Remembering the Arab Scare: America’s Response to the Munich Olympic Attacks 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago, on September 5, 1972, Palestinian nationalist militants from the Black September organization stunned the world with an attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. Satellite television turned the hostage-taking siege into an international live-action news drama, which reached a bloody climax in the deaths of a police officer, five militants, and all the Israeli hostages. The incident was a watershed that raised new global fears of international terrorism. 

The following is an excerpt from Daniel S. Chard’s book Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism, which uncovers new details on the U.S. government’s domestic response to the Munich attack: an “Arab Scare” that included FBI use of illegal break-ins and harassment of countless Arabs and Arab Americans. These actions forged a template for the government’s post 9/11 targeting of Muslim Americans. 

The FBI’s top officials, L. Patrick Gray and Mark Felt, asserted that the Arabs and Arab Americans they targeted after Munich were foreign “assassins” and “terrorists,” and that the bureau successfully “harassed” them “out of the country.” Though the threat of Palestinian nationalist violence was real, these were gross exaggerations that served to whitewash the FBI’s harassment of innocent people.

Among those targeted by the Arab scare, the FBI’s post-Munich harassment of Arab Americans and Arab students in the United States is typically remembered as “Operation Boulder”: the obscure name for the State Department’s program of intensified screening of visa applications from people of Arab descent, lasting from September 1972 to April 1975.

In just over two years of existence, Operation Boulder screened more than 150,000 Arab visas, but only twenty-three applicants were denied entry on security grounds. INS agents also investigated all of the approximately 80,000 Arabs present in the United States on student or visitor visas. By January 1973, INS agents had coerced more than one hundred Arabs to leave the country. However, with one or two possible exceptions discussed below, federal officials did not find any Arabs in the United States who were involved in guerrilla activity.

U.S. officials claimed Operation Boulder was effective in keeping dangerous terrorists out of the country. Arab Americans and their allies, on the other hand, considered the program an example of biased ethnic profiling. The critics had a point. In the name of fighting terrorism, the state sent waves of terror through America’s Arab diasporic communities.

The FBI’s harassment campaign, operating in parallel with Operation Boulder, was at the center of the Arab scare. Numerous Arab Americans recalled their frightening encounters with FBI agents after the Munich attacks. Contrary to claims by Mark Felt and L. Patrick Gray, the vast majority of these individuals were not terrorists.

In the name of fighting terrorism, the state sent waves of terror through America’s Arab diasporic communities.

Consider Ishan Diab, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Chicago who had come to the United States from Palestine at age twelve. When an FBI agent asked him about his views on Fatah, Diab was astounded by his interrogator’s political bias and ignorance of Arab views on Middle Eastern affairs. “Ninety percent of the 15,000 Arabs in the Chicago area sympathize with Fatah!” he replied. FBI agents’ questioning confirmed that the bureau was taking preemptive police action against a broad, stigmatized ethnic community.

Arab American political activists bore the brunt of FBI harassment. FBI agents visited at least thirty-one Detroit-area activists, including most of the prominent political figures in the Arab American enclave of Dearborn, Michigan. Among them was Don Unis, a third-generation Lebanese American activist with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn’s Southend neighborhood. Agents showed Unis photographs of local Arab Americans and asked if they had connections to Palestinian militant groups. Unis recalled the FBI’s questions: “What kind of meetings do you go to and where? Will you cooperate and give information if you know of some terror activities? Do you think the above names are capable of doing terror?”

Panic over a Munich-style attack in the United States also sent FBI agents chasing false leads and phantom terrorists. Declassified FBI documents indicate that on September 12, 1972, special agents mobilized throughout the eastern United States in response to intelligence that Black September militants sought to blow up airliners at an East Coast airport. FBI agents from Boston to San Juan spent forty-eight hours alerting airport security agencies of possible violence and searching for the origins of the intelligence before the New York FBI office determined that the investigation was “the outgrowth of a rumor running rampant the last several days and has no validity whatsoever.” 

Felt and Gray’s claims that the Arab scare prevented planned guerrilla attacks were exaggerations, if not outright lies. Gray, for instance, falsely claimed that Black September’s plot to blow up an airliner at an East Coast U.S. airport was authentic, and that the FBI thwarted it using information obtained from the Dallas break-in. 

Arab American political activists bore the brunt of FBI harassment.

