If there’s one thing that’s sure to ruin your whole day, it’s being ambushed by masked gunmen and held for political, financial or symbolic ransom. In fact, it’s safe to say that such a situation could ruin your whole week, month or even year, depending on how long your captors are willing to hang on, since most of the time your only hopes are that your kidnappers’ demands actually are met and they decide to honor their agreement (a long shot), that an elite commando team rescues you while managing not to shoot or explode you during the operation (not as easy as the movies make it look), or you end up going insane and falling in love with the people holding you at gunpoint (which at least you might get you some better food). Which outcome is most likely depends on the specifics of the situation, so just in case you get nabbed by Al Qaeda during your smoke break or something, here’s a rundown of some famous hostage situations, and how they eventually went down.
Munich Massacre (1972)
We've talked about the tragic assault on the Israeli athletes’ apartments during the 20th Summer Olympics, but mostly from the Olympian and diplomatic perspective. In Germany, the reaction was horror and shame at the two haphazard and ultimately botched police rescue operations, the first a clumsy attempt by poorly disguised border police -- the most heavily armed police in West Germany -- to infiltrate the apartment from above, and the second an overly complicated ambush involving poorly briefed infiltrators and amateur snipers.
After the death of several police, most terrorists, and all the hostages, the West German government quietly put together the beginnings of a specialist counter-terror unit under the guidance of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. Grenzschutzgruppe 9 was strongly opposed by many German politicians who saw in it a return to the Nazi Party’s paramilitary SS (although GSG 9, owing to German federal laws strictly forbidding the use of the military against civilians, was composed entirely of police, often from the border squads) but ultimately relented. In a world where terrorist and revolutionary violence was becoming disturbingly common, Munich was a wake-up call to police organizations of every modern country, showing that elite, specially-trained, military-grade police units were a vital part of any country’s peacekeeping force.
The Tehran Embassy Hostage Crisis (November 1979 – January 1981)
One of the reasons why American foreign policy towards Iran is generally comparable to a bored child poking a hornets’ nest with a stick is lingering resentment on both sides over the infamous Iran hostage crisis, a situation that became one of the defining moments of the Iranian Revolution. Iranians of all political stripes had long hated their corrupt and repressive Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and ever since the American and British governments had overtly supported the Shah’s military coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the most politically aware Iranians tended to see the Shah as nothing more than a cat's-paw of powerful Western oil cartels, responsible for nothing but keeping the wells open and the crude flowing.
In February 1979, the Shah was deposed and essentially exiled, and the new government found itself riven by political and theological issues. At first, the American government under good-natured peanut farmer Jimmy Carter attempted to build bridges to the new Iranian government by continuing military aid, but the decision by Henry Kissinger to allow the Shah to visit the American Mayo Clinic (against the explicit advice of the American staff of the Tehran embassy) reignited anti-American sentiment and increased the visibility of Islamist figures like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who famously declared that Americans “have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.”
In spite of Khomeini’s fiery rhetoric, the occupation of the embassy was largely an independent effort mounted by Iranian student unions -- Ayatollah Khoeyniha, the students’ leader, warned the students not to seek Khomeini’s advice for fear that the government would stymie the protest -- and was initially supposed to be temporary and symbolic. Events forced the hands of everyone involved, and soon the Marine guards were blindfolded and paraded in front of photographers while the 66 State Department and civilian personnel in the building were captured and bound. After Carter made what was largely perceived as an ineffectual plea to release the hostages on humanitarian grounds, a hastily-organized, extremely complex, and mildly absurd commando raid named Operation Eagle Claw was put into action.
