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False Flag Operation

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3rd & 4th Messengers: My Lord, news: the Swiss have invaded France.
King Richard IV: Excellent! Wessex, while they're away, take ten thousand troops and pillage Geneva!
Lord Chiswick: But the Swiss are our allies, My Lord.
King Richard IV: Oh yes... Well, er, get them to dress up as Germans, will you?

Whenever people from one nation or organization pretend to be members of another, to stir up trouble. Common scenarios include:

  • Pretending to be an enemy and attacking another enemy, to get them to fight;
  • Pretending to be an enemy and attacking yourself, to justify a counterattack;
  • Secretly being an ally of the villains and having them "attack" you in order to shift suspicion away from yourself;
  • Pretending to be a member of a terrorist organization and attacking your own people, to better control them;
  • In espionage, pretending to be from either the victim's nation or an allied one to fool someone into betraying secrets.
  • With Pirates, pretending to be the same as a victim's nation to get in close and attack the enemy.
  • Using the Web's anonymity to pretend to be someone from the opposite side of a debate and post something really extreme and then proceeding to paint your opponents with the same brush.

It's not limited to violence; spreading misinformation or committing sabotage in someone else's name can work wonders too. Basically it is a Frameup scaled up to target large organizations and nations. Heroes typically end up trying to Prevent the War or Avoiding the Great War.


This is an example of Truth in Television since false flag operations have been used in real life to do all of this. It's generally frowned upon by the Geneva Convention. The term comes from naval warfare, where your ships are allowed to approach their target under a different flag but have to raise their true colours before attacking.

Any False Flag Operation can be used to generate a Pretext for War. If a False Flag Operation is perpetrated by an individual villain or group start a war for private benefit, it's a case of War for Fun and Profit. If the attack is directed against the guys you're posing as (as opposed to your own), it's Dressing as the Enemy. When done on an individual level to justify a killing, it's a Self-Defense Ruse. When they disguise someone else, it's Disguised Hostage Gambit. If the intent is to incite two villainous groups to wipe each other out, it can either be Evil Versus Evil or Enemy Civil War. Thus, it is the third of The Thirty-Six Stratagems.


Compare Staged Populist Uprising, when the leadership of a rebellion doesn't actually support the uprising's cause.

WARNING: Because this is often used as a plot twist, there will be spoilers below, many of which will not be covered.


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    Audio Plays 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who:
    • In The Church and the Crown, Buckingham stages a series of attacks designed to have the Musketeers and Cardinal's Guards at each other's throats so no one will be in a position to prevent his troops invading Paris.
    • In Mistfall, Solus is making his acts of sabotage look like the work of Outler radicals. He has even set up a naïve Outler to be killed and take the blame for the attacks.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In 8th Wonderland, the countries opposing the virtual nation initiate bombings and blame 8th Wonderland for them.
  • Aquaman (2018): Orm hires Black Manta to steal a submarine for him. Then he has the submarine on remote control attack Atlantis, in order to justify a "counterattack" on the surface world. For bonus points, he singlehandedly defeats the submarine to make himself seem like a hero and get the Atlanteans on his side. Nereus sees through it immediately but goes along with it because he wanted to attack the surface world as well.
  • In the Woody Allen comedy Bananas, the dictator of San Marcos (a Fictional Counterpart of Cuba) attempts to assassinate a bumbling American tourist and frame a revolutionary group, in order to obtain American aid against the insurgents. It backfires, ultimately leading to the tourist becoming the leader of San Marcos.
  • Body of Lies (2008) features the CIA creating a fictional terrorist group and orchestrating a bombing (with fake victims) in order to draw a real terrorist out of hiding.
  • In Terry Gilliam's Brazil, random bombings occasionally erupt, implied to be false flags.
  • In Canadian Bacon, the government wants to create another Cold War, this time with Canada, in order to shift the blame from the current President to the hypothetical enemy. Besides a massive propaganda campaign, they send a squad of troops in Canadian uniforms to sabotage the Niagara Falls power plant. Unknown to them, the local sheriff believes all the anti-Canadian propaganda and organizes a militia to defend his town, including the power plant. The saboteurs are caught before they can do any damage. Despite this, the operation still succeeds, as the news of the attempt achieves the same result as actual sabotage.
  • In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Koba shoots Caesar and burns down the apes' home, pinning the blame on the humans, in order to both take control of the apes and start a war to wipe the humans out.
  • Four Lions: One of the Muslim terrorists proposes bombing a mosque to unite the Muslim world against the west. In preparation, he records a message taking credit for bombing a mosque and admitting that he's a Muslim terrorist. His compatriots point out that this contradicts the whole concept of a false flag operation and ultimately nix his plan.
  • Hercules (2014): It turns out that Cotys attacked his own villages, and framed the rebels (who he claimed followed a warlord) for doing this.
  • In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, a bomber painted to look like a Capitol ship drops aid canisters containing fire bombs. This makes it look like Snow bombed his own citizens just to slow down the rebels trying to overrun his mansion, causing his troops to turn on him and handing the rebels victory.
  • A favorite of Big Bads in some James Bond movies.
    • You Only Live Twice has S.P.E.C.T.R.E. running a dual false flag operation against both the US and the USSR space programmes, making it look like each nation is hijacking the other's capsules out of orbit with the goal of sparking a nuclear war between them so that China will be the only surviving superpower in the world.
    • The Spy Who Loved Me has a similar plot, with two nukes being simultaneously launched towards Moscow and New York, prompting nuclear war. The Big Bad plans to ride it out in his undersea base and then rebuild the world in his image.
    • For Your Eyes Only had one on a smaller scale, with Locque pretending to be working for Colombo when he is really working for Kristatos.
    • Octopussy has rogue Soviet General Orlov attempting to smuggle in and detonate a nuclear bomb on a US military base in West Germany. Since there will be no detected missile launch, he hopes it will be assumed the explosion was an accident and that the European powers will respond by demanding removal/disarming of all stockpiled nuclear weapons. Once they are gone, Orlov plans to launch a massive land-based invasion of Western Europe, confident that without nukes, NATO will be powerless to stop him.
    • The Living Daylights featured a fake KGB defector blaming his superior, General Pushkin, for assassinations of Western agents that he himself had caused. It's all planned to provoke the British into killing Pushkin before he uncovers said underling's illegal weapons and drug smuggling operations.
    • Tomorrow Never Dies also reused this plot, with an evil media mogul trying to provoke a war between Britain and China.
    • Spectre: The titular criminal organization is up to its shenanigans once again by staging terrorist attacks so that they could secretly seize control of the world's major intelligence agencies through their network of moles, which would enable SPECTRE to permanently stay ahead of their enemies and to counter-act on investigations into their illegal operations.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starts with the Fantom and his Mooks attacking the Bank of England in London disguised as Germans and speaking German. They then attack a zeppelin factory in Berlin disguised as British soldiers. This is done for two purposes. First, the Fantom wants to escalate the animosity between the European powers in order to start World War I. Second, he wants the gold and plans for the foundation of Venice in the Bank of England and German scientists to design new war machines. Once the war starts, he wants to sell advanced weapons to both sides. The league is created by MI6 attempting to avoid an early start to WWI. Supposedly. The League's formation is actually part of a whole other gambit by the Fantom, intending to obtain the abilities and technology used by four of the League's members so he can reproduce and supply said abilities and technology to the warring nations.
  • The League of Gentlemen (1960). While stealing weapons from a British army base for The Caper, the protagonists have a couple of men speaking in Irish accents, knowing that the IRA will get the blame.
  • In The Lone Ranger, Butch Cavendish and his gang disguise themselves as Comanches and attack white settlements in order to make it look like the Comanche have violated the treaty.
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight has a plot of the CIA staging a terrorist attack and "blaming it on the Muslims" so as to justify a budget increase.
    CIA man: During the trial, one of the bombers claimed the CIA had advance knowledge. [Chuckling] The diplomat who issued the terrorists visa was CIA.
  • In Machete, Machete is hired to carry out a Conspicuously Public Assassination on Senator McLaughlin. However, the attempted assassination is part of a false flag operation to gain public support for McLaughlin's secure border campaign by leaving Machete dead and McLaughlin a wounded hero shot by a dangerous illegal immigrant.
