A historically significant strategy for carrying out extensive tactical or geopolitical operations is the delegation of risky or questionable actions to others. This approach, often implemented through deceit or persuasion, leads the executors to believe they are acting of their own volition, even though they are being manipulated. A form of this strategy is the false flag operation, where actions are attributed to others for further purposes, such as creating a common enemy or magnifying a perceived threat.
One of the most evident applications of this strategy has been the use of privateers at sea, especially from the 13th century. Authorities of various states, such as Great Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent some Latin American countries, granted “letters of marque” to sailors, effectively legalizing acts of piracy against enemy ships. This approach allowed states to expand their naval forces at no direct cost, as privateers were compensated with the loot from their raids.
Among the most famous privateers was the Englishman Francis Drake, an explorer, slaver, navigator, politician, and admiral of the English fleet, known for being the second to circumnavigate the globe. For Spain, he was considered a pirate, while in England he was welcomed as a hero and knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, particularly for capturing two Spanish ships loaded with gold and silver.
The use of privateers dates back to at least the 13th century when national governments began to recognize the potential of these figures in a naval warfare context. A privateer, equipped with an official “letter of marque,” was authorized to attack, plunder, and even sink enemy ships, operating in the gray area between piracy and legitimate military action.
The strategy behind the use of privateers was twofold: first, to avoid the economic and political burden of open conflict while maintaining an appearance of neutrality; second, to inflict economic damage on the enemy without risking state resources. This approach allowed states to expand their maritime presence and hinder enemy trade at no cost, as privateers were compensated with a portion of the loot.
Each nation had specific regulations on how to divide the booty. Generally, it was divided among the crew, the owner of the privateer ship (if not the same captain), and the government that granted the letter of marque. These agreements were crucial to attracting and retaining experienced privateers, often coming from backgrounds of piracy or criminality.
Over the centuries, the nature and use of privateers evolved. While they were a fundamental component of naval strategies in the 16th and 17th centuries, their role diminished in the 19th century due to changes in international laws and military tactics. However, their presence remained significant in conflicts such as the American War of Independence and the Civil War.
This practice reached its peak between the 16th and 19th centuries. During the American War of Independence, privateers were also used by the US naval fleets. At the end of the 18th century, French revolutionaries employed them in the Atlantic and the Caribbean to hinder American and British maritime routes, while in the American Civil War, they were used by both the North and the South.
In other words, the use of privateers has been a clear example of how states have historically delegated delicate and risky tasks to others to gain tactical and geopolitical advantages, masking aggressive actions under a veneer of legality.
The use of mercenaries represents another type of indirect strategy.
Since the end of the Cold War, the use of private mercenary groups has become a common practice in almost all war scenarios. Governments transfer the power of force to these third parties, often operating in a legal gray area. This model resembles that of historical privateers but adapted to contemporary contexts.
Already since the end of World War I, communist Russia favored guerrilla warfare as a form of conflict. At the Party Congress in Moscow in 1928, this tactic was adopted. A guerrilla warfare manual was included in the Red Army’s bibliography, leading to the formation of guerrilla organizations before the outbreak of the Russo-German conflict in 1941.
In Serbia, during World War II, guerrilla warfare influenced by both Russia and Great Britain aimed to wear down German forces. Key figures like Tito were sent to lead the main guerrilla groups.
The Allies employed similar strategies, conducting undercover operations that included campaigns of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Historians like Max Hastings have documented these actions in areas occupied by the Axis.
Another example of indirect strategies is false flag operations.
The term “false flag operations” comes from the military practice of using flags of other countries to confuse the enemy. These operations aim to attribute responsibility for warlike actions or sabotage to third parties, thus creating convenient enemies or scapegoats. But who are the subjects that carry out these operations?
Intelligence Services: Often planned, directed, or coordinated by these entities, employing specialized agents. An example can be the CIA, which, according to some sources, used mercenaries to place bombs in Cuba in the ’80s and ’90s.
S pecial Forces: Military personnel trained for covert operations.
Mercenaries: Specifically hired to carry out these acts. For example, during the Armenian Genocide, the Ottomans reportedly released criminals to form bands of assassins, a clear example of actions executed by third parties.
Although many false flag operations remain secret, some are unveiled through journalistic investigations, independent probes, or the declassification of official documents. In some cases, they are revealed by involved individuals, motivated by guilt or other interests.
