False flag

False flag

False flag operations are covert operations conducted by governments, corporations, or other organizations, which are designed to appear as though they are being carried out by other entities. The name is derived from the military concept of flying false colors; that is, flying the flag of a country other than one's own. False flag operations are not limited to war and counter-insurgency operations, and have been used in peace-time; for example, during Italy's strategy of tension.

Naval warfare

In naval warfare, this practice was considered acceptable, provided the false flag was lowered and the national flag raised before engaging in battle. Auxiliary cruisers operated in such a fashion in both World Wars. British Q-boats were notorious for this behaviour, which Germany used as a reason for its own use of unrestricted submarine warfare. In one example, the German commerce raider "Kormoran" surprised and sank the Australian light cruiser HMAS "Sydney" in 1941 while disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, causing the greatest recorded loss of life on an Australian warship. [Squires, Nick. " [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/17/wsydney117.xml HMAS Sydney found off Australia's west coast] ", The Telegraph, 2008-03-17.] In the St Nazaire Raid, by using a Kriegsmarine Ensign and a captured German Morse code book, the British were able to get within a mile of the harbour before the defences responded.

Land warfare

In land warfare, the use of a false flag is similar to that of naval warfare. The most widespread assumption is that this practice was first established under international humanitarian law at the trial in 1947 of the planner and commander of Operation Greif, Otto Skorzeny, by the military court at the Dachau Trials. In this trial, the court did not find Skorzeny guilty of a crime by ordering his men into action in American uniforms. He had passed on to his men the warning of German legal experts, that if they fought in American uniforms, they would be breaking the laws of war, but they probably were not doing so just by wearing the uniform. During the trial, a number of arguments were advanced to substantiate this position and the German and U.S. military seem to be in agreement on it. In the transcript of the trial [Source: Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. United Nations War Crimes Commission. [http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/WCC/skorzeny.htm Vol. IX, 1949: Trial of Otto Skorzeny and others] General Military Government Court of the U.S. zone of Germany 18 August to 9 September, 1947] it is mentioned that Paragraph 43 of the Field Manual published by the War Department, United States Army, on 1st October, 1940, under the title "Rules of Land Warfare", says:::"National flags, insignias and uniforms as a ruse - in practice it has been authorized to make use of these as a ruse. The foregoing rule (Article 23 of the Annex of the IVth Hague Convention), does not prohibit such use, but does prohibit their improper use. It is certainly forbidden to make use of them during a combat. Before opening fire upon the enemy, they must be discarded". :Also The American Soldiers' Handbook, was quoted by Defense Counsel and says: ::"The use of the enemy flag, insignia, and uniform is permitted under some circumstances. They are not to be used during actual fighting, and if used in order to approach the enemy without drawing fire, should be thrown away or removed as soon as fighting begins".

The outcome of the trial has been codified in the 1977 "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949" (Protocol I):

Article 37.-Prohibition of perfidy:1. It is prohibited to kill, injure, or capture an adversary by resort to perfidy. Acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy. The following acts are examples of perfidy::(a) The feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender;:(b) The feigning of an incapacitation by wounds or sickness;:(c) The feigning of civilian, non-combatant status; and:(d) The feigning of protected status by the use of signs, emblems or uniforms of the United Nations or of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict.:2. Ruses of war are not prohibited. Such ruses are acts which are intended to mislead an adversary or to induce him to act recklessly but which infringe no rule of international law applicable in armed conflict and which are not perfidious because they do not invite the confidence of an adversary with respect to protection under that law. The following are examples of such ruses: the use of camouflage, decoys, mock operations and misinformation.Article 38.-Recognized emblems:1. It is prohibited to make improper use of the distinctive emblem of the red cross, red crescent or red lion and sun or of other emblems, signs or signals provided for by the Conventions or by this Protocol. It is also prohibited to misuse deliberately in an armed conflict other internationally recognized protective emblems, signs or signals, including the flag of truce, and the protective emblem of cultural property.:2. It is prohibited to make use of the distinctive emblem of the United Nations, except as authorized by that Organization.Article 39.-Emblems of nationality:1. It is prohibited to make use in an armed conflict of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict.:2. It is prohibited to make use of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of adverse Parties while engaging in attacks or in order to shield, favour, protect or impede military operations.:3. Nothing in this Article or in Article 37, paragraph 1 ( d ), shall affect the existing generally recognized rules of international law applicable to espionage or to the use of flags in the conduct of armed conflict at sea.