Eight helicopters (six of which made it through the sandstorm-happy Iranian weather conditions) set up the beginnings of a temporary base, where it was planned that C-130 transports would offload Delta strike troops and fuel for a helicopter raid on the embassy, then a flight to Tehran’s Manzariyeh Air Base (which would hopefully be under the control of Army Rangers by that point), all the while being covered by fighter and strike aircraft from the USS Nimitz and USS Coral Sea. There were a million creative ways that this plan could backfire, but the operation didn’t even have a chance to get into its more complicated phases as the unexpectedly powdery sand of the impromptu desert airstrip lead to a ground-level collision between a helicopter and one of the fuel-carrying C-130s. Both aircraft were destroyed, killing eight servicemen and completely blowing the operation—and more than likely losing the election for Carter (who spent his last months in office still desperately seeking a resolution for the crisis).
While ill, female, and African-American hostages were gradually released, the remaining 52 Americans remained in captivity for 444 days, being released to US custody at the end of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in a coincidence that is in no way remarkable or in any way related to then-vice-President George Bush’s extensive CIA ties and Middle Eastern business connections or any subsequent scandalous arms deals. At any rate, the Americans were now safe, and received a deserved ticker-tape parade through the traditional “Canyon of Heroes” in New York City.
Japanese Embassy Crisis, Lima, Peru (Dec. 1996 - Apr. 1997)
In one of those obnoxious little details that only Wikipedia editors and other obsessive-compulsives worry about, the “Japanese embassy crisis” actually took place at the ambassadorial residences instead of the embassy proper. This distinction meant very little to the heavily-armed infiltrators of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), who evaded over 300 military and police sentries and blew a hole in the side of the fortress-like compound during a lavish celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. Peru, being the first Latin American country to admit Japanese immigrants and featuring the second-highest proportion of Japanese descendants on the continent (including controversial then-President Alberto Fujimori, whose Japanese mother and brother were among the hostages), had and has an extremely close relationship with the Japanese government, so the event sent shockwaves of mortification and embarrassment through Peruvian society.
The MRTA gunmen demanded the release of imprisoned members, the repeal of certain economic reforms, the reform of Peruvian prison conditions, and the end of Japanese economic assistance to Peru, which they thought of as benefiting only a tiny segment of society. The situation was extremely volatile, and while President Fujimori put together a remarkably comprehensive diplomatic effort consisting of independent Canadian negotiators, numerous appeals from Peruvian archbishops, and even talks with Fidel Castro, his actions ultimately spoke louder than words.
Some time in February, the Peruvian defense perimeter was heavily reinforced, and troops that had previously been ordered to maintain silence and peace began carrying out aggressive maneuvers and playing loud martial music. Soon afterwards, Peruvian Army tanks and APCs began patrolling the streets around the compound, covering up curious noises that MRTA members had noticed coming from the basement and first floor of the ambassadorial residence. In the meantime, diplomatic aid packages that were ostensibly part of the negotiation effort supplied hostages with light-colored clothes easily distinguished from the makeshift camo of the MRTA gunmen and even managed to smuggle a two-way radio to hostage Luis Giampetri, an Admiral of the Peruvian Navy and an expert in clandestine operations whose responsibility became making sure the hostages were as separate from the terrorists as possible.
By the middle of April, the MRTA had decided something was definitely up and suspended negotiations, but made the crucial mistake of relocating all hostages to the second floor—late in the afternoon of the 22nd, Peruvian commandos simultaneously blew holes in the bottom of the first floor, emerged from secondary tunnels in the back yard, and made a risky charge on the residence’s front door. After a few minutes of furious shooting, the only deaths were two of the 140 commandoes, one of the hundreds of hostages (an elderly Supreme Court justice with a pre-existing heart condition), and all fourteen MRTA members—many of which were believed to have been shot execution-style and/or mutilated.
Alberto Fujimori, currently serving a 7-and-a-half-year sentence for corruption and human rights violations (the first elected head of state to be successfully convicted of such crimes) is believed to have personally ordered his troops to leave no MRTA gunman alive—nobody was allowed to keep his mom as a damn hostage—and despite his incarceration and proven involvement in death-squad operations, still receives the support and adulation of two-thirds of the Peruvian people today.
Achille Lauro Hijacking (Oct. 1985)
While the perpetrators of the Achille Lauro hijacking were just four heavily armed members of the Palestine Liberation Front (not to be confused with the PFLP of Lufthansa Flight 181) and only one person was killed during the incident, the resolution of the Achille Lauro crisis became one of the biggest diplomatic conflicts between Italy and the United States to date. An Italian cruise liner visiting Egypt, the Achille Lauro left port unexpectedly with 320 crew and 80 passengers under the command of PLF commandoes.
After being refused entry to the Syrian port of Tartus, the PLF gunmen decided to prove that they were “serious” by shooting elderly and wheelchair-bound American Jew Leon Klinghoffer in the head and chest and dumping him chair and all off the side of the boat in full view of the authorities, at which point Egyptian authorities allowed the ship to return to Port Said and resume negotiations. The hijackers abandoned their demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for safe passage to Tunisia, but US Navy fighter jets forced the plane down at the Italian NATO base of NAS Sigonella, where American SEALS and Delta Force troopers unexpectedly found themselves facing off with Italian Air Force troops and elite Carabinieri military police.
As it happened, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi had been left entirely in the dark by the Reagan government concerning the major military operation about to take place on his country’s soil, and angrily demanded that the hijackers be put in the custody of the Italian government. Secret deals between Italy, Yugoslavia, and the PLO put two PLF terrorists in custody but allowed two others to return to Palestine, partly to maintain Italy’s better-than-average relationship with the Palestinians and partly to spite the heavy-handed American military presence in the region. Mastermind and PLF founder Muhammad Zaidan (AKA Abu Abbas or Muhammad Abbas) later attempted to formally apologize for the hijacking and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer and advocated peace between Palestine and Israel, but his apology was never accepted by the United States and he was captured in Iraq in 2003.
The PLO (which had much closer ties with/control over/responsibility for the actions of the PLF than it did with/over/for the PFLP) later reached a private settlement with Klinghoffer’s descendants, formally accepting responsibility for his murder and funding an organization within the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to supports anti-terror legislation.
Dos Palmas Kidnappings, Palawan, Philippines (May 2001)
Although the Philippines is popularly assumed to be an overwhelmingly Catholic country (and as the third “most Catholic” country per capita behind Brazil and Mexico, it’s an easy assumption to make) the oldest monotheistic religion in the country is in fact Islam, following the introduction of Muslim trading fleets in the 12th and 14th centuries long before Spain and Portugal got around to it.
Islam is now a significant minority in Filipino culture (estimated to be followed by between 5 and 10% of the population) and pressures on the Muslim community and the lack of attention generally paid to Southeast Asian Muslim activism by Western governments has lead to the development of an extremely robust Islamist militant/terrorist underground, generally lead by the separatist military group Abu Sayyaf (“Father of the Swordsmith”). Abu Sayyaf belatedly rose to Western attentions in May of 2001 after the beginning of a kidnapping campaign that was eventually estimated to have captured roughly a hundred tourists and hospitality workers from the resort island of Palawan, killing around twenty hostages.
Popularly known as the “Dos Palmas Kidnappings” for the initial strike on the resort of the same name (where the two “celebrity” American hostages, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, were taken hostage), the raids continued for nearly a year, striking numerous small towns in Palawan, repeatedly outfighting and embarrassing the Filipino military, and successfully capturing the Dr. Jose Torres Memorial Hospital complex in Lamitan during June.
A surprising number of hostages were able to escape, and by October Abu Sayyaf was believed to hold only 14 captive, including the Burnhams and fellow American citizen Guillermo Sobrero (who was beheaded as a celebration of Filipino national dependence). During June of 2002, a raid was staged by Filipino troops that resulted in the death of Martin Burnham and Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap and the wounding of Gracia Burnham, but to this day many of the perpetrators of the Palawan attacks remain at large despite a massive increase in American military presence, aid, and assistance.
