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A false flag operation is an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility and pinning blame on another party. The term \"false flag\" originated in the 16th century as an expression meaning an intentional misrepresentation of someone's allegiance. The term was famously used to describe a ruse in naval warfare whereby a vessel flew the flag of a neutral or enemy country in order to hide its true identity. The tactic was originally used by pirates and privateers to deceive other ships into allowing them to move closer before attacking them. It later was deemed an acceptable practice during naval warfare according to international maritime laws, provided the attacking vessel displayed its true flag once an attack had begun.
The term today extends 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 or foreign military aggression. Similarly deceptive activities carried out during peacetime by individuals or nongovernmental organizations have been called false flag operations, but the more common legal term is a \"frameup\", \"stitch up\", or \"setup\".
In land warfare, such operations are generally deemed acceptable under certain circumstances, such as to deceive enemies, provided the deception is not perfidious and that 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. 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 protection. 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.)
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.
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.
In January and February 2022, Western government agencies predicted that Russia would use a false flag operation in Ukraine. In the days leading up to the 24 February Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government intensified its disinformation campaign, with Russian state media promoting false flags on a nearly hourly basis purporting to show Ukrainian forces attacking Russia, in a bid to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Many of the disinformation videos were poor and amateur in quality, with mismatching metadata showing incorrect dates, and evidence from Bellingcat researchers, and other independent journalists, showed that the claimed attacks, explosions, and evacuations in Donbas were staged by Russia.
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. 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.
The CIA operation was code-named TPAJAX. The tactic of a \"directed campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist party\", involved the bombing of \"at least one\" well known Muslim's house by CIA agents posing as Communists. The CIA determined that the tactic of false flag attacks added to the \"positive outcome\" of TPAJAX.
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\".
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). 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\".
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).
According to ex-KGB defector Jack Barsky, \"Many a right-wing radical had given information to the Soviets under a 'false flag', thinking they were working with a Western ally, such as Israel, when in fact their contact was a KGB operative.\"
The term is popular amongst conspiracy theory promoters in referring to covert operations of various governments and claimed cabals. According to Columbia Journalism Review, this usage mostly \"migrated to the right\", however because some historical false flag incidents occurred, historians should not fully cede the usage of the term to conspiracy theorists. Perlman says \"The real danger is if we use the nonattributive 'false flags' as shorthand for conspiracy theories, without explaining what they are and who is promoting them.\" At the same time, Perlman writes that \"people yelling that any attack attributed to someone on 'their side' was committed by 'the other side' drown out the voices of reason.\"
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's 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 and New Jersey after blog comments claiming to be from supporters of a political candidate (Charles Bass) were traced to the IP address of paid staffers for that candidate's opponent (Paul Hodes).
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 the media may be creating in favor of the unions.
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 t