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Jordan’s Black September, 1970

In 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists shocked the world by kidnapping eleven Israeli athletes during the Summer Olympics in Munich. They called themselves Black September. This name has its roots in the infamous “Black September” of 1970: a month of bloody fighting in Jordan between the forces of Jordanian King Hussein bin Talal and Palestinian separatists groups such as the Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The seeds of this conflict were sowed over twenty years earlier in 1948 with the First Arab-Israeli War, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Many of these refugees ended up in the West Bank, which was annexed by Jordan in 1950. Over the next two decades, Palestinian discontent both with Jordanian rule and their Israeli neighbors would continue to mount.

This would come to a head in 1967 during the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab states. Israeli forces seized the West Bank, causing many Palestinians to flee into Jordan. Militant groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Fatah would take advantage of this situation to form a Palestinian “state within a state” in Jordan, which had frequent clashes with both the Jordanians and Israelis.

Tensions within Jordan finally burst in September of 1970. A week after the failed assassination of King Hussein on September 1, four airliners would be hijacked by the PFLP in both a show of strength and a move to gain international attention. Martial law was declared in Jordan shortly after, and the rest of the month involved heavy fighting between the Jordanian military and Palestinian militants, who were briefly aided by the Syrian Army. By summer of 1971, all Palestinian forces had been expelled from Jordan and fled into Lebanon.

The events of Black September and its aftermath were witnessed by many officials at the Department of State, and their stories are told in interviews that were conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Horace Torbert between 1989 and 2000. Robert Curran and Morris Draper, who were stationed in Amman during the 1960s, describe the unrest within the country that set the stage for Black September. L. Dean Brown then recalls his experience replacing Harry Symmes as Ambassador to Jordan just as fighting broke out in the country. Finally, a different perspective is given by Edward Abington, who monitored the situation while at the State Department.

You can read about the clash Ambassador Symmes had with Jordan’s King Hussein in 1970 that resulted in his being declared persona non grata. This is the account of the Black September assassination of the U.S. ambassador and DCM in Khartoum in 1973. Go here to read other Moments on the Middle East.


“Our diplomacy was at best keeping a lid on an uncertain kettle”

Robert Theodore Curran, Assistant Cultural Attaché, Amman, Jordan, 1961-1962

CURRAN: I would say the only downsides of [Jordan] were the huge refugee camps of Palestinians who had fled from or been chased out of Israeli-controlled territory, and the Palestinians on the West Bank, most of whom were, of course, very unhappy with the idea of a State of Israel right next door and almost equally unhappy with being managed by the King of Jordan, whom they regarded as a foreigner.

The Palestinians in that area, in the Jordan-Israeli area, were a powder keg waiting to explode. The biggest camp was called Aqabat-Jaber. I think there were 100,000 people living there, and they had nothing to do but breed and listen to broadcasts. We are talking about [Egyptian President Gamal] Nasser broadcasts.

And the level of emotion went higher and higher. When the ’67 War pulled all the plugs on the means of keeping refugees quiet, and more Palestinians were dispersed into the region, a lot of them went to Jordan and a lot of them went to Beirut. In both cases, this turned out to be a threat. So it was the period from, say, ’67 to ’80 that the pot boiled over in many places. Our diplomacy was at best keeping a lid on an uncertain kettle.

“They swaggered down the street, behaving pretty badly in many respects”

Morris Draper, Political Counselor, Amman, 1968-1970

DRAPER: The country when I arrived was living under martial law, suffering from major economic dislocations, trying to absorb a new flood of refugees from the 1967 War. It was also trying to rebuild its army. El Fatah, headed by Yasser Arafat, had taken over control of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].

It had gained some prestige from its operation against the Israelis and it became a powerful force within Jordan–sort of a third force consisting of tens of thousands of armed fighters. They lived in Jordan and trained there. They swaggered down the street, behaving pretty badly in many respects. They controlled total areas of Jordan, including parts of the city of Amman. They operated their own system of justice; they constituted a powerful threat to the stability of the monarchy.

