After the Black September Organization pulled off what’s classically considered the first act of modern terrorism – holding Israel’s Olympic team in Munich hostage while the entire world watched in their living rooms via satellite television repeaters and portable video cameras - the group’s parent organization, the PLO, was faced with a rather troublesome conundrum.
It’s the same problem that our government is now trying to address, as “the Pentagon recently gave a $4.5 million grant to a group of psychologists based at the University of Maryland to conduct a five-year study on not only how to deradicalize militants, but perhaps also find ways to intervene with potential recruits before they sign up.”
Options such as vocational training and financial incentives are being considered, but as usual the Pentagon is flushing money directly down the shitter: neither of those are going to be anywhere near as effective as the solution that was used to dissolve Black September.
Back in the 1970s the PLO had just trained a new breed of modern terrorist, dedicated and determined men trained to operate as commandos anywhere in the world. They believed deeply in the cause they were fighting for, the liberation of their homeland, and had been instructed not just to create violence, but to make sure their violence collected as much attention as possible. In this their attack on Munich was wildly successful:
Somewhere around a quarter of the world’s population is estimated to have at least been aware of Black September’s Munich attack, with most of them made aware by the television blaring in their living rooms.
Just a week after Black September hijacked the Munich Olympic Games, the PLO released a communiqué to a Beirut newspaper gloating that nothing, not “a bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao tse-Tung, an earthquake in Paris” could’ve “echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation in Munich.” The PLO understood the potency of the Symbolic Terror, going on to write that Black September’s assault had been “from a purely propagandistic view-point, 100-percent successful” since it had been “seen from the four corners of the earth.”
Eighteen-months after Black September took not even a dozen Israeli lives came Yasir Arafat and the PLO’s proudest moment. In one of the more surreal gatherings of the UN General Assembly, at least until Hugo Chavez came along, Yasir Arafat was invited as a guest speaker. He became the first guest speaker in United Nations history to show up at the General Assembly looking like a mangy hungover ferret brandishing a semi-automatic pistol. After his gesticulating address the PLO was granted special observer status, and by the end of the decade the PLO would have diplomatic relations with fourteen more countries than Israel.
All of this with the death of only eleven men.
But with Black September’s work done, the PLO was faced with the question of what to do with this highly trained team of killers. The PLO had “the recognition and acceptance they craved,” and didn’t want this elite group of assassins stirring up trouble back home. So they settled on a rather ingenious solution:
Approximately a hundred of beautiful young women were brought to Beirut. There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long-lasting relationships.
The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.
Without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family. To make sure that none ever strayed, the two men devised a test. Periodically, the former terrorists would be handed legitimate passports and asked to go to the organization’s offices in Geneva or Paris or some other city on genuine nonviolent PLO business. But, the general explained, not one of them would agree to travel abroad, for fear of being arrested and losing all that they had—that is, being deprived of their wives and children. “And so,” my host told me, “that is how we shut down Black September and eliminated terrorism.”
This solution may seem to fall on the wacky side of an Arabian sitcom, but if you understand how terrorist groups coalesce in the first place it makes complete sense. The men who will become a terrorist group aren’t bound together by hate, but instead by the love they have for each other:
The decision to join a terrorist cell, and in turn become a terrorist, is one seeped deeply in faith and friendship. It is almost never the case of one of the negative life-defining events mentioned above. All of the concepts that best apply to the process of becoming a terrorist in fact have a positive connotation: soul-searching, bonding, leaning on your friends, believing in something bigger than yourself. Because, for the person who decides to do it, becoming a terrorist is a wonderful thing.
The best way to describe the process of becoming a terrorist is one of conversion, which is apt since the process of religious conversion provides the most accurate model for terrorist conversion. Converts to religious sects, it’s recently been accepted in religious sociology, follow a set process: experiencing building tension and dissatisfaction with their religious lives, deciding because of this tension to become a religion-seeker, encountering a compelling ideology during this phase of seeking, bonding with others associated with that ideology, becoming detached from the society outside of this new ideologically-bound group, and finally deepening interaction and reliance on this new group for happiness and identity.3
At some point you can’t quite put your finger on, somewhere between the late-night religious discussions and the intense soul-baring, you become inculcated with the ideology of the group. Once the identity of the group has become your own, your purpose becomes to serve its purpose. You gain a passion for the success of the group that burns away any other desire you might’ve had before.
Then, just like that, all the socially-induced tension melts away and you become one with the group. Their fate is your fate. You’re as loyal to them as you are to the ideology that brought you together. And, as is the case for the ideologies that bring terrorist cells together, you’re soon more than happy to die. For a concept, in a way – but much more apparently, for them.
And as anyone who’s ever recovered from the end of any committed and passionate long-term relationship can tell you, you’ve gotta fight fire with fire. Displacing terrorists is as simple as finding them someone else to love besides their comrades.
Although the men of Black September who were involved in Munich didn’t exactly get their happy ending. As soon as the dust had settled, the Mossad put “Operation Wrath of God” into motion, which involved assassinating anyone they could find who had any connection at all to the attack. Over the next twenty years Mossad agents hunted down dozens of men, several who may have nothing at all to do with the attack, and took them out with either bullets or bombs.
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