Fifty Years after Hostage Taking Went Global, We’re Still Learning Lessons

This commentary was originally published in The Hill on September 23, 2022.

I sat quietly transfixed, not fully processing what was playing out on the black and white screen before me as I unblinkingly watched a masked, ghostlike terrorist on the balcony of a building. The raw scene chillingly brought terrorism into sharper focus as the media inexorably grasped the details of a live hostage-taking spectacle. Some 900 million people watched a surreal hostage-taking event in real time, which until then was unprecedented in history’s long arc of political violence.

This scene took place at the Munich Olympic Games 50 years ago this month. I was 10 years old. 

On September 5, 1972, at the Munich Olympics, eight Palestinian terrorists gained entry to the Munich Olympic Village. They entered the Israeli athletes’ dormitories and cruelly killed two hostages before demanding the release of their comrades imprisoned in Israel. Later, nine other athletes were killed, along with a German police officer, in a disorganized rescue attempt.

At the time, I could not have known that countering terrorism and hostage response would become interwoven with my life and with the intelligence work I did off and on for the better part of three decades. I observed from afar the trajectory of hostage taking from Munich to the Iran hostage crisis and the brutality of these same dynamics in Lebanon during the 1980s. After the 9/11 attacks, I worked on hostage cases from the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan. I even walked the ground in northern Israel where the hostage taking of Israeli soldiers triggered a 34-day war. And most recently, I witnessed justice for Islamic State hostage takers in the U.S. courtroom. 

In the aftermath of the trial, former hostage Caitlan Coleman asked me: “When will I get my justice?” 

I had no good answer.

To explain, while at the White House, I served as the National Security Council’s convening authority for the Hostage Response Group, organized to focus U.S. interagency efforts on hostage recovery activities. Despite overseeing the successful recovery of Coleman and her children from Haqqani network captivity in 2017, I left the White House in 2018 with too many unresolved cases to address here. Gut wrenchingly, like my predecessors and successors alike, I left unfinished hostage work. Notably, I wanted a full account from Iran on the circumstances of Bob Levinson’s captivity, and I wanted Syria to acknowledge their hostage taking of Austin Tice. I wanted Jeff WoodkeKevin King, and Timothy Weeks freed. The list goes on.

If terrorists learn that hostage taking is unprofitable, they will cease taking hostages, or so the theory goes. But for states like Iran, Russia, and China to name a few, hybridizing hostage taking as part of its statecraft is a profitable insurance policy for malign purposes and inexplicably reflects a new reality of so-called hostage diplomacy. To counter this paradigm shift, President Trump signed the Levinson Act into law in 2020 to redouble the U.S. government’s focus on wrongful detainees, and President Biden recently issued an executive order aimed at preventing the taking of more Americans abroad.

What are some constructive considerations from Munich 1972 in terms of hostage taking?

First, terrorism specialists and generations of students are familiar with the oft-repeated observation that terrorism is theater, choreographed for a global audience. If all the world is a stage, terrorists have perverted the dynamic with political violence and a captive audience. Still, defining terrorism is a feature of every class session focused on understanding political violence.

The idealized notion of terrorists—by their own self-serving malign misconstruction—as “freedom fighters” is not only a cliché, it’s nonsense, especially in the light of the past 50 years of politically motivated violence. After all, the world watched hijacked planes filled with hostages crash into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. There is no justification for political violence against civilians.

Second, Munich was not just about the internationalization of terrorism but the routinization of hostage taking as a preferred terrorism tactic throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Terrorists routinely took hostages on hijacked airplanes and in embassies like in Iran, demanding political concessions in exchange for hostages’ lives. To put a finer point on it, terrorism scholars study terrorism in terms of waves, from the ethno-nationalist wave that featured the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s 1972 hostage taking at Munich to the persistent religious wave of Iranian revolutionaries, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Haqqani network. Whatever way terrorism scholars cast the current wave of terrorism, there remains a persistent undertow of hostage taking by terrorists. And now hostage taking has become the connective tissue to the organs of malign nation states, meaning wrongfully detained civilians are pawns on the world stage.

Third, and perhaps most optimistically, today, I plan on attending a Munich 1972–related anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the founding of Germany’s famed GSG 9 unit, of the Bundespolizei—the German federal police.From the ashes of Munich 1972, West Germany swiftly created a world-class police tactical unit. Many Western nations and the United States followed suit by standing up similar counterterrorism capabilities. Scores of elite counterterrorism partners from across the world will gather in Germany to celebrate this anniversary. Just five years after its birth, GSG 9 succeeded in freeing hostages from a hijacked plane in Somalia in 1977, earning them legendary status. That reputation has remained unchanged for 50 years.

Finally, coming full circle, the justice Caitlan Coleman and other victims seek will only come by relentlessly pursuing hostage takers and, when possible, getting them to trial. In the end, there’s another lesson we can take from the establishment of GSG 9 that might help with the shifting paradigm of states wrongfully detaining more Westerners: if diplomats, statesmen, and legislators can come together the way that hostage rescuers have in their commitment to free hostages, then perhaps crippling sanctions, global condemnation, and greater international cooperation will make hostage taking less profitable. In the global theater, these officials must step up to the stage.

Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Christopher P. Costa

Executive Director, International Spy Museum and Adjunct Associate Professor, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University