3 Recruitment 

    Initially, most of its members were Fatah dissidents who had been close to Abu Ali Iyad. He was the commander of the Fatah forces in northern Jordan who continued to fight the Jordanian army after the withdrawal of the PLO leadership. Recruits from the PFLP, as-Sa’iqa and other groups also joined the BSO.

    (Source), (source)

    5.4 Tactics 

    Black September was known for employing various terrorist tactics and strategies to further its goals, primarily focused on the Palestinian cause and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of their tactics included:

    • Hostage-Taking: The group gained international notoriety for its hostage-taking activities. The most infamous example was the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre when the BSO kidnapped and killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. Hostage-taking was a tactic intended to draw significant media attention and put pressure on governments to meet the group’s demands.
    • Assassinations: Black September conducted targeted assassinations of individuals it considered enemies of the Palestinian cause. This included diplomats, security officials, and others perceived as contributing to the oppression of the Palestinian people.
    • Hijackings: The group was involved in hijacking airplanes as a means of achieving its objectives. One example was the Belgian Sabena Flight 571 on 8 May 1972. Another hijacking happened in December 1973, when a series of attacks originating at Rome-Fiumicino airport killed 34 people. The attacks began with the storming of the airport terminal and hostage-taking, followed by the bombing of a Pan Am plane and the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight.
    • Bombings and sabotages: Black September carried out bombings in various locations, including attacks on Israeli embassies and other targets. One example is the 1973 New York bombings, a plot to detonate three car bombs in New York at the same time as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir arrived there in March 1973. Although the bombs did not explode, it was their first operation in the United States (source). The group also sabotaged infrastructure, including power and gas plants in the Netherlands and West Germany. 

    These strategies were used to generate publicity, instil fear, and put pressure on governments and international actors to address the Palestinian issue. 

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    5.5 Financing and Training

    Black September relied on several sources for financing its operations. The main source of funding was state sponsorship. Like many Palestinian militant groups of the time, Black September received support from some Middle Eastern states, especially from Lybia and Syria, that were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. These states provided financial assistance, training, and safe havens for the group’s members. In particular, the BSO received extensive support from certain elements within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), especially Fatah. 

    Of particular importance is the role of Fatah. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fatah provided training to a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, Asian and African militant and insurgent groups. It is understood that BSO commandos were either Fatah itself or trained by Fatah. Fatah also supplied arms to them. In turn, Fatah received arms, explosives, ammunition and training from the Soviet Union and some of the communist states of Eastern Europe as well as China and Algeria.

    Black September’s financial activities were often clandestine and illegal, and they operated outside the boundaries of international law. The group’s finances were also not as well-documented as those of formal organisations, as it operated in a secretive and underground manner. As a result, specific details about the extent and sources of their financing are not fully known or well-documented.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

    Foto en blanco y negro de un grupo de personas con traje formal

Descripción generada automáticamente
    Yasser Arafat meeting with Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

    5.6 Size 

    The exact number of members in the Black September organisation is unknown because the group worked covertly and clandestinely. However, the US estimated that between 1970 and 1973, the BSO had between three and five hundred full-time members (source). 

    5.7 Area of Activity

    Black September was active globally. However, its activity was mainly concentrated in Western Europe and the Middle East. 

    According to existing records, the BSO was especially active in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. The group also committed many attacks in Western Europe, especially Germany, Austria, Belgium and Great Britain. The United States was also a frequent target of the group.

    The group also committed, to a lesser extent, attacks in Australia, Uruguay, Argentina (all three due to the large Jewish resident population), as well as Brunei.  


    6.0 Terrorist Operations 

    Most of BSO’s activity was terrorist. This included bombings, kidnappings hijackings, and assassinations. Up to 120 attacks attributed to the group were recorded during its period of activity (source). 

    6.1 Assassinations

    • Black September carried out its first act of violence on 28 November 1971, with the assassination of Jordanian Prime Minister Wasif al-Tali. Al-Tali. The PLO accused him of personally killing Abu Ali Iyad.
    • The BSO also attempted to assassinate King Hussein and Zaid al-Rifai, Jordan’s ambassador to London and former head of the Jordanian royal court, in December 1971. 
    • On 23 January 1973, BSO assassinated Mossad officer Baruch Cohen in Madrid.
    • On 1 March 1973, the BSO attacked the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. Ten hostages were held in the Saudi Arabian embassy, five of them diplomats. The American ambassador, the American deputy ambassador and the Belgian chargé d’affaires were killed.
    • On 5 August 1973, two Black September-affiliated militants opened fire in a passenger lounge at Athens’ closed Ellinikon International Airport in Athens, killing three and wounding 55.
    • On 20 October 1981, Black September claimed responsibility for the 1981 synagogue bombing in Antwerp, Belgium, in which three people were killed and 106 injured.

    6.2 Bombings and Sabotages

    • On 6 February 1972, the BSO sabotaged a West German power plant and several gas plants in Ravenstein and Ommen in the Netherlands and Hamburg in West Germany.
    • Between September and October 1972, the BSO sent dozens of letter bombs from Amsterdam to Israeli diplomatic posts around the world. One of them killed Israeli agricultural adviser Ami Shachori in Britain.

    6.3 Hijackings

    • On 8 May 1972, members of the BSO hijacked a Belgian plane, Sabena Flight 572, flying from Vienna to Lod.
    • In December 1973, the BSO perpetrated a series of attacks originating at Rome-Fiumicino airport in Italy, killing 34 people. The attacks began with the invasion of the airport terminal and hostage-taking, followed by the bombing of a Pan Am plane and the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight.

    (Source), (source)

    IDF “Sayeret Matcal” soldiers rescuing hostages on a “Sabena” plane at the Lod Airport.

    6.4 Munich Massacre

    The BSO is best known for taking eleven members of the Israeli team as hostages on September 5 of the 1972 Munich Olympics. In return for the hostages, the BSO demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners from West German and Israeli jails. 

    Israel, operating on the principle of not negotiating with terrorists, refused to meet the demands. With negotiation attempts failing, the group instead demanded transportation to an Arab country. The terrorists demanded to be transported by helicopters, along with the Israelis, to the nearby military base of Furstenfeldbruck. After they landed at the base, a failed ambush by the German police led to a shooting between German officials and the terrorists. 

    By early September 6, all eleven Israeli hostages were dead (two at the Olympic Village, the other nine at Furstenfeldbruck). Also killed were five members of the BSO and one German police officer.

    (Source), (source), (source), (source)

    Black September Member During Munich Massacre
    A masked member of the Black September terrorist group stands on the balcony of the apartment where the group held its hostages during the Munich Massacre.

    7.0 Conclusion

    Black September was part of a strategy by the Palestinian leadership to pressure Israel and the West. While Fatah, and the entire PLO, positioned themselves as moderates in the conflict, BSO served as a hammer in the shadows. BSO was the beginning of the Palestinian armed struggle and a highly ideological terrorist organisation. Their activities therefore raised significant international security concerns and increased tensions in the Middle East. Furthermore, through their bloody campaign, an important objective of the group was achieved, that is, making the Palestinian struggle known to the world.

    While Black September eventually disbanded in the late 1970s, its legacy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to have a lasting impact on the politics and security dynamics of the region. As an indirect consequence, these attacks also led to the creation or specialisation of permanent anti-terrorist forces in many European countries, such as the Belgian Directorate of Special Units (DSU), the Austrian EKO Cobra, the German GSG9, and the French GIGN.

    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier Sutil Toledano
    Javier is an Intelligence Analyst specialising in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. He graduated in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. He recently graduated from an International Master's Degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies.

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