Moscow Dubrovka Theater Crisis/"Nord-ost Siege" (Oct. 2002)
America is in no way the only target of Islamist-oriented anti-colonialist terror strikes—Russia is still coping with the aftershocks of the Soviet Union’s open mistreatment of its dark-skinned Muslim citizens and the continuing subjugation of would-be independent nation Chechnya. One of the most prominent and tragic instances of this was the assault by 30-40 Chechen nationals on the famed Dubrovka Theater just before a production of the popular “Nord-Ost” musical, seizing 850 hostages and demanding a unilateral withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and recognition of that nation’s existence.
The Russian Federation, bitterly determined not to lose any more formerly Soviet territory, dismissed the demands out of hand and prepared an assault by the hyper-elite Spetznaz, the rough equivalent of America’s Delta Force. Spetznaz assault leaders had what seemed like a brilliant plan—immobilize hostage-takers and hostages at the same time by pumping a powerful sleeping gas through the building’s ventilation system, then infiltrate and shoot anyone who was trying to stand up and carrying a weapon. Tragically, the gas (believed to be a derivative of super-anesthetic fentanyl, estimated to be a hundred times more potent than an equivalent dose of morphine) was so powerful that of the 129 hostages who died (including nine foreign nationals) the vast majority are believed to have essentially overdosed on the gas.
Muscovite physicians battled to save the victims of the gas assault, but tight-lipped Spetznaz chemical warfare specialists refused to tell them exactly what they had pumped into the building, leaving doctors with almost no clue as to how to save their patients (a lucky break occurred when one doctor discovered that anti-opioid drug naloxone seemed to work best, news that was spread as quickly as possible through Moscow’s hospital network). Afterwards, government officials and media loyal to the Putin regime universally praised the attack on the basis that 721 survivors out of 850 hostages wasn’t anything to be upset about, and Russian political control over news reporting and Chechnya was strengthened tenfold.
Beslan School Massacre, North Ossetia (Sept. 2004)
An increased military presence in Chechnya did nothing to restrain its domestic revolutionary movement, and despite well-publicized increases in Russian security spending, Chechen and Ingush guerillas managed to seize a North Ossetian school occupied by 1100 ethnic Ossetic (popularly considered one of the “pure” Russian ethnicities) men, women, and children on the first day of the Russian school year.
The Russian government first claimed only 200 hostages were taken, then 300, then 350, and eventually an estimate of 1128. For their part, the guerillas are believed to have definitely killed twenty to thirty Russian civilians (the ones they believed to be the strongest, smartest, and most capable of taking the school back) in a very public manner. Local Ossetians, the Nord-Ost siege still fresh in their minds, publicly begged the Putin administration to negotiate with the guerillas in good faith, many presenting signs to TV cameras reading “Putin! Release our children! Meet their demands!” and proclaiming that they would not allow their children to be “poisoned.”
The Russian troops on scene (again, strictly military with little or no police training) did in fact decide against the use of their “sleeping” gas, but instead of attempting negotiation or infiltration chose inexplicably to storm the school like any other military target, complete with covering fire from tanks and incendiary rocket artillery. The official death toll came out to 334 people, many of them hostages, while nearly 200 remained “missing or unidentified.” Even less is known about Spetznaz casualties—while there are ten names on the official monument in Beslan, estimates go as high as 16 soldiers dead, an embarrassingly high number for a supposedly hyper-elite fighting force supported by heavy armor and artillery.
Subsequent Russian federal and journalistic investigations have largely concluded that the army did nothing wrong or ill-advised when they decided to drive tanks through a school full of children, but the deeply traumatized and embittered citizens of Beslan remain entitled to a decidedly different opinion.
Air France Flight 8969 (Dec. 1994)
From 1991 on through most of the decade, the former French colony of Algeria was embroiled in a bitter civil war. Algeria had won its independence hard, France being one of the colonial powers most reluctant to relinquish control over its subjects (see also Vietnam), and anti-French sentiment was still running high—Air France flights to Algiers were strictly crewed by volunteer pilots due to the threat of anti-aircraft missile attacks.