Examples of false flag attacks as pretexts for war

In the 1931 Mukden incident, Japanese officers fabricated a pretext for annexing Manchuria by blowing up a section of railway. Six years later, they falsely claimed the kidnapping of one of their soldiers in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident as an excuse to invade China proper.

In the Gleiwitz incident in August 1939, Reinhard Heydrich made use of fabricated evidence of a Polish attack against Germany to mobilize German public opinion and to fabricate a false justification for a war with Poland. This, along with other false flag operations in Operation Himmler would be used to mobilize support from the German population for the start of World War II in Europe.

On November 26, 1939 the Soviet Union shelled the Russian village of Mainila near the Finnish border. The Soviet Union attacked Finland four days after the Shelling of Mainila. Some Russian historians have claimed that the Finns shelled themselves with the intent of later attacking the Soviet Union. This theory is not shared by most historians, and Russia has agreed that the attack was initiated by the Soviets. Also, the nearest Finnish artillery pieces were well outside the range needed to shell Mainila. In 1994, the President of Russia Boris Yeltsin denounced the Winter War, agreeing that it was a war of aggression.

In 1953, the U.S. and British-orchestrated Operation Ajax used "false-flag" and propaganda operations against the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq. Information regarding the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat has been largely declassified and is available in the CIA archives. [ cite journal
title = All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (U)
journal = Journal of the American Intelligence Professional
first = Stephen
last = Kinzer
coauthors = John Wiley and Sons
volume = 48
issue =
url = https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol48no2/article10.html
format =
accessdate = 2007-02-04

In 1954, Israel sponsored bombings against US and UK interests in Cairo aiming to cause trouble between Egypt and the West. [ [http://books.google.com/books?id=dULlTAe_NwEC&pg=PA46&dq=%22false+flag%22+Israel+Egypt&sig=6fM1-s1fY7OLrJF2A99xcUHSL0g "Israel even used "false flag" operations"] . "In 1954 sympathetic Jews in Egypt used bombs and arson against US installations. The objective was for local Arab ..." Global Terrorism - Page 46, James M Lutz, Brenda J Lutz - 2004. Verified 9 Oct 2007.] ] This operation, latter dubbed the Lavon Affair cost Israeli defense minister Pinhas Lavon his job. Israel (where it is known as "The Unfortunate Affair") finally admitted responsibility in 2005. [http://www.ynetnews.com/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrintPreview/1,2506,L-3065838,00.html#n "After half a century of reticence and recrimination] , Israel ... honored ... agents-provocateur. Reuters, 30th March 2005. Accessed 2nd July 2007.]

The planned, but never executed, 1962 Operation Northwoods plot by the U.S. Department of Defense for a war with Cuba involved scenarios such as hijacking a passenger plane, sinking a U.S. ship, burning crops and blaming such actions on Cuba. It was authored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by John F. Kennedy, came to light through the Freedom of Information Act and was publicized by James Bamford.

Former GRU officer Aleksey Galkin [ [http://eng.terror99.ru/documents/?101.txt Terror-99 ] ] , former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko [ [http://prima-news.ru/eng/news/news/2004/1/30/27326.html Prima-News ] ] and other whistleblowers from the Russian government and security services have asserted that the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that precipitated the Second Chechen War were false flag operations perpetrated by the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB. Galkin has since then, recanted these accusations which he had asserted when a prisoner of Chechen rebels.


Pseudo operations are those in which forces of one power disguised themselves as enemy forces and, more specifically, when the power is a state, and the other power an insurgency, then as insurgents, often with the aid of defectors, to operate as teams to infiltrate insurgent areas.Cline, Lawrence E. (2005) "Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from other countries", Strategic Studies Institute, [http://www.blackwaterusa.com/btw2005/articles/080105counter.pdf read here] ] The aim of such pseudo-operations may either be to gather short, or long-term intelligence, to discredit the enemy, to reduce the civilian support of the enemy, or to engage in active operations, in particular assassinations of important enemies. However, they usually involve both, as the risks of exposure highly increase with time, and thus lead to violent confrontation. Pseudo-operations may be directed by police forces, military, or both. Police forces are usually best suited to intelligence tasks; however, military provide the structure needed to back up such pseudo-ops with military response forces. According to US military Lawrence Cline (2005), "the teams typically have been controlled by police services, but this largely was due to the weaknesses in the respective military intelligence systems."