They also were a target for retaliation from Israel for the raids that they engendered. In fact, one of the little known facts of this period is how often the Israelis flew strikes and dropped bombs on the outskirts of Amman. I remember one picnic we had in an apple orchard with some Jordanian friends watching the Israelis dive-bomb targets about a mile from where we were.

The Jordan Valley itself was practically empty because of the threat from Israel and because of the problem of getting water. The many development projects we had financed in the past were, if not in ruins, seriously underutilized. This was the richest Jordanian farm and it lay fallow primarily because the Palestinian resistance fighters were moving across the Valley and the River causing the Israelis to patrol the area and shooting at anything that moved. It was not widely known or reported that the Israelis killed some perfectly innocent people–landowners who would want to see their farms would drive in and be bombed or strafed by an Israeli plane.

From the Israeli point of view, however, since the area was controlled militarily by the Palestinians and since it contained only a few well known Jordanian army positions, everything outside those positions was hostile and therefore the Valley was a battleground. In the process, of course, the Jordanians lost all their banana groves, their vegetable crops and other farm developments which had been financed by the United States. The whole situation was a big problem for Jordan.

The major problem however was the one that got [U.S. Ambassador] Harry Symmes kicked out of the country. He had been telling the Jordanians that they had to get control of the Palestinians or continue to be at the mercy of the Israelis and suffer from their retaliations. This was of course quite true, but the Jordanians didn’t like to hear the lecture…

The United States had to put on a balancing act. On the one hand, we wanted King Hussein to be strong enough to resist the Palestinians and overcome them, if a threat developed. For that, he needed police weapons, weapons for his army, training, helicopters; he had very little money to pay for this equipment. The Saudis were not subsidizing him to the extent he had hoped; they were afraid of the Palestinian reaction.

Our military equipment supply policies were limited by the efforts of the Israeli lobby. Throughout all of this, we were supporting the concept articulated in [UN] Security Council Resolution No. 242–“Territory for Peace”. UN emissaries and others were trying to get some life into the peace process. That was the major occupation of all our diplomats in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. We were experimenting with new ideas, some of which, such as a partial Sinai fallback, were adopted by [National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger later.

We had our own emissaries coming to the region — people like [Under Secretary of State] George Ball, [Assistant Secretary of NEA] Joe Sisco and others, all with their own formulas. On the whole, they were acceptable to King Hussein, but they didn’t get very far. He himself was preoccupied by the budding Palestinian threat. Then of course the Palestinian did challenge the King in summer, 1970.

“I was held captive by a Palestinian group for a couple of days in June”

That challenge took two forms. At one point, the Palestinians had become so arrogant that ordinary Jordanian citizens were being stopped at checkpoints; there was a lot of looting and robbery, some rapes, which is rare in Arab societies. The Palestinians had developed a state within a state. It was the way Lebanon became later after the Palestinian fighters fled to Lebanon from Jordan. They set up their own state within a state there as well. In Jordan during the late ‘60s, the nominal peace was becoming more and more fragile because the temper of the Jordanian army was becoming increasingly anti-Palestinian.

Many of the senior generals–Bedouins–were anti-Palestinian anyway and deeply resented the Palestinians’ successes, especially in the economic sphere. The tensions had been growing steadily toward the end of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

I myself was held captive by a Palestinian group for a couple of days in June 1970….On the day of the incident, I was driving in the evening to meet a friend of mine, who was also a source, when I was stopped at a roadblock.

Unfortunately, I had a map of the area with me to help me locate this friend. This made the Palestinians suspicious; so they took me to one of their local hangouts. It turned out that these fighters were a cell in George Habash’s group—The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLA) — a part of the PLO network, but not in its main stream. Habash (pictured) is a Christian and considered one of the more radical Palestinian leaders.

