Note: this is part of a series about America’s first counterterrorism unit. You can read part one here. After staking out the house located at 7700 16th Street, Washington D.C., seven black men made two phone calls to the house from their motel. In the first call, one of the men pretended to be a handyman looking for work. The residents of the house said he should come by around noon to fix the lock on their basement door. Soon after, the men called the house again, this time pretending to be interested in literature for sale by the occupant’s organization. He was told that he could swing by later in the day to purchase some pamphlets (King, 18).
The seven men then drove to the train station to pick up an eighth member of their team. Piling into two Cadillacs, they then drove to the house at 7700 16th street to commit the greatest mass murder in Washington, D.C. history. First, two of the seven men approached the front door asking about the pamphlets. One of the residents answered the door, then asked them to wait while she retrieved them. When she came back, a third man was present, claiming to be the handyman. All three men pushed her aside, and entered the premises, pulling out pistols and sawed off shotguns. The other five associates emerged from the Cadillacs and entered the house behind them (King, 19).
The men burst into the kitchen, waving their weapons around. A young woman feeding her 18-month-old daughter her lunch screamed. “One of the men yelled at her to shut up, then he yanked her daughter from her arms, taking her out of the kitchen” (King, 19) and bringing her upstairs. The seven intruders were upset because the target of their attack was not at home.
“Why are you all doing this to us? What did we do to you?” one of the women asked. “Ask your leader,” one of the gunmen replied. “He knew we would come calling on him; ask him about that letter” (King, 20).
The gunman upstairs heard other children crying and calling for their mommy. He found them in their room. In addition to the 18-month-old girl, there were her cousins, a one-year-old girl, and her three-year-old brother. A nine-day-old infant also lay in a bed wrapped in a blanket. Hearing cries from the other room, the gunman searched the closet and discovered an 11-year-old boy.
Meanwhile, the four adults in the household, two men and two women, were taken down to the basement, laid on the floor, and executed. The gunman upstairs became irritated as the children cried louder with the gunshots sounding from below. Removing the infant from the bed, he disappeared into the bathroom (King, 21). One by one, he came back and retrieved each of the children, and took them to the bathroom until they stopped crying.
On the ground floor, the house patriarch, Khaliffa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, and his wife returned home. There was a brief altercation at the door. Khaalis had his wife run next door to a neighbor to phone the police. When the intruders realized what was happening, they bolted out the back door. Khaalis ran after them for half a mile until they fired a shot at him. Unarmed, and realizing that these men had been ransacking his home with his family inside, he quickly ran back.
When he got back to the house, the police had arrived and began searching the house. The basement was covered in blood, the two men dead. By some miracle, the women were unconscious but alive. Radioing for an ambulance, one of the policemen searched the second floor with his pistol drawn. In the bathroom, he found three children floating in the bathtub and the infant floating belly-up in the sink. In one of the bedroom closets, they discovered the body of an 11-year-old boy, murdered with a gunshot to the head (King, 24).
Before going into surgery, one of the women identified the killers to a police detective, telling him that they belonged to “Elijah Poole’s cutthroat gang” (King, 29), referring to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of Islam Nation. The killings were in response to a schism created between Khaalis and Muhammad when Khaalis broke away from the Nation of Islam and adopted the form of Sunni orthodox Islam called Hanafi Madhab. The rift began with a letter that Khaalis mailed to the Nation of Islam in which he insulted their leaders and faith. Among other insults, he wrote, “Followers of Muhammad (Islam Nation’s leader) are eaters of their brothers’ flesh, and black Muslims have polluted minds and will burn forever in a violently hot flame” (King, 33).
Following up on some leads, a black detective from Washington, D.C. infiltrated the Islam Nation temple in Philadelphia, many members of which also belonged to the so-called “black mafia” that ran drugs and conducted contract killings. Ironically, while the members of Temple #12 in Philadelphia claimed to believe in a form of black liberation, they were actually selling heroin in black neighborhoods, shaking down legitimate black business owners, and murdering members of the black community. The detective, Remus Williams, began hearing rumors about a group in Temple #12 referred to as “the death squad” (King, 38). Going undercover, he got one of the killers to admit to the murders and out his cohorts by name while Williams was wearing a wire.