The State Political Directorate (OGPU) of the Soviet Union set up such an operation from 1921 to 1926. During Operation Trust, they used loose networks of White Army supporters and extended them, creating the pseudo-"Monarchist Union of Central Russia" (MUCR) in order to help the OGPU identify real monarchists and anti-Bolsheviks.

An example of a successful assassination was United States Marine Sergeant Herman H. Hanneken leading a patrol of his Haitian Gendarmerie disgused as enemy guerillas in 1919. The Patrol successfully passed several enemy checkpoints in order to assassinate the guerilla leader Charlemagne Péralte near Grand-Rivière du Nord. Hanneken was awarded the Medal of Honor and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant for his deed.

During the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, captured Mau Mau members who switched sides and specially trained British troops initiated the pseudo-gang concept to successfully counter Mau Mau terrorists. In 1960 Frank Kitson, (who was later involved in the Northern Irish conflict and is now a retired British General), published his account of his experiences with the technique in Kenya "Gangs and Counter-gangs" about how to counter gangs and measures of deception, including the use of defectors, which brought the issue a wider audience.

Another example of combined police and military oversight of pseudo-operations include the Selous Scouts in former country Rhodesia (current Zimbabwe), governed by white minority rule until 1980. The Selous Scouts were formed at the beginning of Operation Hurricane, in November 1973, by Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Ronald Reid-Daly. As all Special Forces in Rhodesia, by 1977 they were controlled by COMOPS (Commander, Combined Operations) Commander Lieutenant General Peter Walls. The Selous Scouts were originally composed of 120 members, with all officers being white and the highest rank initially available for Africans being colour sergeant. They succeeded in turning approximately 800 insurgents who were then paid by Special Branch, ultimately reaching the number of 1,500 members. Engaging mainly in long-range reconnaissance and surveillance missions, they increasingly turned to offensive actions, including the attempted assassination of ZIPRA leader Joshua Nkomo in Zambia. This mission was finally aborted by the Selous Scouts, and attempted again, unsuccessfully, by the Rhodesian Special Air Service. [ Cline (2005), p.11 ]

Some offensive operations attracted international condemnation, in particular the Selous Scouts' raid on a ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) camp at Nyadzonya Pungwe, Mozambique in August 1976. ZANLA was then led by Josiah Tongogara. Using Rhodesian trucks and armored cars disguised as Mozambique military vehicles, 84 scouts killed 1,000 alleged guerrillas in the camp, registered as a refugee camp by the United Nations (UN). Even according to Reid-Daly, most of those killed were unarmed guerrillas standing in formation for a parade. The camp hospital was also set ablaze by the rounds fired by the Scouts, killing all patients [ Cline (2005), quoting Reid-Daly, "Pamwe Chete: The Legend of the Selous Scouts", Weltevreden Park, South Africa: Covos-Day Books, 1999, p.10 (republished by Covos Day, 2001, ISBN-13: 978-1919874333) ] . According to David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, who visited the camp shortly before the raid, it was only a refugee camp which did not host any guerrillas. [ Cline (2005), who quotes David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, "The Struggle for Zimbabwe: the Chimurenga War", New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981, pp.241-242 ]

According to a 1978 study by the Directorate of Military Intelligence, 68% of all insurgent deaths inside Rhodesia could be attributed to the Selous Scouts, who were disbanded in 1980. [ Cline (2005), p.8 to 13. For 1978 study, quotes J. K. Cilliers, "Counter-insurgency in Rhodesia", London: Croom Helm, 1985, pp.60-77. Cline also quotes Ian F. W. Beckett, "The Rhodesian Army: Counter-Insurgency 1972-1979" at [http://members.tripod.com/selousscouts/ selousscouts] ]

If the action is a police action then these tactics would fall within the laws of the state initiating the pseudo, but if such actions are taken in a civil war or during a belligerent military occupation then those who participate in such actions would not be privileged belligerents. The principle of plausible deniability is usually applied for pseudo-teams. (see the above section Laws of war).