So this cell held me for a sort of a ransom — they wanted King Hussein to dismiss the Army Chief of Staff and the head of the Intelligence Directorate. Both were outspoken foes of the Palestinians.

Hussein was opposed to such demands. He said that if I wasn’t returned right away, he would destroy that part of Amman where the resistance was centered. So I was released in a complicated pick-up and delivery operation. The next day, real warfare broke out between the Jordanian Army and the PLO forces, mainly in Amman but also in some of the garrison towns in the east as well.

This flare-up only gradually cooled down; during it more Americans were briefly taken hostage. In a very unusual occurrence, one American woman was raped. Some of the Palestinian gangs spilled over into the suburbs, creating great concern among people living there, including Americans.

So we evacuated most of the Americans with the exception of a handful of Embassy staffers. We had to put people into sanctuaries, like the Italian Embassy. The Egyptian Ambassador and others provided sanctuary for some of our people. We worked through the Red Cross to get aircraft into Amman so that we could evacuate people. It was very touch and go.

King Hussein was isolated in his palace with some of his entourage. None could leave. We couldn’t communicate with each other except by walkie-talkie and an occasional phone. As these episodes do, they sort of die down; cease-fires were established and matters returned to something like normalcy. We brought some of the dependents back, but only after a debate in the Embassy. Some thought that this was the first stage of what would be a major show-down; others thought that peace would be restored for a while.

Q: What your estimation was at the time of King Hussein?

DRAPER: We thought he was pretty wishy-washy much of the time. We had a lot of sympathy for him. He has always been a favorite of lot of Americans, although they at the same time they told jokes at his expense.

We always referred to Hussein as the BLK (Brave Little King), which had a certain tone of disparagement. He was criticized in private for his colossal mistakes — e.g. the 1967 war. There were people who thought that he deserved the defeat he got. There was also the feeling that he might not be strong enough to withstand another challenge to his throne. We were constantly measuring the opposition and his own strength of will…(Go here to read Secretary James Baker’s assessment of Hussein in the run-up to the Madrid Peace Conference.)

“The President said, “Keep me informed. I don’t want that State Department garbage.”

L. Dean Brown, Ambassador to Jordan, 1970-1973

BROWN: I guess I was back on leave or consultation [in Washington] or something. I was wandering around, and I was called in, first of all, by [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs] Joe Sisco, who said he wanted to see me. He said, “Dean, you’re going to go to Beirut as ambassador.”

I said, “I don’t know anything about the Middle East.”

He said, “That’s the idea.”

Then I went around seeing some people that I knew, saying, “What’s going on?” They said, “Well, the President and Henry Kissinger are fed up with the reporting from the Middle East. They don’t understand a word of it. All these people are experts, Arabists, and it’s all too long and too complicated…”

I was called and told to report to San Clemente [Richard Nixon’s residence in Southern California] and not stop in Washington. The President was out at San Clemente. So naturally, I stopped in Washington. They said, “All the signals have been changed. You’re going to go to Jordan and Bill Buffum is going to go to Beirut, and there are going to be some other changes.”

I said, “Is that why I’m going out there?”

They said, “We assume so.”

So I went out there. Thank God somebody told me, because when we got out there, President Nixon grabbed me and said, “Now, what are we going to do about Jordan?” We walked around the lawn there, the President striding, with me trying to keep up with him.

He thought somebody would have told me, that I knew something about it. All I knew about it was what I had read in the papers, but that’s usually good enough…The President said, “Keep me informed. Remember what I need. I don’t want that State Department garbage. Keep me informed.” So that’s what I did. I mean, I ended up, at times, writing cables to go to the President, and making sure something also went to the State Department….