On Christmas Eve of 1994, a planeload of French and Algerian passengers prepared to depart Houari Boumedienne Airport for Orly when they were unexpectedly delayed by four armed men in Air Algerie uniforms, claiming to be part of the Algerian presidential police performing a routine security check. Increasingly nervous passengers noticed Algerian government special forces assembling near the plane, and when the supposed police caught on they revealed themselves as part of the Groupe Islamique Arme, brandishing Uzis, AKs, hand grenades, and two ten-stick dynamite belts, immediately seizing control of the plane and demanding that all female passengers and crew cover their heads.
As the Algerian government assembled a negotiation team, the French quietly authorized the dispatch of their elite National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) to Majorca, Spain—the closest to Algiers that they could be stationed without causing an international incident. As the Algerian government continued to insist they had the situation in hand and that French troops were not to enter their country, GIGN units killed time in Majorca studying their own jet—an Airbus A300 identical in configuration to Flight 8969.
On Christmas morning, the French government received two unique gifts—first, the release of a number of women, children, and ill passengers from Flight 8969, and second, a report from one of their moles within the GIA. The intelligence from their spy immediately elevated the crisis—the GIA terrorists were not negotiating in good faith, but were planning to fly to Paris in order to crash the jet into the Eiffel tower. While the Algerian government had successfully determined the identity of the lead hijacker and dispatched his mother to plead with him to surrender, French Prime Minister Edourard Balladur officially informed Algerian Prime Minister Mokdad Sifi that Algeria would be held responsible for any negative outcome of the Flight 8969 crisis—outcomes that Balladur knew could be incredibly dire.
The two governments agreed to allow the jet to fly to Marseilles for more fuel—significantly more fuel than the jet would need to continue to Paris, another hint that the terrorists planned to use the plane as an incendiary weapon—where unbeknownst to the GIA gunmen, GIGN troops were already planning their assault. A frontal assault via airstairs was briefly repelled when the entrance was found to be higher than anticipated, but GIGN stun and flash grenades drove the terrorists back from the entrance and prevented them from detonating their bombs. Of the remaining 154 passengers (three were killed prior to the raid) only 13 were wounded and only 9 GIGN operators injured. The operation was judged to be one of the most successful in hostage-rescue history.
Operation Entebbe, Uganda (1976)
A week-long ordeal pitting the PFLP, the German Revolutionary Cells, and the Ugandan government against the French and Israelis, the Entebbe Raid began with the hijacking of an Air France A300 out of Tel Aviv by a combined Palestinian and German four-man team. The plane was first diverted to Benghazi in Libya for refueling, then to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where the hijackers received four reinforcements supported by the government of Idi Amin, which was also guarding the airfield itself.
Passengers were supported into two groups—Israeli citizens and “everybody else,” although sources conflict on whether non-Israeli Jews were deliberately or accidentally included in one group or another. Realizing what the Israeli contingent were likely in for, one passenger paused by Communist German terrorist Wilfried Boese in order to silently roll up his sleeve and expose the concentration camp registration number tattooed on his arm. Boese stammered something defensive about being an idealist rather than a Nazi, but these subtleties were lost in the overall operation as another Air France jet was summoned to take the non-Israeli passengers from the plane—in some cases by force, as a French nun pleaded Ugandan soldiers to be allowed to stay with the Israelis in order to provide medical care but was bodily removed from the airplane.
During all this time the French and Israeli diplomatic services had been pulling 24-hour days in an attempt to extract any sort of concession or reasonable negotiation from the combined Palestinian-Ugandan-insurgent-German forces, to what seemed like no avail. In Israel’s case, however, the negotiations covered for the preparation and planning of a lightning airborne assault on the airport to be spearheaded by the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, itself lead by New-York-born Lt. Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu. While the infamous Mossad spy agency quietly collected detailed information on the airport’s layout (aided greatly by a Jewish French veteran with an “excellent memory” that the terrorists had released earlier), the Ugandan’s positions, and the location of the terrorists and hostages within the airport’s terminal, a hundred-man ground force was prepared.