Some false flag operation are have been described by Lawrence E. Cline, a retired US Army intelligence officer, as pseudo-operations, or "the use of organized teams which are disguised as guerrilla groups for long- or short-term penetration of insurgent-controlled areas."

Pseudo Operations should be distinguished, notes Cline, from the more common police or intelligence infiltration of guerrilla or criminal organizations. In the latter case, infiltration is normally done by individuals. Pseudo teams, on the other hand, are formed as needed from organized units, usually military or paramilitary. The use of pseudo teams has been a hallmark of a number of foreign counterinsurgency campaigns." Cline, Lawrence E. (2005) "Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from other countries", Strategic Studies Institute, [http://www.blackwaterusa.com/btw2005/articles/080105counter.pdf read here] ]

py tradecraft

In espionage the false flag technique is used to recruit people into spying or stealing critical documents, by convincing them that they are working for a friendly government or their own government. The technique can also be used to catch a spy by having a loyal agent pose as a spy from the other side and approach someone suspected of spying. Earl Edwin Pitts, 43, a 13-year veteran of the FBI and an attorney, was caught when he was approached by FBI agents posing as Russian agents.

See false flag penetrator

Civilian usage

While false flag operations originate in warfare and government, they also can occur in civilian settings among certain factions, such as businesses, special interest groups, religions, political ideologies and campaigns for office.


In business and marketing, similar operations are being employed in some public relations campaigns (see Astroturfing). Telemarketing firms practice false flag type behavior when they pretend to be a market research firm (referred to as "sugging"). In some rare cases, members of an unpopular business will destroy some of their own property to conceal an unrelated crime (i.e. safety violations, embezzlement, etc.) but make it appear as though the destruction was done by an ideological group who opposes them.

Political campaigning

Political campaigning has a long history of this tactic in various forms, including in person, print media and electronically in recent years. This can involve when supporters of one candidate pose as supporters of another, or act as “straw men” for their preferred candidate to debate against. This can happen with or without the candidate's knowledge. The Canuck Letter is an example of one candidate creating a false document and attributing it as coming from another candidate in order to discredit that candidate.

In 2006, individuals practicing false flag behavior were discovered and "outed" in New Hampshire [Steele, Allison, [http://www.concordmonitor.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060926/REPOSITORY/609260344/1219/48HOURS "Bass staffer in D.C. poses as blogger: Bogus posts aimed at his political opponent"] , Concord Monitor, September 26, 2006 (URL last accessed October 24, 2006).] [Saunders, Anne, [http://www.boston.com/news/local/new_hampshire/articles/2006/09/26/rep_bass_aide_posed_as_opponents_supporter_on_blogs/ "Bass aide resigns after posing as opponent's supporter online"] , The Boston Globe, September 26, 2006 (URL last accessed October 24, 2006).] and New Jersey [Miller, Jonathan, [http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0712FD3A550C728EDDA00894DE404482 "Blog Thinks Aide to Kean Posted Jabs At Menendez"] , New York Times, September 21, 2006 (URL last accessed October 24, 2006). ] after blog comments claiming to be from supporters of a political candidate were traced to the IP address of paid staffers for that candidate's opponent.


Political or religious ideologies will sometimes use false flag tactics. This can be done to discredit or implicate rival groups, create the appearance of enemies when none exist, or create the illusion of organized and directed opposition when in truth, the ideology is simply unpopular with society.

In late 2007, a rash of Swastikas and other anti-semitic vandalism appeared on a Jewish student's door at George Washington University. [ [http://www.nbc4.com/news/14503652/detail.html "Another Swastika Appears At GW"] , WRC-TV, November 3, 2007 (URL last accessed November 6, 2007)] Police subsequently placed a hidden camera, and discovered that the vandalism was perpetrated by the victim herself. [ [http://www.nbc4.com/news/14516979/detail.html "Police: Jewish GW Student Admits Putting Swastikas On Her Door"] , WRC-TV, November 5, 2007 (URL last accessed November 6, 2007)] The student claimed that the first incident of vandalism was real (committed by an unknown person), but she perpetrated the remaining incidents to draw attention to the university's inaction.