So, I went out and shot off to Jordan… [to replace] Harry Symmes, who hadn’t been there for months. He had been — well, politely, PNGed [declared persona non grata] by the King. He was an Arabist, and had offended the King saying Jordan wasn’t safe to visit…He left in the spring after some bad riots that had taken place in Jordan. Among other things, they had burned up Harry Symmes’s car, which made him very cross. I wouldn’t blame him; it was a nice Lincoln (Laughs)….(Read about others who were PNG’ed)

When I arrived there, I couldn’t even get into the country. I flew, instead, to Beirut with my wife and installed her with friends to sit there and wait. She waited there for many months. I flew down under a false move. I drove by the embassy and then said, “Let’s go to the house and I’ll leave my bags.” I went to the house; I looked at it, soldiers around. I looked at the people around and I said, “Leave the bags in the car.” I went back to the embassy, unpacked in the embassy, which we didn’t get out of for several weeks because the war started within about 24 or 36 hours.

“You could get shot at from any direction”

This was the big Black September of 1970. That embassy was under fire. They shot every window out of the place. I’m glad I never went to the house, because I finally got to the house sometime later and it was really blown up.

I didn’t live in the old embassy residence for about nine months. I rented a house. We also moved the chancery. The old one was a bit shot up. It was located right in the middle of an area where the various factions such as Fatah, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], the PFLPGC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command], and the PLO were located. All these people had separate headquarters and separate machine guns and bombs and all of that. You could get shot at from any direction.

They were shooting at the [Jordanian] Army. What was fascinating was that up until that moment, the King had catered, in a sense, to the Palestinians. He had agreed that they could set up these headquarters; they could have troops there, and all that. The governments, the prime ministers, were Palestinians of leftist nature.

But that wasn’t enough for the Palestinian leftists and ordered it a general strike. They called on the Army and the Air Force to desert, and that was it. That finished the game. The King just said, “Fine. We’ll kick out the civilian government and put in a temporary military government.”

In the city of Amman, for instance, downtown was forbidden territory to the Army or to the government people. They governed from the edges of town. But the real thing is, the soldiers didn’t desert. The general strike didn’t work. The people did not leave the Army.

There were two divisions that were almost all Palestinian, and not one man deserted. Some of the Air Force non-coms [non-commissioned officers] deserted, about 200, and that’s about all. So it broke the real strength of the Palestinian claim that they could take over that country anytime they wanted. It was a very courageous act on [King Hussein’s] part.

One reason he did it, just shortly before I arrived, he went to review one of the largely Bedouin armored outfits. From the antenna on the top of the commander’s tank was hanging a brassiere. The King said, “What’s that for?” And the commander replied, “If we’re going to behave like women, we might as well dress like them.”

Now, a king has a hard time taking that, and the King said, “I understand.” And that’s when things changed. But that’s the way it happens in those little Arab countries, dramatic things…

When I arrived I had to reduce staff quickly. There was one plane leaving in the afternoon, I ordered about half the staff to depart. I just went, “You, you, you, go.” Then I said to the rest of them, “You come to the embassy; you stay at home with your two-way radio. We’ve got to have outside people.”

So [only] the political officers in the embassy are left, some of them on the outside, some on the inside. Same with the CIA, same with the military. So that we had good, experienced people on the outside, and we were in touch with each other by radio and they could get in touch with me. So a couple of them were able to get in touch with the King and the military headquarters where the King was. So we were in touch.

We also had a little police post nearby, which still operated. Our embassy was protected by Bedouin soldiers, about 25 of them, and several of them were wounded in the war. No one was killed, fortunately. But we did have communications, so I was in direct touch, of course, with the State Department by radio. I was also in touch with Beirut and Tel Aviv by Single side-band, and then we had our walkie-talkies. The King had one of our walkie-talkies and I could talk to him. But we had to be careful as the rebels also had walkie-talkies….

We finally got out of the embassy and they sent a column of tanks in, and Hume Horan, my political man, and I went to see the King. We didn’t get back to that embassy for a couple of weeks. We opened up another embassy. Then about three weeks later, Zaid al-Rifai, who was with the King, called me up to say, “Dean, it’s time for you to present your letters of credential.” I said, “Yeah, I guess we’ve forgotten about that.”

