empire watch, false flags, featured, terrorism
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Forget “False-Flag”: Terrorism as Military Deception

by Dr. Richard Marsden


Forget “false flag” labels when encountering military or terrorist events that look contrived or staged by those who stand to gain from them. The presumed motive to false-flag events is to provoke an adversary into doing what it would not otherwise do, or to provide a pretext for the covert party to openly attack that adversary. At the very least, “false-flag” usually alerts us to deficiencies in official explanation of military (including terrorist) events. I want to suggest, however, that it is an outdated metaphor of limited usefulness because it does not go far enough. Learn about Military Deception (MILDEC) instead.

“False-flag” is but an accusation which can (and routinely is) easily ignored or dismissed as “conspiracy theory”, because it infers the result (“what” happened) from a presumed motive (“why” it happened) based on a calculation of the suspect’s real interests (hence “who gains”?). In other words, false-flaggers reason forward from an assumed and contestable motive. Real detective work always reasons-in-reverse from the concrete facts on the ground. Without an explanation of the “how” we are asked to accept false-flag charges on faith and—crucially—the “who” go unpunished.

To understand the “how” of false-flag operations learn about the concepts and techniques of Military Deception (or MILDEC) as practiced covertly by conventional armed forces from the beginning of warfare. MILDEC works in conjunction with Intelligence (Information Operations) and Psychological Operations (PSYOP).

Today’s tax-paying public trusts that this triad exists to protect them from an external enemy such as an antagonistic nation-state. A trail of evidence, from 9/11 to Islamic State, however, suggests to students of MILDEC that this assumption needs reviewing. Contemplate this instead: that we the Western public are now the target of Military Deception techniques employed by a shadowy, yet to be unmasked, ideologically-driven cabal secreted within and between our own friendly nation states.

Like a disease, Military Deception is seldom directly observed, but we can infer its presence and discover how it is sustained, by whom and to what end—provided (a) we know what to look for and (b) we have the capacity for dogged detective work. This short paper is limited to (a). To alert readers to what to look for I present a brief summary of some of MILDEC’s main concepts. In doing so I draw on Chapter 4 “Military Deception” of the US Army’s Field Manual No. 3-13 Information Operations: Doctrine, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 28 November 2003. All references are to this chapter of this manual.

At the core of Military Deception is this self-evident truth: Deception works only if it is not perceived as such. To prevent MILDEC operations being revealed, their secrecy is paramount. Only staff and subordinate commanders who “need to know” (the “witting”) are informed of a MILDEC operation (4-8). Adversaries must be denied knowledge of the MILDEC operation’s existence (4-28). The secrecy of the mission is ring-fenced by enforcing a cordon sanitaire called Operations Security (OPSEC) (4-29). By its very nature, then, MILDEC is a conspiracy and one that is always denied.

A corollary of MILDEC’s need for secrecy is that those outside this select group, i.e., those who make the deception work, do so unwittingly. It is because they themselves are deceived that they behave with sincerity and authenticity and this is key to the success of the mission. Most of the actors in Military Deception—including those who kill and are killed—are likely to be unwitting, i.e., they believe the truth of the deception. For example, most of the Americans who invaded and occupied Iraq did so in the mistaken (and manufactured) belief that they were somehow avenging the dead of 9/11.

False-flaggers are often ridiculed on the grounds that for their arguments to hold there would have to be a vast conspiracy of silence and someone somewhere would eventually break ranks and the conspiracy would unravel. Ordinarily this is true, but the distinction between the witting and the unwitting in MILDEC invalidates this criticism. The group of core conspirators (the witting) is relatively small, limited to those who need to know. No one talks for they are selected precisely because they are loyal to the mission and OPSEC means that revealing all would be costly to their health. The sincerity of the unwitting makes the deception appear authentic. The distinction between the witting and the unwitting is helpful when sifting through the evidence of suspected deceptions. For example, did US Secretary of State Colin Powell lie in his now infamous presentation to the UN Security Council, on 5 February, 2003, so as to secure its backing for the invasion of Iraq? Or was he an unwitting participant in this deception? The same question can be asked of Blair and Bush. While some are all of these characters may well have done, no one has to lie for Military Deception to work.

The point of Military Deception is to influence “adversary decision makers”. They are the Deception Target. One might assume that this adversary would be another country’s military, however “not all adversaries are military, and commanders may also want to deceive others who are not adversary host-nation civilians” (4-2, my emphasis). This allows architects of Military Deception much latitude. Military manuals are written in technical language. They do not seethe with animosity and hatred towards an enemy. They embody Weber’s formal means-end rationality. They are silent on the likely identity of any Deception Target. It could be Russia, the UN Security Council or a lemonade stand. “Host-nation civilians” certainly falls within the scope of “Deception Target”. The “military” in Military Deception refers to the origins of the deception, not its target.