The killers were eventually rounded up by the police and trial dates were set. When Khaalis himself was called to the stand to testify during the Hanafi murders trial, he had to be removed after screaming, “You killed my babies! You killed my babies, and shot my women” (King, 74). When one of the murderers was acquitted, Khaalis snapped. In March of 1977, 12 Hanafi followers, including Khaalis, stormed three buildings in Washington, D.C. The Hanafi followers laid siege to the B’nai B’rith center, firing weapons into the air and brandishing machetes. An hour later, other Hanafi followers took over a local Islamic center. Then, that afternoon, they hit the district building where the mayor and city council’s offices were located.
Back at Bragg, an alert went out to a select group—3/5th Special Forces Group—telling them to form up on Smoke Bomb Hill. The battalion commander, Rod Paschall, briefed the men on the basic situation surrounding what became known as the Hanafi siege. When the gunmen broke into the district building, they immediately opened fire, killing a 24-year-old reporter named Maurice Williams. A ricochet then severely injured Marion Barry, a junior city councilmen. The Hanafi gunmen had seized three buildings, taken nearly 150 hostages, and had demonstrated their intent to kill. The Green Berets were to begin conducting rehearsals for a hostage-rescue mission on American soil.
While many think that posse comitatus excludes military operations within the United States, there is actually an office in the Pentagon that handles requests from state and federal agencies for military support. Usually this takes the form of civil support, for instance, the deployment of 82nd Airborne soldiers to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even for direct armed military intervention, all that is required is a signature from the president. With D.C. police quickly overwhelmed and no one at hand prepared to conduct the hostage rescue, Special Forces was the only option.
The 12 gunmen had several demands. They wanted the government to hand over a group of men who had been convicted of killing seven relatives — mostly children — of takeover leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. They also demanded that the movie “Mohammad, Messenger of God” be destroyed because they considered it sacrilegious.” (Washington Post).
The Green Berets on Smoke Bomb Hill began conducting marksmanship training and rappelling from helicopters. A full operations order had yet to come about, but there was some thought that they would rappel down onto the roofs of the three buildings being held by Khaalis and his followers. This probably would not have worked because of the amount of antennas on top of structures in D.C.
The concept was rudimentary to say the least. “We were to kick in the door, shoot all of the bad guys, and hope that not too many good guys got shot in the process,” Mark Boyatt recalled of the incident. In the end, it was all over within 24 hours after the Special Forces soldiers were alerted. The Special Forces element was never deployed and never left Fort Bragg in response. Three Middle Eastern ambassadors intervened to negotiate with Khaalis. Ashraf Ghorbal of Egypt, Ardeshir Zahedi of Iran, and Sahabzada Yaqubkhan of Pakistan talked to Khaalis on the telephone and were able to get the Hanafi members to surrender themselves to the police.
“Even if we deployed, it could have been just as advisors. There would have been a ton of lawyers, especially if we deployed with weapons,” Roger (not his real name) remembered. He was one of the 5th Group soldiers spun up in response to the siege along with Boyatt. “If we were used, there would have been very specific ROE,” or rules of engagement.
Later that year, in October, a Lufthansa commercial airliner was hijacked by members of the PLO. After refueling in several different countries, the hijackers finally landed in Mogadishu, Somalia. The German police counterterrorism unit, GSG-9, raided the aircraft as it sat on the ground in Somalia. Thirty commandos rescued the hostages, including 70 German citizens, in what had been dubbed Operation Feuerzauber.
Back in the United States, REDCOM was once again asked if they could do what the Germans had just done—the same question that had came after the raid on Entebbe. The answer was clear: absolutely not. “In the Pentagon that day, the shit hit the fan” (Beckwith, 116). That type of, “surgical takedown (undetected assault and rapid penetration of a commercial airliner) required specialized knowledge and equipment, constant training, and dedicated personnel” (Lenahan, 8).
A colonel named Charlie Beckwith thought he might have the solution, but so did some men in 5th Special Forces Group. In November, a month after the GSG-9 operation, the Army green-lit two dedicated counterterrorism units.