But investigators’ many misrepresentations shouldn’t be taken as proof that there was nothing to investigate. A few scraps of evidence found in the National Archives suggest that the FBI may have foiled at least one potential plotter.

The Dallas Arab Information Center’s director, Seife Wadi, was a Palestinian with a degree from Southern Illinois University. When he sought to come back to Texas after traveling in the Middle East at the time of the Munich attack, the State Department denied him a return visa. Wadi’s successor, Palestinian American Munir Bayoud, later asserted that his predecessor had been out of the country on his honeymoon. However, in their secret documents, FBI officials referred to Wadi as the “leader of Fatah in the United States” and alleged that he was using his travels to gain approval and funding for attacks inside the country. 

Wadi managed to sneak back into the United States in late November using a Qatari diplomatic passport issued to him in Kuwait. The FBI learned of Wadi’s presence in the United States through its tap on the Dallas Arab Information Center’s office phone. At the FBI’s request, officers from the INS arrested Wadi in New York City’s Drake Hotel on December 5. At the urging of federal authorities, he “voluntarily” left the country the next day. 

In reports to the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (CCCT), the FBI hailed Wadi’s deportation as a successful move to preempt Palestinian nationalist terrorism in the United States. Though further documentation of Wadi’s alleged plans remains unavailable, the fact that he had the resolve and resources to surreptitiously enter the country after multiple visa rejections gives some credence to the FBI’s assertions. On the other hand, the fact that federal agents deported Wadi rather than indicting him suggests they may not have possessed solid evidence linking him to a violent plot. It is also entirely possible that the FBI targeted Wadi to impress the CCCT and made inaccurate claims about him to justify its illegal break-ins to the Senate Watergate Committee.

Though the Wadi case remains a mystery, it is clear that a few supporters of the Palestinian cause did attempt attacks in the United States. These individuals managed to bypass Operation Boulder and other preemptive counterterrorism measures. 

In January 1973, a small group of Middle Eastern guerrillas made their way to New York City during Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s visit to the United Nations. PLO-affiliated Iraqi militant Khalid Duhhan Al-Jawary and two accomplices set up three car bombs outside Israeli banks in Manhattan and the El Al terminal at Kennedy Airport. The guerrillas were thwarted, however, not by the FBI’s post-Munich security efforts but by their own mistakes. Faulty design prevented the homemade bombs from detonating, thereby sparing the FBI, Nixon, and other authorities a major crisis.

Later in 1973, assailants with likely connections to the Palestinian struggle carried out a successful attack inside the United States.

Later in 1973, assailants with likely connections to the Palestinian struggle carried out a successful attack inside the United States. Though far less dramatic than the Munich bloodbath, the incident vindicated CCCT and FBI fears that militants would seek to attack Israeli diplomatic personnel. 

The target was Colonel Yosef Alon, a handsome forty-three-year-old Israeli Air Force veteran who served as military attaché for the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. Early in the morning of July 1, Alon and his wife Dvora pulled into the driveway of their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, after returning from a dinner party. As Alon stepped out of his car, a gunman opened up on him with five rounds from a foreign-made .38-caliber revolver. He died on site.

Later that day, a PLO radio broadcast in Cairo took credit for the action. Voice of Palestine broadcasters claimed Alon’s assassination was retaliation for the death of Algerian PFLP commander Mohamed Boudia, whom Mossad agents had slain with a car bomb in Paris a few days earlier.

The CIA initially believed that Alon’s assassination had been carried out by a two-man Black September hit team that managed to slip in and out of the United States. The FBI investigated the case but closed it in 1978 after failing to turn up sufficient evidence. In 2011, however, the bureau reopened the case to follow a lead from Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the notorious Venezuelan militant known as “Carlos the Jackal,” incarcerated in a French prison. Ramírez Sánchez told FBI agents that the attackers were a trio of American Vietnam War veterans. 

The Alon assassination remains unsolved, but whether the assailants were foreign Black September commandos or American vets, the case underscores the limits of counterterrorism. Despite the CCCT, the State Department’s Operation Boulder, INS and FBI investigations, mass surveillance of American dissidents, FBI break-ins, and the harassment of hundreds of Arabs and Arab Americans, determined clandestine operatives still managed to assassinate a prominent Israeli diplomat outside his suburban Washington home. Counterterrorism could certainly counter terrorism, but such policing efforts could neither prevent all insurgent violence nor eliminate its root causes.

Daniel S. Chard is visiting assistant professor of history at Western Washington University.