  • Shown accurately for Naval Warfare of the time period in Master and Commander, where the crew of the HMS Surprise disguises the ship to look, and act, like a whaler ship, which the Acheron (the ship they'd been hunting for months) was hunting. The Acheron falls for it, the captain issues one order, and within a minute, the colors are raised, the Marines take aim, and the Surprise manages to get a full broadside off while the Acheron's crew was still reeling from the Oh, Crap! of seeing that the whaling ship they were after was in fact a British Royal Navy Frigate.
  • Missile X: The Neutron Bomb Incident: The Baron's plan is to detonate a nuclear bomb and let the superpowers blame one another and retaliate in both directions.
  • The November Man: The CIA is revealed to have committed the bombing which caused the Second Chechen War. It was blamed on Chechen terrorists.
  • The massacre of the McBains in Once Upon a Time in the West is carried out by Frank's henchmen (really working for Morton's railroad company) while dressed in dusters like Cheyenne's outlaw gang. A posse spends the first part of the film unsuccessfully tracking Cheyenne.
  • In Prince Caspian, King Miraz has his general kill several of his own men in order to be able to blame their deaths on Narnians, thus justifying a "retaliation" against them.
  • The Princess Bride has the bride-to-be almost becoming the victim of a False Flag Operation when her fiancé, evil Prince Humperdinck, hires agents to pose as enemy soldiers and murder her. This, so her death can be blamed on the neighboring country of Guilder, whom the Prince wants to go to war with.
  • In Prince Valiant (1997), the vikings of Thule raid Camelot and steal Excalibur while dressed in Scottish garb (The Dragon even rips off a piece of his kilt note  and drops it on the floor). Naturally, King Arthur and his knights assume Scotland was responsible for the attack.
  • The Quiet American: The bombings Pyle orchestrates are blamed on Communists to justify further American involvement. The same may also be true of the village massacre earlier.
  • The white renegades in The Rawhide Terror conduct their raids disguised as Indians.
  • Moriarty's plan in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows revolves around starting a War for Fun and Profit between France and Germany; first by manipulating a group of Bomb-Throwing Anarchists into destroying several carefully chosen targets in Strasbourg and Paris, so that each nation blames the other, then by disguising one of his mooks as an ambassador with Magic Plastic Surgery and getting him to shoot another ambassador at point-blank range during a peace summit.
  • In Siege of the Saxons, Duke Edmund betrays King Arthur by dressing his own troops up as Saxons (while also being allied to the actual Saxons), ensuring that the people thinks of him as a loyal and legitimate successor.
  • Sleeping Dogs has a member of the government pay thugs to shoot soldiers during an altercation with pro-union protesters to escalate tensions and give them an excuse for creating a police state.
  • Standoff At Sparrow Creek: The police funeral shooting was actually the police themselves staging a shooting by firing into propane tanks with automatic weapons, all to drive the nearby militia members into paranoia and make create a standoff where they would be justified in gunning them down.
  • Starship Troopers 3: Marauder: The government stages a bombing to cover up Anoke's death and also get rid of the peace protesters who are framed for committing it.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had Khan and his crew using the hijacked USS Reliant to sneak up on and attack the Enterprise, effectively disguising themselves as Starfleet officers.
    • In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country there were a bunch of false-flag operations going on, with Klingons firing on themselves to kill the Klingon Chancellor to try and start a war, then (at least in the video releases) Humans pretending to be Klingons to assassinate the Federation President at a peace conference. (Both incidents were part of the same conspiracy: Humans, Klingons, and Romulans coming together to prevent peace. Awww...) Not to mention the Enterprise pretending to be a Klingon freighter in order to rescue Kirk and McCoy from Rura Penthe.
  • Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy is all about false flag operations. To trigger the creation of the Republic Grand Army for instance, to later become his own Imperial Army, and one huge galactic, totalitarian dictatorship, Palpatine/Sidious plays off both sides, both of which are controlled by him.
  • Gabriel Shear in Swordfish is part of a secret U.S. government agency that plans to attack terrorist states in more horrific ways than attacks they have supported, ostensibly as right-wing terrorists themselves. The idea is the terrorist states will become too afraid of a group that can carry out such attacks that none would dare support a group for attacking the U.S. Of course, it first requires they make a terrorist attack on US soil themselves, partly to seize a DEA slush fund for their bankroll (since the secret government money gets cut off), which helps establish their terrorist bonafides at the same time.
  • In The Terror of Tiny Town, Bat Haines rustles Pop Lawson's cattle and leaves behind a branding iron to make it look like it was the work of Tex Lawson.
  • In Thunderheart, the GOONs draw the ARM symbol and leave behind eagle feathers at the scenes of their murders to justify the FBI conducting a violent crackdown on ARM.
  • In Total Recall (2012), it turns out that the series of supposed Resistance bombings across the UFB were actually organized by Chancellor Cohaagen in order to justify expanding his Synthetic army, until he has enough to launch a full scale invasion of the Colony.
  • V for Vendetta has the British government stage a biological warfare attack against the London Underground and a primary school, also imitating the Reichstag incident.
  • Watchmen: Ozymandius' plot is to fake an atomic attack by Dr. Manhattan to unite the world against a common threat.
  • In We Summon the Darkness, the villains are fundamentalist Christians led by the televangelist John Henry Butler who are carrying out a cross-country killing spree and making it look like the work of a Satanic cult, all in order to spur a religious revival by making their propaganda about Satanists menacing society look genuine.
  • In Where Eagles Dare, the British shoot down one of their own planes, containing a (fake) American general, over Germany as a pretext to sending in a team of undercover agents in a convoluted effort to flush out a mole.
  • X-Men Film Series:
    • In X2: X-Men United, Stryker has the brainwashed Nightcrawler attack the President in order to provide an impetus for his campaign against the mutants.
    • X-Men: First Class: This is the villains' plan, to use their powers to escalate the Cold War so the superpowers will resort to nukes to wipe each other out so that mutants will be the only ones left.