On the fourth of July, a flight of three Israeli C-130 assault transports and a Boeing 707 command-and-control jets entered Ugandan airspace below radar and running dark, the three C-130s touching down with cargo doors open and Land Rovers stuffed with IDF commandoes pouring out. The Sayeret Matkal detachment stormed the terminal shouting in Hebrew and English for everyone to stay down, and successfully killed the original hijackers (including Boese, who was reported to have first threatened his hostages with his Kalashnikov, only to have an immediate change of heart, ordering them to take shelter before running off to fight the Israeli troops) with the loss of only three hostages caught in the crossfire and Lt. Col. Netanyahu himself, struck by sniper fire from the control tower.
After the escape, Netanyahu became a national hero (a great benefit to the political career of his brother Benjamin, whom you may have heard of), Idi Amin ordered the killings of hundreds of Kenyans (Kenya having provided medical and logistical support for the operation), and the Ugandan Foreign Ministry demanded official UN condemnation of the raid as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty (almost unanimously ignored except by later secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, who as a former Wehrmacht intelligence officer and possible Nazi Party member was not in a particularly good position to complain about sovereignty violations). The Entebbe Raid itself became a model for future actions of that type.
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Lufthansa Flight 181/"Operation Feuerzauber" (1977)
Just before noon on the 13th of October, 1977, a group of four terrorists referring to themselves as “Commando Martyr Halime” (from the original German meaning of kommando, typically meaning a special or elite unit) took control of a Lufthansa Boeing 737 en route to Frankfurt and forced the pilots to detour to Rome for refueling. On the ground, the mixed group of Palestinian and Lebanese gunmen (actually gunpeople, since two of the terrorists were women) declared affiliations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German terrorist Red Army Faction group Siegfried Hausner Commando, demanding the release of ten RAF terrorists, two Palestinian associates, and fifteen million dollars American.
The Italian government ignored German requests to shoot out the jet’s tires or otherwise prevent it from taking off, preferring to pass the buck to whoever was next on Commando Martyr Halime’s world tour. That turned out to be the island of Cyprus, where a PLO representative attempted to get self-proclaimed “Captain Martyr Mahmud” to release the hostages safely. Mahmud was enraged that this was even being discussed (after all, he’d already gone and told everyone he was not going to be just a martyr, but a captain of martyrs) leading the PLO and most international observers to believe that there was no realistic hope of negotiation.
Flight 181 subsequently was bounced between several international airports that denied them entry (including those of Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Kuwait) and repeatedly came close to running out of fuel entirely before finally making an unannounced landing in Mogadishu, where the body of chief pilot Juergen Schumann (who had displeased Mahmud) was tossed out on the tarmac as an ultimatum. The German government agreed to the release of the Red Army Faction prisoners, but told Commando Martyr Halime that the transfer to Mogadishu would take until the next morning.
Meanwhile, a force of 30 GSG-9 troopers had quietly infiltrated the airport with the cooperation of the Somali government (which back then was something Somalia still had). Feeding the terrorists and the media a steady stream of false information in the form of “progress reports,” the Germans snuck into and onto the plane from its blind spot directly behind. After Somali troops lit a fire out in front of the plane to divert attention, GSG-9 kicked down all the emergency hatches at once, screamed a warning in German, tossed in a few of the newly invented “flashbang” grenades, and dispatched the four PFLP members in seconds, killing two immediately and ultimately leaving only one survivor.
The only other casualties were four passengers and one GSG trooper who received superficial bullet wounds—after 122 hours with the increasingly unstable terrorists, 86 civilians had been rescued in an unqualified success. Shortly thereafter, the West German government announced that it would never negotiate with terrorists again, several leading Red Army Faction terrorists committed suicide, and GSG-9 became a model for counter-terror units around the world surpassing even their own Israeli mentors.