False Flag Operation
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Basic Information

A False Flag Operation is a military attack (or other covert action) that is intended to fool the enemy, the observers, and/or the public into thinking it was perpetrated by a different government than the one that actually carried out the attack.

The motives and objectives of such a mission can vary significantly.

  1. The false flag may be used simply as a form of camouflage, to deceive enemy patrols in order to sew confusion or gain access to a remote or guarded area. Such a mission is often perpetrated while actually wearing the uniforms of another country, conducted by a unit flying the flag of another country, or carried out by ships or other vehicles bearing the enemy's identification marks and insignia.
  2. More insidiously, the false flag may be flown to frame another country, in order to provoke or justify a war. Sometimes the attack is a sneak attack on a third party. In still other cases the attack is actually a hoax or an treasonous inside job that is then blamed on another country.

In International Humanitarian Law, the legality of false flag operations is spelled out pretty expressly. It is a war crime to wear the uniform of a neutral country, or a humanitarian or neutral service such as the Red Cross or the uniform of the United Nations Peacekeepers. It is not a war crime to wear the uniform of an enemy nation, provided that you do not engage in combat while so dressed. Should a fight break out while so dressed, you must remove / cast aside the false uniforms and flags immediately, or else be guilty of a war crime. The precedent of this was established at the trial of Otto Skorzkeny in 1947, and specifically codified in Protocol I.

This category also encompasses the particularly disreputable activity of shipping military (or even black market civilian) supplies disguised as humanitarian supplies and/or whilst disguised as part of a legitimate humanitarian organisation. It is rarely actioned in "international" law except as an aggravating matter in another war crime but is generally despised due to the chilling effect that it can have on genuine humanitarian efforts, up to and including relief organisations being mistaken for smugglers and attacked.

While wearing an enemy uniform is not a war crime, any captured soldier in such a uniform may be convicted and executed as though they were a spy. This is established by the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907).

Using a False Flag Operation to provoke a war does appear (in my admittedly layman's opinion) to be a war crime, since prior to the start of the war all sides are technically neutral or uninvolved - however a hoaxed attack probably avoids illegality.

Famous False-Flag Operations

This is a list of some of the best-known False Flags, a few of which are widely suspected but have never been admitted or confirmed by their perpetrators.

First Category (Camouflage and Confusion)

These are attacks made under enemy flag or using enemy uniforms or flags to penetrate behind enemy lines.

Second Category (Framings and Justifications)

These are events that provoked or justified wars or power grabs, and may have had sinister or traitorous truths behind them.

See also:
Nurse Nayirah
Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge debate
RMS Lusitania
9/11 conspiracy theories

In Spy Tradecraft / Espionage

As you can imagine, it's not uncommon in espionage circles to misrepresent what nation you work for. Sometimes spies are actually recruited to think they are working for a different cause than they are actually and inadvertently supporting. This was commonly done by the East German Stasi, who had special "Romeo" agents who would recruit female West German civil servants by claiming to work for neutral peace groups.

Such methods can also be used to fool suspected enemy agents into revealing themselves. Double Agent Earl Edwin Pitts was captured by FBI agents posing as Russian agents. Pitts was himself an FBI agent and secretly working for the Russians.

See also: false flag penetrator.

In Politics/Media

It's also quite possible - especially with modern social media platforms - to operate a false flag position, apparently as a supporter of one of your opponents, but disseminating policies and statements likely to prove poisonous to their reputation - this might be seen as a form of hostile astroturfing, especially if they can muster (or synthesise) some kind of support base. Such artificial sources can then be interviewed (or merely cited) for media purposes to further generate a false image of the sort of people who support the opponent in question, especially if the journalists involved are lazy, stupid and/or compliant.


1. Wikipedia - In addition, many of the links above have corresponding pages at Wikipedia
2. Movie: The Eagle Has Landed (based on a novel by Jack Higgins) - features German soldiers infiltrating in Allied uniforms
3. TV: Alias - the first two seasons revolve around a spy agency where nearly everyone thinks they're working for the U.S., but aren't.

Game and Story Use

  • The first category is a great way to sew confusion on a battlefield, or at least just before battle. It probably works better in an RPG that doesn't use miniatures and battle maps, since it's relatively easy for the players to keep track of which minis are the enemy compared to the difficulty of maintaining situational awareness in a real combat.
  • In a game with lots conspiracy theories and betrayal tropes, it could be a fun twist to have the entire campaign be a reaction to a False Flag Operation that isn't exposed until late in the campaign. The PCs are fighting the enemy because of some aggression that turns out later to have been totally fabricated by the PCs superiors or government.
    • Or, like in Alias, the PCs find out later that they're actually working for the enemy.
    • Check out the cRPG Hammer and Sickle for a deeply twisted and convoluted false flagging game.
    • Again, in the Deus Ex series games, by the time the million Xanatos pileup has got underway everyone seems to be false flagging as everyone else, to the extent it's not at all certain that two groups bitterly at war with one another aren't working for the same faction.
  • The "ascended false flag" could be an interesting way to create a conspiracy - one organisation carries out a false flag operation using an invented organisation as cover. Another, unrelated organisation then decides that they can attack the same, or a similar, target and blame it on the same people. Eventually, some genuine sympathisers with the cause of the fictional organisation decide to operate in its name - it may take some time for the original perpetrators to figure out that the movement has become genuine.
    • Even the first stage of imitation can be interesting - the first organisation to deploy the imaginary perpetrators is likely to go through several convulsions when someone else uses the same name for their own ends: did we do this? If so has someone gone rogue or has it been ordered by a higher level without telling use? If not, does this benefit us? Will there be consequences for us one way or another? If they successfully identify their imitators what, if anything, can they do? When the next attack occurs the whole process starts all over again.
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