    Myths & Religion 
  • This is basically what Satan originally was in Jewish and early Christian mythology: an angel ordered by God to test people's faith ("satan" literally means "accuser"). Of course, by the time Revelation was written, Satan had morphed into an evil figure in Christian theology, though maybe it's still a ploy by God or something.

    Pro Wrestling 

  • Tessa Cole in Survival of the Fittest believes the titular game to be a false flag operation by the US Government meant to encourage compliance and military support.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Happens repeatedly in the BattleTech universe, where interstellar communications lag makes it hard enough to get accurate intelligence in a timely fashion even without any deliberate trickery. Which doesn't prevent the assorted players from trying their hand at deception anyway, of course. Just three of the better-known examples are: ComStar troops striking at a Davion research center disguised as Capellans, ComStar faking a Davion strike on one of their own installations as an excuse for Interdiction, and rogue Jade Falcons they actually had secret backing from the Khans posing as pirates in an attempt to break the truce between the Clans and the Inner Sphere.
  • In the backstory for Shadowrun, the TerraFirst! attack on Shiawase's private nuclear power plant was one of these, with the real TerraFirst!'s headquarters bombed to destroy evidence that they weren't really responsible.
  • In Warhammer, the Dark Elves used this to set in motion the events that led to the War of the Beard War of Vengeance between the High Elves and the Dwarfs.
    • Later on Manfred von Carstein tried to do it again, by resurrecting dead Dwarfs in an Elf-Dwarf alliance and having them turn on their allies.

    Visual Novels 
  • During route 4A (Liberté) of Aviary Attorney an element trying to make sure The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized murder a Disposable Vagrant while disguising themself as a member of the police force. Later they murder a random girl, lure the policeman over to her, and then tell the Rebel Leader it was his fault.
  • In Victor Frankenstein's route of Code:Realize, Queen Victoria stages a "terrorist attack" involving chemical weaponry on Buckingham Palace itself and blames Victor for it, knowing that he will try to clear his own name and thus come to Buckingham to negotiate with her. This is only a precursor to a much larger plan involving several more Zicterium gas attacks on London which will be blamed on agents of other European nations, followed by similar attacks on the capitals of every other major European power, with the ultimate intent of sparking a world war while Britain still has a technological advantage decisive enough to allow them to come out on top.

    Web Animation 
  • Happens on GoAnimate when a bad user false flags an innocent user's video from YouTube and giving them a community guideline strike. The innocent user would call the police to arrest the bad user for false flagging.
  • Red vs. Blue; Season 12 reveals that a third party (the Space Pirates) are behind the civil war on the planet Chorus in Seasons 11-13. Their leaders (Locus and Felix) hired themselves and others off as mercenaries for one side or another, supplying them with weapons and alien technology in the hopes that they will kill each other off and allow their employer, Charon Industries, to move in and take all the relics hidden on Chorus for themselves.
  • RWBY:
    • By the end of Volume 3, the four kingdoms are on the verge of a world war, as the last thing anyone got out of Vale before the trans-continental network went down was images of Ironwood's Atlesian military robots attacking the city and shooting people. Of course, the robots had really been hacked by Salem's faction.
    • In "Dread in the Air", Adam murders Sienna Khan, the leader of the White Fang, and claims the humans did it. This gets him leadership and galvanizes the White Fang for his anti-human cause.

