At the 1972 Munich Olympics, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and later murdered by Palestinian terrorists. In response to the terrorist threat, the FBI set up the first full-time civilian counterterrorism team.
Fast forward to 1983: Special agents trained and were selected to form a novel tactical unit known today as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, or HRT.
“When Los Angeles won the nomination for the 1984 Olympics, the question was, ‘Who would handle an event such as Munich?’ And there weren’t a lot of good answers,” former FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce said in 2013.
The US military has its restrictions stateside. Since the Posse Comitatus Act passed in 1878, military action against domestic threats without presidential or legislative approval has been illegal. The FBI’s HRT filled that void.
These days, FBI HRT special agents and operators can deploy within four hours of notification anywhere in the US to respond to terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and major criminal threats.
“We have the capability to do dive operations, sub-surface delivery, waterborne, a full range of overland mobility, meaning we can go overland through the desert, arctic cold-weather terrain,” one HRT operator said in a video posted to YouTube. “The snowmobiles, four-wheelers, we have gun trucks and all sorts of other platforms that allow to access pretty much any environment here in the United States.”
Some major incidents to which the FBI’s HRT has responded include a 1991 maximum-security-prison riot in Alabama, the hijacking of a German-owned vessel by Somali pirates in 2011, and even the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt in 2013.
“They’re working with the counterterrorism units in all the military branches,” Joyce said. “They travel around the world and train with some of their counterparts. So they really are afforded the resources and the ability to acquire and really maintain a level of training that is impossible at the other levels.”