A false flag is a
covert operation designed to deceive; the deception creates the appearance of a
particular party, group, or nation being responsible for some activity,
disguising the actual source of responsibility.

The term
“false flag” originally referred to pirate ships that flew flags of
countries as a disguise to prevent their victims from fleeing or preparing for
battle. Sometimes the flag would remain and the blame for the attack would be
laid incorrectly on another country. The term today extends beyond naval
encounters to include countries that organize attacks on themselves and make
the attacks appear to be by enemy nations or terrorists, thus giving the nation
that was supposedly attacked a pretext for domestic repression and foreign
military aggression.[1]

carried out during peacetime by civilian organizations, as well as covert
government agencies, can (by extension) also be called false flag operations if
they seek to hide the real organization behind an operation.


1         Use in warfare

1.1      Air warfare

1.2      Land warfare

2         As pretexts for war

2.1      Russo-Swedish War

2.2      Second Sino-Japanese War

2.3      World War II

2.3.1  Gleiwitz incident

2.3.2  Winter War

2.4      Cuban Revolution

2.4.1  Operation Northwoods

3         As a tactic to undermine political

3.1      Reichstag fire

3.2      Project TP-Ajax

3.3      The Lavon affair

4         Pseudo-operations

5         Espionage

6         Civilian usage

6.1      Political campaigning

6.2      Ideological

7         Psychology

8         Conspiracy theories

9         See also

9.1      Concepts

9.2      Examples

10       References

11       External links

Use in warfare

In land warfare,
such operations are generally deemed acceptable under certain circumstances,
such as to deceive enemies providing that the deception is not perfidious and
all such deceptions are discarded before opening fire upon the enemy.
Similarly, in naval warfare such a deception is considered permissible provided
the false flag is lowered and the true flag raised before engaging in
battle:[2] auxiliary cruisers operated in such a fashion in both World Wars, as
did Q-ships, while merchant vessels were encouraged to use false flags for

Such masquerades
promoted confusion not just of the enemy but of historical accounts: in 1914
the Battle of Trindade was fought between the British auxiliary cruiser RMS
Carmania and the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cap Trafalgar, which had been
altered to look like Carmania. (Contrary to some accounts, the RMS Carmania had
not been altered to resemble the Cap Trafalgar.)

Another notable
example was the World War II German commerce raider Kormoran, which 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. While Kormoran was fatally damaged in the engagement and
its crew captured, the outcome represented a considerable psychological victory
for the Germans.[3]

The British used
a Kriegsmarine ensign in the St Nazaire Raid and captured a German code book.
The old destroyer Campbeltown, which the British planned to sacrifice in the
operation, was provided with cosmetic modifications that involved cutting the
ship’s funnels and chamfering the edges to resemble a German Type 23 torpedo
boat. By this ruse the British were able to get within two miles (3 km) of the
harbour before the defences responded, where the explosive-rigged Campbeltown
and commandos successfully disabled or destroyed the key dock structures of the

Air warfare

In December 1922
– February 1923, Rules concerning the Control of Wireless Telegraphy in Time of
War and Air Warfare, drafted by a commission of jurists at the Hague

Art. 3. A
military aircraft must carry an exterior mark indicating its nationality and
its military character.

Art. 19. The use
of false exterior marks is forbidden.

This draft was
never adopted as a legally binding treaty, but the ICRC states in its
introduction on the draft that “To a great extent, [the draft rules]
correspond to the customary rules and general principles underlying treaties on
the law of war on land and at sea,”[7] and as such these two
non-controversial articles were already part of customary law.[8]

Land warfare

In land warfare,
the use of a false flag is similar to that of naval warfare: the trial of Otto
Skorzeny, who planned and commanded Operation Greif, by a U.S. military
tribunal at the Dachau Trials included a finding that Skorzeny was not guilty
of a crime by ordering his men into action in American uniforms. He had relayed
to his men the warning of German legal experts: that if they fought in American
uniforms, they would be breaking the laws of war; however, they probably were
not doing so simply by wearing the American uniforms. During the trial, a
number of arguments were advanced to substantiate this position and the German
and U.S. military seem to have been in agreement.