    Web Comics 
  • King Steve of 8-Bit Theater tried to hire the Dark Warriors to attack his own kingdom so that he could declare martial law. Like everything else, the plan failed miserably.
  • Fate/type Redline: The story is set near the end of WWII, when many of the Japanese are weary of war and advocate surrendering to the Allies. When one of the military commanders starts to think of surrender, Major Magatsu has him assassinated. He claims the factions talking surrender did it, angering his troops and ensuring they won't surrender anytime soon.
  • Heroine Chic: Side-character superhero The Nation and his sidekick Liberteen foil what appears to be a terrorist attack on the Hudson Yards perpetrated by ISIS operatives in Episode 10. When the terrorists are unmasked, they turn out to be blonde-haired, blue-eyed white men wearing brown-face makeup. The motive for their attack is debated briefly at the end of the episode, but the plotline is dropped and never re-visited.
  • Schlock Mercenary has one that happens right before the public reveal of immortality-granting nanotechnology. While it's presented as an In-Universe case of class warfare, the group (race) ultimately deemed responsible had already been shown to have tried once before, on a space station, with the only known rationalization being "surface dwellers are violent, so let's use that against them."
  • TwoKinds has one that turns out to be two levels deep: Tiger Keidrans and one of the dwindlingly few well-meaning Templars meet up for peace talks, and are attacked by "Templars" that turn out to be wolf Keirdans... and were in turn, hired by a Templar.
  • One happens during the third arc of Weak Hero. Jared, an underling of Ganghak's Wolf Keum, gets two lackeys to steal Wolf's prized bag containing important business files. He also orders them to steal it while wearing Eunjang uniforms and then sets things up so that the Eunjang student Rowan ends up toting the empty bag. This is all to direct Wolf's attention to Eunjang High in the hopes that he'll conquer it.

    Web Original 
  • One Batman fan-theory imagines that he makes hundreds of posts across forums claiming Bruce Wayne is Batman with the most illogical of reasons (like juxtaposing two pictures of them from the back and claiming their rear ends are the same). Then following up with Bruce Wayne going on a talk show, putting on a Batman mask, and showing just how incompetent a crimefighter a sheltered Rich Idiot With No Day Job would be.

    Web Videos 
  • Critical Role Campaign 2 centers on one long operation, pitting the Dwendalian Empire against the Kryyn Dynasty to allow cultists worshipping Tharizdun, the Chained Oblivion, to open rifts between the Material Plane and the Abyss and weaken the boundaries between the planes unopposed—with the end goal of unbinding Tharizdun and allowing it to consume the world.
    • Episode 85 has a more specific, immediate example: The Mighty Nein, having learned that agents of the cult are entering the Empire's capital city of Rexxentrum, teleport there in pursuit. They arrive to learn that the city has just come under attack by the forces of the Kryyn Dynasty. But after failing to ascertain any concrete information on the attack, Jester scrys on another man they know to be a part of the cult...and sees him in a cathedral in the city, delivering a rift-generating device to the church's cardinal, who is also a part of The Conspiracy. The Dynasty attack doesn't exist, and while the Crownsguard is preparing for it, demons will be able to overrun the city and break one of the chains binding Tharizdun.
  • Internet Historian: While discussing The Independence Day Wars of 2014 between Tumblr and 4chan, he mentions at the end of the video the possible Conspiracy Theory that it was in fact 4chan's /pol/ board who originally riled up Tumblr with the "declaration of war" post that called for Tumblr to raid 4chan's /b/ board and start the whole thing, which ended in 4chan's decisive victory when they counter-raided. The reasoning? To watch the fireworks.
  • In Noob, Tabris wants a total war between the factions, so he killed the Coalition's leader and framed spys from the Empire and the Order for it. The Coalition got hit with this again when the members of the council ruling in the dead leader's place all got killed by one of their own while the Coalition was having a Cooperation Gambit with the Empire. The killer pretended to be the Sole Survivor and pinned everything on the Empire via framing its help to fight a mutual threat as a cover for assassination.
  • World War II: One is conducted by German SS officers dressed in Polish uniforms on the radio station at Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border as a justification for the invasion of Poland.
    • The Soviet Union shells the Russian village of Mainila near the border with Finland, claiming the artillery fire to have come from across the nearby Finnish border, despite Finland having withdrawn its artillery to preempt such an accusation.