A Deception Objective of any MILDEC operation is to influence the Deception Target, i.e., what “the adversary is to do or not to do at the critical time and/or location” (4-15, my emphasis). This covers a lot of situations. It may be to confuse an adversary and thereby disguise the commander’s real intentions. For example, via Operation Fortitude, Allied forces deceived Nazi-occupied France into believing that the impending invasion would be at Pas de Calais, rather than the actual location, Normandy. The deception means included controlled leaks of misinformation through diplomatic channels, simulated wireless traffic, and British controlled German double-agents.
Or the Deception Objective may be to change domestic public opinion so that it supports military action. For example, the moral outrage and desire for revenge at the videos of the staged executions of two American and two British hostages by “Jihadi John” brought about what was previously unthinkable—the return of American and British forces to Iraq. Their nationalities were not accidental. Nor was the reversal of public opinion unanticipated. It was the specific objective of these “Jihadi John” deception videos.

    A means to the Deception Objective is the Deception Event. For example:

  • Hannibal’s use of the double-envelopment tactic or pincer movement against the Romans, at the Battle of Cannae, in 216 BC, was a Deception Event.
  • via Operation Fortitude, Allied forces deceived Nazi-occupied France into believing that the impending invasion would be at Pas de Calais, rather than the actual Normandy. The deception means included controlled leaks of misinformation through diplomatic channels, simulated wireless traffic, and British controlled German double-agents.
  • Schwarzkopf’s 1991 prewar amphibious exercises, to convince Iraqis that the Americans were planning to mount a major seaborne assault was a Deception Event.
  • The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident was a Deception Event, intended to justify US escalation of its war against the Vietnamese.
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Operation Northwoods, in 1962, which envisaged CIA initiated terrorist attacks on fellow Americans, was a Deception Event. They were to be blamed on Cuba, to justify US military involvement.
  • The August, 1980, Bologna bombing, which killed 85 people and wounded more than 200, was a Deception Event. It was caused by fascist paramilitaries, the Nuclei Armati Revoluzionari (NAR), part of Operation Gladio, but blamed on the left. Its aim? To drive frightened people into the arms of the State.

That ‘All warfare is based upon deception’ (Sun Tzu, The Art of War) is well known and accepted. Less well known and accepted is that those same techniques used to deceive “the enemy,” can quite easily be turned upon the civilian population of the armed forces’ host country. A modern day Sun Tzu might write, “All warfare is based upon deception, but not all military deception targets an external enemy.” For example, it can target domestic public opinion, to legitimate what would otherwise be illegitimate acts of aggression against other countries and to delegitimate resistance to those acts. What would certainly be denied, indignantly and forcefully, is that the armed forces of—say—the United States deceives Americans using the same techniques it uses in warfare against external enemies. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they? But in these matters the only person we can trust is ourself and I encourage readers to make up their own minds on the basis of this brief account of Military Deception.

It is not the Deception Event in itself that deceives. It is the combination of the event and the explanation to which it is attached, i.e., the Deception Story:

…a plausible, but false, view of the situation, which will lead the deception target into acting in a manner that will accomplish the commander’s goal” (4-60)

The Deception Story is aimed at the Deception Target. Although ultimately false,

the deception story must be believable, verifiable, and consistent” (4-78)

Deception stories are consciously designed to be this way by military experts on narrative and rhetoric. They know that such stories do not have to be true to be accepted. They just have to seem plausible, to possess verisimilitude or “truthiness”.

The Deception Story does not arrive fully-formed and remain static. Rather, it is dynamic, developed piecemeal in response to feed-back events and analysis.

The key to success is knowing precisely when to take the next step in conveying the deception story. The MD plan identifies feedback events and indicators for intelligence collection and analysis to provide these cues” (4-109)

The Deception Story is developed by means of Deception Indicators, items of information, some true, some false, designed to influence the Deception Target’s intention or capability to adopt or reject a course of action. The Deception Story must have the capacity to change so as to accommodate contradictory information. The most effective way to convince the Deception Target of the Deception Story’s truth is to provide Indicators in several ways, each supported by different elements of truth.

Wherever the target turns, there must be information that confirms his preconceptions, that makes any questionable parts of the deception story seem believable” (4-28)

Because we more readily accept information that conforms to our beliefs, Deception Indicators are tailored to the Target’s prejudices and preconceptions.

A good [deception] story conforms to the target’s beliefs about reality. It is much simpler to have the deception conform to the target’s beliefs than to attempt to change them” (4-42)

The invasion of Iraq, for example, was sold using a dehumanising characterisation of Arabs and Muslims that Said called “orientalism”. It is the Arab and Muslim world seen through the prejudices of imperialism. It worked a treat.
The Deception Story is developed by allowing Indicators to “fall” into adversary hands. Since adversaries tend to suspect Indicators that are too easily obtained, they are presented so that the circumstances of their discovery appear believable. They were careless. We got lucky. They got unlucky.

