Once relegated to internal shop talk among intelligence types, the term “false flag” has become widely used among the general public, and often included as a plot twist in television and movies.


Most recently, the term hit headlines after some groups claimed the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January was a false flag operation by left-wing extremists masquerading as right-wing extremists to smear former President Trump and the right.


But what exactly is a false flag, really, and how does it work?


The origin of the term dates back to pirate days when marauders displayed flags of the ships they planned to raid, to lull the target into a false sense of security regarding the approaching ship. Flying a skull and cross bones not only caused panic among other vessels, but also warned ships of the intent of the pirates and gave them time to prepare.


The term false flag has evolved to mean any covert operation where the culprit – whether an intelligence agency, a corporation, or a group of thugs – wraps itself in another identity to carry out the operation.


In other words, the target thinks you are one thing when you are really another thing entirely.


And yes, intelligence agencies really do use false flag operations as part of their repertoire.


Take, for example, a situation where intelligence officers identify an individual with direct access to a high ranking official with knowledge of military plans and intentions. If the intelligence officer is Russian and the target is an anti-Russian officer in Poland. Convincing that individual to provide information to Russia may prove problematic. But what if that same Polish official had spent years in Germany and headed Poland-German technology transfers? Pretending to represent Germany rather than Russia may prove more successful for the recruitment.


A 2012 Foreign Policy article details a false flag operation by the Israeli Mossad during the presidency of George W. Bush. At that time, the US was barred from contact with the Pakistan-based Sunni extremist group, Jundallah. When reports surfaced regarding CIA support for the organization, the US predictably denied that activity – but few believed the protests. Later, intelligence memos quoted by FP revealed that the operation was actually conducted by Mossad officers carrying US passports and US dollars and posing as CIA officers. The operation appears to support Israel’s fierce opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, as Jundallah has assassinated Iranian government officials as well as Iranian civilians.


Extremist Sunni Muslim groups oppose Israel and the Jewish religion, so approaching them as Israeli’s likely would have failed.


The most widely touted false flag operation involved the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933. On that date, the German parliament building – the Reichstag – burned, and known communist sympathizer Marinus van de Lubbe was arrested for the assault. The German outrage over the act opened the way for Hitler to remove communists from the government and institute sweeping emergency powers. Many view the fire as the spark that started Nazi rule. Yet history views the convenient explanation with skepticism. Historians now say Nazi’s started the fire to provide the excuse for Hitler to take action. They consider it the most famous false flag operation of all time.


In the corporate world, false flag operations are also prevalent. A representative appearing to work for a “friendly” company or a research firm may approach an individual at a target company with questions aimed at mining confidential information. The target individual is unaware of the true motivations of the agent, and may even believe they are helping the company. If a confidential representative from Apple reached out to a low-level employee at a small tech firm, for example, trying to obtain information to pre-qualify them for a lucrative, non-published bid, the employee may be tempted to tell all in an effort to position his company for success. If that same agent called the company as a competitor seeking to out-bid them on a contract, the employee would likely refuse to engage.


The idea of false flags also feeds well into conspiracy theories.  Organizations or individuals who do not want to believe uncomfortable facts may attempt to twist events into a false flag narrative. Because these operations really do exist, they provide a convenient scapegoat for unpleasant activities.


Remain alert to false flags and protect information from whoever may be trying to access it. But also remain aware of the temptation to avoid responsibility by blaming others.


Sometimes, what you see is what you get.


And sometimes, it really is a wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing.