The GSG 9 der Bundespolizei (originally the German abbreviation of Grenzschutzgruppe 9 or Border Guard Group 9) is the elite counter-terrorism and special operations unit of the German Federal Police.
In 1972, the Palestinian terrorist movement Black September used the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, to kidnap 11 Israeli athletes, killing two in the Olympic Village in the initial assault on the athletes’ rooms. The incident tragically culminated when German police, neither trained nor equipped for counter-terrorism operations and underestimating the number of terrorists involved, attempted to rescue the athletes. They failed miserably and the operation led to the deaths of one policeman, five of the eight kidnappers and the remaining nine hostages (subsequently called the Munich massacre). Apart from the human tragedy, Germany’s law enforcement found itself severely embarrassed, in part due to its historic relationship to Jews and Israel.
As a consequence of the incident’s mismanagement, the German government created the GSG 9 under the leadership of then Oberstleutnant Ulrich Wegener so that similar situations in the future could be responded to adequately and professionally. Many German politicians opposed its formation fearing GSG 9 would rekindle memories of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS). The decision was taken to form the unit from police forces as opposed to the military as is the model in other countries on the grounds that German federal law expressly forbids the use of the military forces against the civilian population. Special forces composed of police personnel would reconcile this. The unit was officially established on April 17, 1973 as a part of Germany’s federal police agency, the Bundesgrenzschutz (federal border guard service, renamed Bundespolizei or federal police in 2005). The name GSG 9 stood for Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (border guard group 9) and was chosen simply because the BGS had eight regular border guard groups at the time. After the 2005 renaming, the abbreviation “GSG 9” was kept due to the fame of the unit and is now the official way to refer to the unit. Its formation was based on the expertise of the Israeli Sayeret Matkal.
GSG 9 is deployed in cases of hostage taking, kidnapping, terrorism and extortion. The group may also be used to secure locations, neutralize targets, track down fugitives and sometimes conduct sniper operations. Furthermore, the group is very active in developing and testing methods and tactics for these missions. Finally, the group may provide advice to the different Länder, ministries and international allies. The group assists the Bundespolizei and other federal and local agencies on request. At the time of the 1977 Mogadishu mission, the Commander of the Israeli Border Police Tzvi War described GSG 9 as “The best anti-terrorist group in the world.”
From 1972 to 2003 they reportedly completed over 1,500 missions, discharging their weapons on only five occasions. At the SWAT World Challenge in 2005, GSG 9 won an impressive seven out of seven events, beating 17 other teams. GSG 9 defended its championship the following year, but placed fifth in 2007.
Germany offered to give assistance to India in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. GSG 9 helped train and upgrade the National Security Guards, the primary Indian counter-terrorism unit. Further help was provided to the Mumbai Police so that they could raise a SWAT team.
Its first mission, which is still one of the most well-known and established the GSG 9’s reputation as an elite unit, was “Operation Feuerzauber” (Operation Fire Magic). It was carried out in 1977 when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Landshut, a Lufthansa plane on the way from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt, demanding that imprisoned members of the German “Red Army Faction” terrorist group be freed. The aircraft was then flown to several destinations throughout the Middle East. During this time, the Lufthansa captain Jürgen Schumann was murdered by the leader of the hijackers in Aden. Following a four-day odyssey the hijackers directed the Boeing 737 to Mogadishu, Somalia, where they waited for the arrival of the Red Army Faction members after the German government had (falsely) signaled they would be released. In the night between October 17 and October 18, Somalian ranger units created a distraction, while members of the GSG 9, accompanied by two British SAS operatives as observers, stormed the plane. The operation lasted seven minutes and was successful: all hostages were rescued. Three hijackers died, the fourth was seriously injured. Only one GSG 9 member and one flight attendant were injured. The international counter-terrorism community applauded GSG 9 for the excellent and professional handling of the situation, especially because assaults on planes are considered one of the most difficult scenarios a hostage rescue force could face.
Publicly known missions
October 17, 1977/October 18, 1977: Lufthansa Flight 181 was hijacked by four Arab terrorists demanding the release of Red Army Faction members. GSG 9 officers stormed the aircraft on the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia, with minor help from the Somali Army and British SAS and freed all 86 hostages, killing three terrorists and capturing the last one.
1982: Arrest of RAF terrorists Mohnhaupt and Schulz.
June 27, 1993: Arrest of RAF terrorists Birgit Hogefeld and Wolfgang Grams in Bad Kleinen. The theory that Wolfgang Grams was executed in revenge for the death of GSG 9 operative Michael Newrzella during the mission (Grams had shot and killed Newrzella when Newrzella tried to tackle him) was discredited by the official investigation which found that Grams committed suicide.
1993: Ending of the hijacking of a KLM flight from Tunis to Amsterdam, redirected to Düsseldorf, without firing a single shot.
1994: Ended a hostage situation in the Kassel Penitentiary.
1994: Involved in the search for the kidnappers Albert and Polak.
1998: Arrest of a man trying to extort money from the German railway company Deutsche Bahn.
1999: Arrest of Metin Kaplan in Cologne.
1999: Arrest of two suspected members of the Rote Zellen (Red Cells) in Berlin.
1999: Involved in ending the hostage situation in the central bank in Aachen.
2000: Advised the Philippines in relation to a hostage situation.
2001: Arrested two spies in Heidelberg.
2001: Assisted in the liberation of four German tourists in Egypt.
2002: Arrested a number of terrorists related to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
2003: Protection of the four members of the German Technisches Hilfswerk (THW – the governmental disaster relief organization of Germany) in Baghdad, Iraq. The THW’s mission was to repair the water distribution network.
2004: GSG 9 is responsible for protecting German embassy property and personnel, including the embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. On April 7, 2004 two members were attacked and killed near Fallujah while in a convoy travelling from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad. The men, aged 25 and 38, were travelling in a car at the rear of the convoy, and therefore received most of the enemy fire after passing the ambush. The men were shot after their armoured Mitsubishi Pajero/Shogun was hit and stopped by RPGs. In a later statement, the attackers apologized for mistaking the German convoy for an American convoy. One of the bodies is still missing.
2007: Three suspected terrorists were seized on Tuesday, 4 September 2007 for planning huge bomb attacks on targets in Germany. The bombs they were planning to make would have had more explosive power than those used in the Madrid and London terror attacks. They wanted to build a bomb in southern Germany capable of killing as many as possible. Fritz Gelowicz, 29, Adem Yilmaz, 29 and Daniel Schneider, 22, were charged with membership in a terrorist organization, making preparations for a crime involving explosives and, in Schneider’s case, attempted murder.
2009: The GSG 9 were on the verge of boarding a German freighter, the Hansa Stavanger, which had been kidnapped by Somali pirates. The case of the Hansa Stavanger, this time off the Somali coast seemed sufficiently symbolic to justify another potentially successful rescue operation, though on a much larger scale. More than 200 GSG 9, equipped with helicopters, speedboats and advanced weapons, had been secretly brought, via Kenya, to a location 80 kilometres (50 mi) from the German freighter. The Americans had lent the Germans one of their ships, the USS Boxer (LHD-4), to use as their flagship in the planned attack—and a fleet of German Navy vessels flanked the enormous helicopter carrier. The ships had been patrolling near the Hansa Stavanger for days, waiting just beyond the horizon to evade detection on the pirates’ radar screens. But the commandos were called off before the rescue effort could begin. US National Security Advisor James L. Jones had called the Chancellery to cancel the operation. The US government, worried that the operation could turn into a suicide mission, was sending the USS Boxer back to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where the German forces were to disembark. Officials at the German Federal Police headquarters in Potsdam, outside Berlin, concerned about the potential for a bloodbath, had also spoken out against the operation.
Note: The majority of this unit’s missions are confidential and public information is not available. Since the founding of the GSG 9 the group has participated in over 1500 missions, yet reportedly fired shots only on five occasions (official count, prior to the 2003 Iraq War). These occasions were Mogadishu in 1977, Bad Kleinen in 1993, Aachen in 1999 and two more missions where firearms were used to shoot dogs of the persons being arrested.
The unit forms part of the German Bundespolizei (Federal Police, formerly Bundesgrenzschutz), and thus has normal police powers, including, for example, the power of arrest. The Federal Police of Germany (and thus the GSG 9) is under the control of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. The Bundespolizei also provides aerial transportation for the GSG 9. In contrast, regular police forces are subordinate to the various States or Länder, as are their Spezialeinsatzkommando (SEK) teams, while the military is responsible for the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) (Special Forces command) and the Kampfschwimmer.
The GSG 9 is based in Sankt Augustin-Hangelar near Bonn and consists of three main sub-groups, plus a number of support groups:
The first sub-group of the GSG 9 is used for regular land-based counter-terrorism actions. This may involve cases of hostage taking, kidnapping, terrorism or extortion. The group may also be used to secure locations, neutralize targets, sniping and tracking fugitives.
The second sub-group of the GSG 9 is used for operations at sea, for example the hijacking of ships or oil platforms.
The third sub-group of the GSG 9 is used for airborne operations, including parachuting and helicopter landings.
This unit supports other units in gaining entry to target areas and is responsible for the procurement, testing and issuance of non-weapon equipment. The members of the technical unit are also explosive ordinance disposal experts. They are trained in the rendering safe and disposal of improvised explosive devices
This service group maintains the GSG 9 armoury and is involved in testing, repairing and purchasing weapons, ammunition, and explosives.
This unit handles communications, including the testing, repairing and purchasing of communications and surveillance equipment.
Handles the administration of GSG 9.
This unit trains existing members, and selects, recruits and trains new members.
Members of the Bundespolizei and other German police services with two years of service can join the GSG 9. The 22-week training period includes thirteen weeks of basic training and nine weeks of advanced training. Besides medical tests there are many physical requirements, for example running 5000 meters in 23 minutes and jumping a distance of at least 4.75 meters (also rule for German Sports Badge). The identity of GSG 9 members is classified as top secret. Further training often involves co-operation with other allied counter-terrorism units. Only one in five pass the training course. They have also been noted to train with Hong Kong’s Special Duties Unit and United States’ S.W.A.T Officers.