So I and the senior staff put on suit and tie, and went to see the King. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in a tie. He said, “This is a very formal ceremony. I’m wearing a tie.” We handed the papers over and then went on to business…

He was charming to work with, and the Jordanians were very good. The Prime Minister was Wasfi Tel, later murdered in Cairo by Palestinians. He was a strong man; he had to be. The war didn’t end in September. It lasted to next spring.

I give the King high marks [for establishing] a good relationship with the United States. I give very high marks to President Nixon, who understood the problems. Practically the first message I had from him was, “The minute you can see the King again, pass him this personal message. I haven’t discussed it with anyone. I want him to know that we will make up every loss he’s had in the way of military equipment in fighting this and fighting the Syrians.” (The Syrians had invaded Jordan at that time).

You know, to be able to go and say, “He hasn’t even gone to the Congress. He just said this is his commitment to you.” Then within a couple of days, I was able to go back again to him and say, “And we will help you modernize your forces. Yes, this is a commitment. We won’t talk about money yet. This is just a commitment that the President will go and get the money to modernize your forces,” which was very important. They really had some pretty poor stuff.

We’d [also] had large ordinary economic programs there before the revolution. I had gotten rid of all the AID [Agency for International Development] people in the embassy. There weren’t any after September. I was the only ambassador, I guess, who’s ever been AID chief. I got myself appointed the AID chief and made FSO [Foreign Service Officer] Bill Wolle, who was the economic officer, my deputy to run the [new] AID program.

We could do anything at that time with AID, because we could just get the White House to make phone calls. Each time I would always say to the Crown Prince and to the Director of the Central Bank and to the head of the Planning Commission, all of whom were still around, say to them, “I’m a serious man on these things. Don’t give me any silly ideas. Let’s not have any projects that will be in the funny papers. I don’t want that. We don’t want that reputation. You want to be able to go back every time you see the President and say, ‘We are using your aid intelligently,’ in contrast to some other places. Every single project has meaning to it.” And it did.

“It was very questionable whether Hussein was going to make it or not”

Edward Abington, Junior Desk Officer for Jordan, 1970-1972

ABINGTON: I joined the Jordan desk as a junior desk officer in August of 1970 just a few weeks before the multiple hijackings which occurred on Labor Day and then led to Black September.

At that point, the situation in Jordan was very tense. There had been an assistant Army attaché that had been assassinated in Amman by Palestinians. They had come up to his house and shot him, killed him in his house. There had been a drawdown of the embassy.

Despite his ill-considered decision to join [Egypt’s Abdul] Nasser in the ’67 War, Hussein was looked upon as someone who the U.S. could deal with; a friend of the West, a friend of the United States, anti-Soviet. There was very deep concern that Palestinians could overthrow the Hashemite regime [of Jordan] and you would have a very unstable situation with the PLO taking over the East Bank, that it would become open to Soviet influence and perhaps Soviet presence. Quite clearly the stakes were felt to be extremely high.

The feeling was that it was very questionable whether Hussein was going to make it or not. I certainly think that that was the feeling in the NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] front office with people like Joe Sisco and [Deputy Assistant Secretary for NEA] Roy Atherton. It was also a time when Soviet involvement in Egypt was increasing.

The War of Attrition, the artillery duels were heating up. The Israelis started carrying out penetration bombing of Egypt. The Egyptians had increasingly appealed for better Soviet fighter jets. Eventually the Soviet pilots started flying combat missions over Egypt and engaging in air clashes with Israeli fighter pilots. It was a time of danger and turmoil in the Middle East. The proximate cause was the Arab-Israeli conflict but the backdrop was the U.S.-Soviet competition over the Middle East….

Q: This was when the PLO high-jacked three planes.

