The GSG-9 Counter-terrorism Team

A precursor to the more recently created KSK, there was a team of soldiers created in the Federal Republic of Germany to deal with counter-terrorism at a time when the primary fear of many people was that of a Third World War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. That unit continues to exist today, and aside from enjoying increased attention due to video games is still considered one of the world’s best teams in the field. That unit is the GSG-9.

A terrorist during the Munich Massacre
A terrorist during the Munich Massacre

During the 1972 Summer Olympic Games that were being held in Munich, West Germany, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage in their apartment building by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September with some support by German neo-Nazis. Unfortunately, at the time West Germany (despite being on the front lines of the Cold War) had no police unit specially trained to deal with hostage crises, or terrorism in general. This led to a failed rescue attempt by the German police which saw all the Israeli athletes murdered, and all but three of the Palestinians killed.

To prevent another horrible attack like the Munich Massacre, the German Bundesgrenzschutzes (Federal Border Police) created a special unit called Grenzschutzgruppe 9, or Border Protection Group 9 on April 17th, 1973. The order to create the unit was given by Federal Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, although a key individual in the creation the team and making it effective was Colonel Ulrich Wegener. Wegener, who had served in the Bundesgrenzschutzes (and had been drafted into the Luftwaffe at age 15 during World War II) was tasked with establishing the tactics and training in order to shape GSG-9 into something special, and modeled the team after the Israeli special forces unit Sayeret Matkal.

GSG-9 patch depicting soldiers riding an Iroquois helicopter
GSG-9 patch depicting soldiers riding an Iroquois helicopter

Unlike the KSK, which is commanded by the Bundeswehr (Federal Defense), the GSG-9 is commanded by the Bundesgrenzschutzes and is more police-oriented rather than military. As such, the team can be authorized into action by the Bundesgrenzschutzes, the Bundeskriminalamt or Federal Criminal Investigation Office, the Landeskriminalamt or State Criminal Police Agencies, the Zollkriminalamt or Customs Office, and the Auswartigen Amt or Foreign Office. In terms of what GSG-9 is capable of, the Bundesgrenzschutzes states:

“GSG-9 develops and tests methods, tactics and techniques as well as command and operational resources for the fight against violent crime on the basis of police situations up to operational readiness. The unit is used in complex and/or dangerous situations such as hostage situations, kidnappings or extortions.”

Even though that description does reiterate the team’s specialty for hostage situations, GSG-9 is also trained to deal with potential assassinations on VIPs, bomb threats, sniper operations, hostage situations on air, land and sea as well as dealing with organized crime and can be deployed both within Germany and to other countries, such as Iraq. Aside from its own training, GSG-9 is sometimes tasked with training other German or foreign special forces, and some operators from GSG-9 even go on to serve with these other teams.

European Anti-Terror Special Forces Joint PresentationCurrently, the unit has somewhere between 200 and 240 operators and is based out of Hangelar, Germany. GSG-9 is divided into eight different units that handle different tasks: the Führungsstab or Command Unit, the Technische Einheit or Technical Unit, the Luk und Dokumentationseinheit, or Communication and Intelligence Unit, the Ausbildungseinheit or Training Unit, and four Einsatzeinheiten, or Assault Units. In order to join GSG-9, applicants must have served in the Bundespolizei (Federal Police) or any German police for at least two years before being able to apply. They are then given medical tests, then physical tests, then psychological tests, a marksmanship test, and finally an interview. If these are all passed successfully, then the applicants must undergo sixteen weeks of basic training which is followed by nine weeks of specialized training. After this, the inductees are sent to train with the counter-terrorism units of other allied nations; by this point usually only one in every five applicants makes it into GSG-9.

Since the creation of GSG-9, the team has carried out over 1,500 operations, with only five requiring the firing of their weapons. Of particular note is the GSG-9’s efforts against the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist organization although operations have been carried out against multiple foes. For example, Operation Fire Magic was conducted in 1977 after four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a Lufthansa flight and eventually landed it in Mogadishu, Somalia. The operation was a success, in which all eighty-six passengers were rescued safely and three hijackers were killed, while the fourth was captured.

While the Munich Massacre was indeed a tragedy, it is fortunate that the German government not only learned from its mistakes but was able to form a special forces unit that has become one of the leading anti-terrorism units in the world.

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