From 9/11 to Islamic State, so much of the war-on-terror narrative has been developed on discoveries of just this kind. There are hundreds of these “fortuitous finds”. A passport miraculously survives an inferno to be discovered in a Manhattan street. A suitcase containing all manner of incriminating information is discovered when it mysteriously fails to make a connecting flight. A veritable trail of indicators presents itself and leads to a preordained conclusion. A video of Osama bin Laden’s “confession” is chanced upon in a house in Jalalabad. And then there are the “intercepted” letters and laptops which reveal the innermost workings of the terrorist group in question. And so on, ad infinitum. So much of what we think we know about al-Qaeda and Islamic State is constructed upon fragments of information of just this kind. An intercepted communique, audio- or video-tape from the terrorist-of-the day is another popular form of Deception Indicator.

One by one, such fortuitous finds attract little suspicion because unintentional mistakes and bad luck do happen and most of us have got better things to do than track these things. But their frequency, substance and timing form a pattern that defies belief. If terrorists were this unlucky they would have destroyed themselves long ago, but these terrorists go from strength-to-strength. Hardly ever, if at all, are Deception Indicators of this kind discovered by MI6, GCHQ, the CIA or any of the other agencies that claim the need to know our innermost thoughts to discover just this kind of information. Curiously, most of them have been “intercepted” by either IntelCenter or the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE). It was SITE, for example, who discovered the communiqué from Islamic State claiming responsibility for the attacks in Paris, November 13, 2015.

Having monitored SITE and IntelCenter for more than ten years I am bound to report that the similarities between the discovery of their “fortuitous finds” and the planting of Deception Indicators are too striking for any responsible investigator to ignore. For some reason, our intelligence agencies are silent on IntelCenter and SITE. Perhaps this indicates their tacit endorsement of their work. Contemplate instead that these Holmesian watch-dogs have never barked a warning because they are complicit in the deception and their silence is a strategy to sustain the illusion of plausible deniability. If so, they are well advised to keep silent for their safety depends on it. Such a betrayal of public trust looks very much like treason.

“Intelligence” is another way of conveying Deception Indicators. We normally defer to intelligence because we think of it as a neutral process of gathering data to guide rational decision-making. However, this is not how MILDEC professionals think of intelligence. For them, intelligence is also about providing information—in this case about terrorists—to those they wish to deceive. Invariably it is provided anonymously, usually to “trusted” journalists, who, in good faith or not, convey this information to their readers and viewers. Other news agencies cannibalize these scoops and add their own interpretations and assumptions. In pursuit of the story, a terrorist’s past is ransacked for clues of present behaviour. A photograph is chanced upon, or a school yearbook; conversations and encounters are remembered; emails and travel documents are discovered. All manner of commentators and pundits on “counter-terrorism” and “radicalization” connect these fragments of a life by speculation as to their motives and actions and weave them into a back-story on the basis of precious little. All this is not to determine their guilt or innocence—for when evidence defers to intelligence, innocence defers to guilt—but to reveal an inherent purpose to all that they did, culminating in the terrorist incident in question. As with witches, now with terrorists: the proof follows the guilt and legal process is dispensed with in favour of political theatre in which we are passive spectators.


I have presented a short summary of Military Deception so as to encourage deeper exploration of the “how” and “who” of these curious military/terrorist incidents we label “false-flag”. MILDEC techniques, which we assume are directed at external enemies, I contend, now target us, Western citizens. With one difference. Whereas MILDEC traditionally deceives an external enemy by providing misleading information, from 9/11 to Islamic State the focus of deception has been the manipulation of our collective emotions. It is militarized emotion marketing or branding.

As every MILDEC professional knows, humans are notoriously bad at detecting deception. And yet, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, what one person can invent, another can discover. As with most heinous crimes, discerning military deception and discovering how it is sustained, to what end and—crucially—by whom, takes dogged and scrupulous detective work. Put simply, this entails reasoning-in-reverse from ‘some curious concrete phenomena’, via imagined experiments, to a presumptive cause. If evidence of MILDEC is discovered, the task is to marshall it into a compelling legal case to be answered in a court of law. This is no scholastic exercise. The damaged and the dead of this ‘war-on-terror’ make this a moral imperative. This war is not over yet.

Dr. Richard Marsden is a professor at Athabasca University, Canada’s open university specializing in distance learning.


  1. deschutes says

    Wow this was a great article. For sure, the military deception is much more focused on deceiving the domestic public rather than the enemy. The ‘fortuitous finds’ are a sure sign of this military deception.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. johnschoneboom says

    I think the distinction between “false flag” and “military deception” is somewhat forced, but I like military deception as an alternative term just because “false flag” sounds like something a nut job would say whereas “military deception” just sounds like a tactic that professionals would obviously use. But really everything said here about military deception could be said about false flag (and vice versa) — and the latter is a subset of the former — but the Army source material is fab. Useful contribution here, thanks.

    Liked by 4 people


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