ABINGTON: That’s correct. I think it was the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by George Habash…On Labor Day I had been out and I got home and there was a phone call from [Country Director for Jordan] Talcott Seelye. He said there had been these multiple hijackings. He asked if I would come in and pull the graveyard shift in the Operations Center. They were setting up a task force.

At that point, the State Department and the Operations Center had not had experience in setting up a task force and in running a situation like this. Here you had multiple aircraft high-jacked, increasing turmoil in the streets of Amman, a new ambassador, Dean Brown…

My role was to liaise with the families and the representatives of TWA [Trans World Airlines] and to brief them, to talk to them – it was almost like a consular role – and to feed them information such as we knew about the well-being of the passengers. The PFLP destroyed the airplanes, blew them up at Dawson’s Landing [near Zarka, Jordan], and then took the passengers and brought them to various places.

It was an extraordinarily tense period because fighting had broken out between the Palestinians, the PLO, and the Jordanians. People did not know the whereabouts or well-being of the passengers. There were a number of Jewish Americans who were held captive. People were deeply concerned….

“The Syrian army crossed the border with tanks”

Communications were uncertain between the embassy in Amman and the State Department. When the fighting really broke out, it was in the area where the embassy was located so that our diplomats could not get out. But we managed to be in touch with some of the hostages and some of the PLO groups. Some of them were held in the old Philadelphia Hotel not far from the embassy. Embassy officers managed to get there, talk to George Habash and other people… As the hostages eventually were released, we returned to the fighting and monitoring it.

The hijackings [had] provided the catalyst for the confrontation between the Jordanians and the PLO. I spent 3 or 4 months working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day in the Operations Center first with the hijacking, then with the civil war and the threat of Syrian invasion of Lebanon and then the Israelis with U.S. urging, Kissinger working with [Israeli] Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin to really put the pressure on the Syrians to keep them out of Jordan.

The [Syrian] army actually crossed the Syrian-Jordan border with tanks [on September 18, 1970]. King Hussein was increasingly frantic and was calling for U.S. and Israeli air strikes in order to fend off the Syrians. But as it turned out, the Jordanian army fought hard. They carried out a tank battle against the Syrians and defeated them. The Syrians withdrew back across the border.

Meanwhile, Kissinger was masterminding this with Yitzhak Rabin. The Israelis made it very clear that if Syria were to invade Jordan, Israel would look upon this as a threat to its security and would act against Syria. The threats made by Israel, the action of the Jordanian military, and the very strong statements both publicly and privately by Kissinger and Nixon defused what could have been a situation that could have sucked the U.S. and the Soviets into something.

I was [in the Operations Center] when Sisco and [Deputy Assistant Secretary for NEA Alfred] Atherton would come up. It was a small group that was running this whole thing. I was right there in the middle of it, occasionally writing end comments for Sisco or Atherton. I recall being in a room when Secretary [William] Rogers came in and we set up a live teletype conference between Dean Brown in Amman and Secretary Rogers.

Communications then were still relatively primitive compared to today. You didn’t have voice communication because of the fighting. The only way that they could communicate real time was to have a communicator in Washington typing out the question for the Secretary and a communicator on the other end with Dean Brown there answering the question or giving his assessment. I think as a junior officer, a first-tour officer, one cannot ask for a more exciting initial tour in the State Department unless you’re in Amman on the ground….

The fighting went on for some time, maybe as long as a year, as the Jordanian army gradually mopped up and expelled Palestinian units from Jordan. By and large, these units ended up in Lebanon. Then there was kind of the reconstruction effort.

After the fighting, the United States put together an aid package and tried to help put things back together in Jordan. I was involved in all these phases. First, it was the hijackings. Then it was the monitoring of the fighting and trying to ensure that the Jordanians were staying on top of the situation and not being threatened. And then working on the aid program, bringing in food and medicine and reconstruction. That took about 6 months.