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Cover Story

Euro Counter-Terrorism

From Munich to today’s headline news, these teams prompted a revolution in counter-terrorism response.

April 01, 2001  |  by Eitan Meyr

A member of the Italian “GIS” armed with the 9mm H&K MP5 SMG. Note the special flashlight/foregrip combination used on this specific weapon.

The terrorist attack on the Israeli team during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and the failure to rescue the hostages clearly showed how poorly trained and equipped the police forces in Europe were for dealing with terrorists and how urgently new tactics were needed.

Modern urban terrorism, manifested by aircraft hijackings, embassy occupations and hostage taking, was a new and unfamiliar phenomenon for most of the police forces around the world. They had no experience in this type of warfare and there was no special formation to handle these incidents.

Conventional police forces deployed in large and normally slow-to-react formations were not capable of dealing with small, clandestine terrorist cells, striking swiftly and melting into the civil scenery. Moreover, massive and undiscriminating firepower for suppressing terrorists was unsuitable for use in delicate situations where civilian hostages were held at gun-point.

There was a need for a new type of special police unit to be used in the tactical fight against terrorists. A new concept was devised, dictating the creation of an outfit characterized by:

1. Flexible command and structure enabling rapid reaction to quickly changing situations.
2. Special tactical training applicable to different terrorist scenarios.
3. Skillful and professional operators with proper personal traits.
4. Employment of special weapon systems and equipment designed specifically for the new tasks.

Consequently, specialized tactical police intervention and response units have been created first in Europe and later, based upon their operational experience, also in other parts of the world.

The majority of the new police units were established within one or both of the following law enforcement organizations:

1. National Gendarmeries (French "GIGN"; Belgian "Diane"; Austrian "Cobra", Spanish Civil Guard's "UEI"; German Border Guard's "GSG9"; Italian Carabinieri's "GIS").
2.National Police forces (French "RAID"; Italian "NOCS"; Spanish "GEO";  Israeli "YAMAM").

The newly developed Counter-Terrorist (CT) and Hostage-Rescue-Units (HRU), as they became known, were given the task of leading the tactical fight against terrorism and, as such, were allocated the following missions:

1. Intervention in extreme terrorist attacks involving hijacking and kidnapping.
2. Supporting other security agencies in dealing with severe violent acts, including homicide, extortion and bomb attacks.
3. Protecting vital national assets, providing VIP protective services to key  government personnel and protection of official guests of the state.

Organization and Training

Thorough study of the methods, tactical operations and internal organization of various terrorist groups was the basis for the structure and training of the new police CT units.

The basic structure found in most of these outfits follows a similar pattern that includes a headquarters unit, three to four combat units, a training unit, a support unit (engineers, divers, communication experts, etc.) and logistical services. In some cases an integral or attached aerial wing (mostly helicopters) might also exist.

The combat units regularly consist of a command element and a varied number of combat teams (four to five men each) that might be deployed in various operational mixtures.

The training programs adopted by most of the CT units are normally very intensive and rigorous, designed with the intention of developing the combat skills needed in the fight against terrorists.

Basic-level training is typically comprised of intensive physical training (martial arts and close-combat), tactical operations training, combat shooting from different positions, target practice and rappelling.

Advanced, and more specialized training, is largely dedicated to team-work exercises that include anti-hijack training, storming buildings (CQB), aircraft and vehicles, airborne unit training, high-speed driving, firing out of moving cars and helicopters and instruction of specialists (snipers, divers, explosives experts).

Weapons and Special Equipment

Besides training, specialized weapons and equipment are a cornerstone in the fight against terrorism. To a large extent, the most important "tools of the trade" found in the arsenals of the police CT units are the SMG, the sniper-rifle, the semi-auto pistol and the fighting shotgun.

In most of the CT engagements, the SMG is regularly preferred to assault rifles as the main attack weapon. The SMG is lighter and more compact and, consequently, easier to handle. This is especially appreciated when the user has to move in confined spaces or requires minimum encumbrance from the weapon in order to carry on other tasks. The SMG is easier to control in burst firing and at short ranges (100m or less) it is sufficiently accurate.

At first, the different versions of the Israeli UZI SMG were the most popular among CT units who were looking for a compact and reliable weapon that can take almost any rough treatment. Later on, the various models of the German Heckler & Koch MP5 family began enjoying universal success after being adopted by the German and British units. The most appreciated aspects of the closed-breech firing weapon were its stability in burst firing and the ease with which different types of accessories such as optical and laser sights and noise dampers could be fitted to it.

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