Terrorism and false flag operations

During the Italian strategy of tension in which several bombings in the 1970s, attributed to far-left organizations, were in fact carried out by far-right organizations cooperating with the Italian secret services (see Operation Gladio, 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing, 1972 Peteano attack by Vincenzo Vinciguerra, 1973 assassination attempt of former Interior Minister Mariano Rumor, 1980 Bologna massacre, etc. and various investigations, for example by Guido Salvini). In France, the Masada Action and Defense Movement, supposedly a Zionist group, was really a neo-fascist terrorist group which hoped to increase tension between Arabs and Jews in France.

False flag tactics were also employed during the Algerian civil war, starting in the mid-1994. Death squads composed of DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité) security forces disguised themselves as Islamist terrorists and committed false flag terror attacks. Such groups included the OJAL (Organisation of Young Free Algerians) or the OSSRA (Secret Organisation for the safeguard of the Algerian Republic) [ Lounis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire (2004). "Françalgérie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats", (Franco-Algeria, Crimes and Lies of the States). Editions La Découverte. ISBN 2-7071-4747-8. Extract in English with mention of the OJAL [http://www.algeria-watch.org/en/analyses/ojal.htm available here] .] According to Roger Faligot and Pascal Kropp (1999), the OJAL reminded of "the Organization of the French Algerian Resistance (ORAF), a group of counter-terrorists created in December 1956 by the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (Territorial Surveillance Directorate) whose mission was to carry out terrorist attacks with the aim of quashing any hopes of political compromise." [ Luonis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire, "ibid.", quoting Roger Faligot and Pascal KROP, "DST, Police Secrète", Flammarion, 1999, p.174 ]

On the night of Feb. 27, 1933 the Reichstag building was set on fire. At the urging of Hitler, Hindenburg responded the next day by issuing an emergency decree “for the Protection of the people and the State,” which stated: “Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.”After 74 years, the question of who actually started the Reichstag fire is still unknown and occasionally debated.

Dirty War

During a 1981 interview whose contents were revealed by documents declassified by the CIA in 2000, former CIA and DINA agent Michael Townley explained that Ignacio Novo Sampol, member of CORU, an anti-Castro organization, had agreed to commit the Cuban Nationalist Movement in the kidnapping, in Buenos Aires, of a president of a Dutch bank. The abduction, organized by civilian SIDE agents, the Argentine intelligence agency, was to obtain a ransom. Townley said that Novo Sampol had provided six thousand dollars from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, forwarded to the civilian SIDE agents to pay for the preparation expenses of the kidnapping. After returning to the US, Novo Sampol sent Townley a stock of paper, used to print pamphlets in the name of "Grupo Rojo" (Red Group), an imaginary Argentine Marxist terrorist organization, which was to claim credit for the kidnapping of the Dutch banker. Townley declared that the pamphlets were distributed in Mendoza and Córdoba in relation with false flag bombings perpetrated by SIDE agents, which had as their aim to accredit the existence of the fake Grupo Rojo. However, the SIDE agents procrastinated too much, and the kidnapping ultimately was not carried out. [ [http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/ch02-09.htm Visit by Guillermo Novo Sampol to Chile in 1976, 1] and [http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/ch02-10.htm 2] , on the National Security Archive website]

See also

* Black propaganda
* Canuck Letter
* Casus belli
* Conspiracy theory
* Covert operation
* Gleiwitz incident
* Front organization
* "Bloed, Bodem, Eer en Trouw" (Flemish neo-Nazi group preparing false flag attacks)
* February 27, 1933 Reichstag Fire, which led to the Reichstag Fire Decree which suspended the Weimar Constitution until the end of the Third Reich
* TPAJAX, CIA Operation Ajax (USA overthrowing of Mohammed Mossadeq, Prime Minister of Iran, in 1953)
* SIS (MI6) Operation Boot (UK Operation for overthrowing of Mohammed Mossadeq, Prime Minister of Iran, in 1953 with Americans) [http://www.garretwilson.com/books/reviews/alltheshahsmen.html]
* Operation Northwoods
* Black Operation, Rogue Operation Project Cherry CIA's Non-Stop assassination program to kill Prince of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk [http://johnmccarthy90066.tripod.com/id34.html] .
* Special Activities Division
* The Plaza Miranda Bombings in the Philippines, which led to Ferdinand Marcos's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
* 3/11, 7/7 and 9/11 conspiracy theories
* Shelling of Mainila and Winter War
* State terrorism
* Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands (fake party set up by the Dutch security service)


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