The use of mercenaries and false flag operations illustrates the complexity and moral ambiguity of modern conflicts. While these tools offer tactical advantages, they also raise significant ethical questions and reflect the increasingly blurred nature of warfare and diplomacy in the contemporary world.
What are the Contexts in Which False Flag Operations are Applied?
False flag operations are deception tactics used in various realms, from political to military. Employed to influence public opinion, mobilize the populace, or for strategic manipulation, these operations significantly impact the global landscape.
In the political context, false flag operations are often linked to a country’s entry into war, acts of terrorism, or the onset of uprisings. Echoing Stalin: “The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terrorism.” This statement highlights how such actions can be exploited to justify the introduction of restrictive laws or manipulate public opinion.
Organized revolts aim to weaken a country by demoralizing and undermining the population’s trust. This can be achieved through front organizations or unwitting collaborators who perform actions on behalf of those who hired them. Counter-revolts, like staged coups, are used to eliminate political opponents, justified as protecting public order.
Demonizing the enemy is a key tactic to mobilize citizens. False or distorted information is disseminated to provoke indignation and hatred. Military strategist Carl von Clausewitz stressed the importance of alignment among rulers, army, and people for military success. This alignment is often achieved through propaganda and media manipulation.
The human mind is vulnerable to manipulation for various reasons: the tendency to believe what one desires, the simplicity and repetition of messages, and the need for answers to troubling doubts. False flag operations exploit these vulnerabilities to mislead the adversary and manipulate public opinion.
In the military realm, pseudo-operations can be cited, where military forces infiltrate enemy lines to gather information or eliminate enemy leaders. Napoleon Bonaparte expressed the invaluable worth of a well-placed spy, underscoring the importance of intelligence on the battlefield.
False flag operations represent a complex intersection of political, military, and psychological strategies. Utilizing deception and manipulation, these operations profoundly impact conflicts, international policies, and public perception, reflecting the complexity and ambiguity of modern geopolitics.
The history of false flag attacks, used to manipulate public opinion, is long and varied. An ancient example is the burning of Rome in 64 AD, which Emperor Nero blamed on Christians. In the 20th century, numerous false flag attacks were documented, involving military and intelligence services from various countries, including the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, the United States, Algeria, Bosnia, Indonesia, Serbia, among others.
Currently, cyber false flag attacks are frequent, aiming to remotely control devices or hack accounts, subsequently blaming the legitimate owners. Claims of false flag operations have also been made in recent conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.
To conduct false flag operations while avoiding political or legal risks, states have resorted to private military companies, the modern-day successors of mercenaries.
Private military and security companies, known as “contractors,” have been increasingly employed over the past two decades. The first of these companies was Watchguard International, founded in 1965 by David Stirling and John Woodhouse. These organizations have been particularly active in war scenarios, drug trafficking combat, anti-piracy, protecting humanitarian aid deliveries, and in counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Often these companies are linked to political and economic powers and are based in tax havens.
These companies offer numerous advantages to states: greater economic profitability, no obligation for social assistance or investment in training, reliability, efficiency, confidentiality, flexibility, and specialization. However, they also have significant disadvantages, such as violating international law, recruiting personnel from developing countries under precarious working conditions, and risking undermining the state’s monopoly on force.
Efforts to regulate these companies, like the Montreux Document of 2008, have been limited. This document imposes no legal obligations but provides recommendations for operating in conflict zones.
Private military companies represent a crucial intermediary serving the political and economic interests of states, often operating outside democratic control. Their existence and operations raise critical issues regarding responsibility, international legality, and ethics in modern conflicts.
In recent years, the United States has adopted a more indirect strategy in its international operations, often employing third parties to achieve its objectives. Richard A. Clarke points out how America, unlike the wars in Korea and Vietnam, defeated the Red Army in Afghanistan through the intermediation of the Pakistani intelligence services. These services, funded with American and Saudi money along with funds raised by charity organizations, transformed Afghan warriors and thousands of Arab volunteers into an effective military force. The U.S. invested over 600 million dollars per year in this cause.
Since 2001, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks saw the use of the Northern Alliance militia, supported by a relatively small group of U.S. special forces, to overthrow the Taliban. A decade later, to depose Libyan leader Gaddafi, the U.S. involved allied and friendly countries. In the tumultuous scenarios of Syria and Iraq, the U.S. primarily relied on the Kurds to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Geopolitical strategist George Friedman supports this strategy, emphasizing the benefit for the United States in creating alliances where other countries bear most of the conflict or war burden, backed by U.S. economic, military technology, and the promise of deploying their military if needed.