In the transcript
of the trial,[9] it is mentioned that Paragraph 43 of the Field Manual
published by the War Department, United States Army, on 1 October 1940, under
the entry Rules of Land Warfare states “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’.”

As pretexts for

Russo-Swedish War

In 1788, the head
tailor at the Royal Swedish Opera received an order to sew a number of Russian
military uniforms. These were then used by the Swedes to stage an attack on
Puumala, a Swedish outpost on the Russo-Swedish border, on 27 June 1788. This
caused an outrage in Stockholm and impressed the Riksdag of the Estates, the
Swedish national assembly, who until then had refused to agree to an offensive
war against Russia. The Puumala incident allowed King Gustav III of Sweden, who
lacked the constitutional authority to initiate unprovoked hostilities without
the Estates’ consent, to launch the Russo-Swedish War (1788–1790).[10]

Sino-Japanese War

Japanese experts
inspect the scene of the ‘railway sabotage’ on South Manchurian Railway

In September
1931, Japanese officers fabricated a pretext for invading Manchuria by blowing
up a section of railway. Though the explosion was too weak to disrupt
operations on the rail line, the Japanese nevertheless used this Mukden
incident to seize Manchuria and create a puppet government for what they termed
the “independent” state of Manchukuo.[11]

World War II

Gleiwitz incident

Alfred Naujocks

The Gleiwitz
incident in 1939 involved Reinhard Heydrich fabricating evidence of a Polish
attack against Germany to mobilize German public opinion for war and to justify
the war with Poland. Alfred Naujocks was a key organiser of the operation under
orders from Heydrich. It led to the deaths of Nazi concentration camp victims
who were dressed as German soldiers and then shot by the Gestapo to make it
seem that they had been shot by Polish soldiers. 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.[12]

The operation
failed to convince international public opinion of the German claims, and both
Britain and France—Poland’s allies—declared war two days after Germany invaded

Winter War

On November 26,
1939, the Soviet army shelled Mainila, a Russian village near the Finnish
border. Soviet authorities blamed Finland for the attack and used the incident
as a pretext to invade Finland, starting the Winter War, four days later.[14]

Cuban Revolution


Northwoods memorandum (13 March 1962)[15]

The proposed, but
never executed, 1962 Operation Northwoods plot by the U.S. Department of
Defense for a war with Cuba involved scenarios such as fabricating the
hijacking or shooting down of passenger and military planes, sinking a U.S.
ship in the vicinity of Cuba, burning crops, sinking a boat filled with Cuban
refugees, attacks by alleged Cuban infiltrators inside the United States, and
harassment of U.S. aircraft and shipping and the destruction of aerial drones
by aircraft disguised as Cuban MiGs.[16] These actions would be blamed on Cuba,
and would be a pretext for an invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Fidel
Castro’s communist government. It was authored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
but then rejected by President John F. Kennedy. The surprise discovery of the
documents relating to Operation Northwoods was a result of the comprehensive
search for records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by
the Assassination Records Review Board in the mid-1990s.[17] Information about
Operation Northwoods was later publicized by James Bamford.[18]

As a tactic to
undermine political opponents

Reichstag fire

Main article:
Reichstag fire

The Reichstag
fire was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February
1933. The fire started in the Session Chamber,[19] and, by the time the police
and firemen arrived, the main room was engulfed in flames. Police searched the
building and found Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutch council communist and
unemployed bricklayer, who had recently arrived in Germany to carry out
political activities.[citation needed]

The fire was used
as evidence by the Nazis that the Communists were beginning a plot against the
German government. Van der Lubbe and four Communist leaders were subsequently
arrested. Adolf Hitler, who was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks
before, on 30 January, urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency
decree to counter the “ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of
Germany”.[20] With civil liberties suspended, the government instituted
mass arrests of Communists, including all of the Communist parliamentary
delegates. With their bitter rival Communists gone and their seats empty, the
National Socialist German Workers Party went from being a plurality party to
the majority; subsequent elections confirmed that position and thus allowed
Hitler to consolidate his power.[citation needed]

disagree as to whether Van der Lubbe, as he said, acted alone to protest the
condition of the German working class or whether the arson was planned and
ordered by the Nazis, then themselves dominant in the government, as a false
flag operation.[21][22]

Project TP-Ajax

Main article:
1953 Iranian coup d’état

On 4 April 1953,
the CIA was ordered to undermine the government of Iran over a four-month
period, as a precursor to overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.[23]
One tactic used to undermine Mosaddegh was to carry out false flag attacks
“on mosques and key public figures”, to be blamed on Iranian
communists loyal to the government.[23]

The CIA project
was code-named TP-Ajax, and the tactic of a “directed campaign of bombings
by Iranians posing as members of the Communist party”,[24] involved the
bombing of “at least one” well known Muslim’s house by CIA agents
posing as Communists.[24] The CIA determined that the tactic of false flag
attacks added to the “positive outcome” of Project TPAJAX.[23]

However, as
“the C.I.A. burned nearly all of its files on its role in the 1953 coup in
Iran”, the true extent of the tactic has been difficult for historians to

The Lavon affair

Main article:
Lavon Affair

In the summer of
1954, a group of Egyptian Jews recruited by Israeli army intelligence were caught
with plans to bomb American, British, and Egyptian civil targets in Egypt. The
bombings were to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Communists,
“unspecified malcontents” or “local nationalists” with the
aim of creating a climate of sufficient violence and instability to induce the
British government refrain from evacuating its troops occupying Egypt’s Suez
Canal zone, a move that would embolden Egyptian President Nasser against
Israel. But the plot was exposed before launch and Egyptian authorities were
able to tail an operative to his target, arrest him and later search his
apartment where the entire plan including the names of other agents and
explosive materials were held. The expose caused a scandal in Israel with
Israeli officials blaming one another for the operation and the Israeli defense
minister, Pinhas Lavon resigning under pressure.[26][27][28]


are those in which forces of one power disguise themselves as enemy forces. For
example, a state power may disguise teams of operatives as insurgents and, with
the aid of defectors, infiltrate insurgent areas.[29] The aim of such
pseudo-operations may be to gather short or long-term intelligence or to engage
in active operations, in particular assassinations of important enemies.
However, they usually involve both, as the risks of exposure rapidly increase
with time and intelligence gathering eventually leads to violent confrontation.
Pseudo-operations may be directed by military or police forces, 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 expert 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.”[30]

Péralte of Haiti was assassinated in 1919 after checkpoints were passed by
military disguised as guerrilla fighters.

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.[citation needed]

An example of a
successful assassination was United States Marine Sergeant Herman H. Hanneken
leading a patrol of his Haitian Gendarmerie disguised as enemy guerrillas in
1919. The patrol successfully passed several enemy checkpoints in order to
assassinate the guerilla leader Charlemagne Péralte near
Grande-Rivière-du-Nord. Hanneken was awarded the Medal of Honor[31] and was
commissioned a Second Lieutenant for his deed.[citation needed]

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. In 1960, Frank Kitson, (who was later involved in
the Northern Irish conflict and is now a retired British general), published
Gangs and Counter-gangs, an account of his experiences with the technique in
Kenya; information included how to counter gangs and measures of deception,
including the use of defectors, which brought the issue a wider
audience.[citation needed]

Another example
of combined police and military oversight of pseudo-operations include the
Selous Scouts in the former country Rhodesia (now 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 with 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
black soldiers being color 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 Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army leader
Joshua Nkomo in Zambia. This mission was finally aborted by the Selous Scouts,
and attempted again, unsuccessfully, by the Rhodesian Special Air Service.[32]

Some offensive
operations attracted international condemnation, in particular the Selous
Scouts’ raid on a Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) 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 1,284 people 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.[33] According to David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, who visited
the camp shortly before the raid, it was only a refugee camp that did not host
any guerrillas. It was staged for UN approval.[34]

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.[35]

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 operations 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.”[citation needed]

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.”[29]

Similar false
flag tactics were also employed during the Algerian civil war, starting in the
middle of 1994. Death squads composed of Département du Renseignement et de la
Sécurité (DRS) security forces disguised themselves as Islamist terrorists and
committed false flag terror attacks. Such groups included the Organisation of
Young Free Algerians (OJAL) or the Secret Organisation for the Safeguard of the
Algerian Republic (OSSRA)[36] According to Roger Faligot and Pascal Kropp
(1999), the OJAL was reminiscent 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, or DST) whose mission was to carry out terrorist
attacks with the aim of quashing any hopes of political compromise”.[37]


Main article:
False flag penetrator

In espionage, the
term “false flag” describes the recruiting of agents by operatives
posing as representatives of a cause the prospective agents are sympathetic to,
or even the agents’ own government. For example, during the Cold War, several
female West German civil servants were tricked into stealing classified
documents by agents of the East German Stasi intelligence service, pretending
to be members of West German peace advocacy groups (the Stasi agents were also
described as “Romeos,” indicating that they also used their sex appeal
to manipulate their targets, making this operation a combination of the false
flag and “honey trap” techniques).[38]

The technique can
also be used to expose enemy agents in one’s own service by having someone
approach the suspect and pose as an agent of the enemy. Earl Edwin Pitts, a
13-year veteran of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and an attorney,
was caught when he was approached by FBI agents posing as Russian agents in a
sting operation.[citation needed]

intelligence officials in World War II allowed double agents to fire-bomb a
power station and a food dump in the UK to protect their cover, according to
declassified documents. The documents stated the agents took precautions to
ensure they did not cause serious damage. One of the documents released also
stated: “It should be recognised that friends as well as enemies must be
completely deceived.”[39]

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.[citation needed]


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.[citation needed]

In 2006,
individuals practicing false flag behavior were discovered and
“outed” in New Hampshire[40][41] and New Jersey[42] 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.

On 19 February
2011, Indiana Deputy Prosecutor Carlos Lam sent a private email to Wisconsin
Governor Scott Walker suggesting that he run a “‘false flag’
operation” to counter the protests against Walker’s proposed restrictions
on public employees’ collective bargaining rights:

If you could
employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions’ cause to
physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you), you could discredit
the unions … Employing a false flag operation would assist in undercutting
any support that the media may be creating in favor of the unions.[43][44]

The press had
acquired a court order to access all of Walker’s emails and Lam’s email was
exposed. At first, Lam vehemently denied it, but eventually admitted it and

commenter Lou Dobbs suggested that pipe bombs that were sent to prominent
Democrats prior to the 2018 mid-term elections were part of a false flag effort
to discredit Republicans and supporters of President Trump. This was
demonstrated to be wrong when the pipe bombs were traced to a Florida man with
strongly declared right-wing affiliation.[45]

On the internet,
a concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point
of view is opposed to the one that the troll claims to hold. The concern troll
posts in web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway
the group’s actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with
professed “concerns”. The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt
within the group often by appealing to outrage culture.[46] This is a
particular case of sockpuppeting and safe-baiting.


A bomb threat
forged by Scientology operatives.

Proponents of
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
persecution. This can be used to gain attention and sympathy from outsiders, in
particular the media, or to convince others within the group that their beliefs
are under attack and in need of protection.

In retaliation
for writing The Scandal of Scientology, some members of the Church of
Scientology stole stationery from author Paulette Cooper’s home and then used
that stationery to forge bomb threats and have them mailed to a Scientology
office. The Guardian’s Office also had a plan for further operations to
discredit Cooper known as Operation Freakout, but several Scientology
operatives were arrested in a separate investigation and the plan was


False flag
attacking is a kind of psychological warfare. The motivations and effects have
been analyzed within the framework of regality theory, which is a branch of
evolutionary psychology. People will develop authoritarian, intolerant, and
xenophobic attitudes when they perceive that their social group is under
attack, according to this theory. This is called a regal psychological
reaction. An attack that is successfully blamed on outsiders will lead to such
a regal reaction. The result is that people will be more likely to support
their own government and military. A collection of historical examples of the
fabrication of collective danger by false flag attacks and other kinds of
deception has identified the following motives:[48]

To create
psychological support for a planned war

To pave the way
for a transition to a less democratic form of government

To consolidate a
government when its power is dwindling

To defame an
enemy by blaming an attack on them

The effect may be
the opposite if the deception is disclosed and the attack is blamed on an
internal elite rather than on the alleged outgroup.[48]

False flag operation in context of
conspiracy theory as a myth which legitimizes actions of ruling clas.PDF