    Real Life 
  • If you head over to the Useful Notes page about Conspiracy Theories, you'll see that for almost any high-profile act of violence (crime, terrorism, warfare, etc.), there's a Conspiracy Theorist who's called it a false flag operation.
  • Police forces have used (and may still use) agents provocateur during demonstrations to start riots and give their uniformed comrades a reason to crack down on the demonstrators. It has backfired occasionally when the uniformed riot cops battered a group of protestors, including some undercover officers. It would have been hilarious, if it hadn't been for the dozens of injured protestors. Unfortunately, this also leads to people reflexively excusing bad behavior on the part of protesters by claiming that it was done by said agents, sometimes with the claim that real members wouldn't resort to violence.
  • Inverted by Hannibal Barca during the Punic Wars, as he was being stymied by the hit-and-run tactics of Fabius. However, Fabius' Boring, but Practical tactics were unpopular with the Roman citizens, who wanted a stand-up fight (that Rome had lost twice at that point), so Hannibal left Fabius' lands untouched during his campaign, fueling speculation that Fabius was secretly allies with Hannibal. In reality, Fabius was one of the only Roman commanders who Hannibal ever feared.note 
  • The Gleiwitz incident, when Nazi Germany provided justification for its war with Poland at the start of World War II by dressing some soldiers up in Polish uniforms, then attacking a German radio outpost while leaving behind a body, was just one of a number of independent operations collectively named "Operation Himmler". Noteworthy in that this was such an Epic Fail (absolutely no-one believed it), the fact that Germany claimed self-defense as a reason to go to war is regarded as an interesting bit of trivia instead of an important historical fact.
    • Later in 1939, the Shelling of Mainila started the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. The event was semi-officially admitted as a false flag by the Soviet and Russian leaders from the '70s to the '90s, but under Vladimir Putin, the Russian official stance has reverted to Stalin's version of events.
  • Similarly, there were some account(s) of people doing these to gain sympathy from the Apathetic Citizens. These often involved exaggerating actions of the other side, accusing the other side of trying to do this to gain their sympathy, disguising as Germans or Russians and ransacking villages, or just spreading nasty rumors.
  • Prior to America's entry into WWII, German blockade runners often impersonated American merchant ships to sneak past the Royal Navy. This blew up in their face on November 6th, 1941, when the blockade runner Odenwald, ostensibly the freighter SS Wilmotto out of Philadelphia and hauling badly-needed rubber from Japan, ran into a Neutrality Patrol consisting of the light cruiser USS Omaha (CL-4) and the destroyer USS Somers (DD-381). When Omaha signaled the cargo ship to heave to for inspection, the Germans immediately scuttled and abandoned Odenwald. The boarding party sent from Omaha managed to save the ship, while Somers picked up the German crew (including one Kriegsmarine sailor from the battlecruiser Graf Spee who had escaped internment in Uruguay after the Battle of the River Plate, stowed away on a ship to Japan, and joined Odenwald at Yokohama to get home) and placed them in custody. It is often incorrectly cited as the last time the US Navy awarded a prize bounty for the capture of an enemy ship, but the United States was not yet at war, so the cash bonuses paid to the crews of both warships were in fact the legal salvage value of the ship and cargo.note 
  • The Church of Scientology used stationery stolen from the apartment of author Paulette Cooper, who wrote an anti-Scientology book, to fake two bomb threat letters sent to Scientology facilities, and as part of Operation Freakout were planning on faking some more bomb threat letters to send to (among others) the US Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger.
  • Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" during the 2008 Democratic primaries certainly tried its very hardest to be one of those. The idea was for Republicans to switch their party registration to Democrat and then vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton (the underdog, at that point) in the primaries, in an effort to draw the primaries out and encourage more intra-party warfare between Clinton and Obama supporters, with the end result of a divided Democratic Party, who would then lose to the Republicans in the general election. How well it succeeded in its initial goals is debatable — the primary fight went through all 50 states (an event not seen in American politics for close to 40 years prior), and False Flagging Republicans certainly had some effect, but it's hard to know precisely how much and where. How well it succeeded in the "split the Democrats down the middle and make McCain win" goal is a bit more obvious.
  • In Naval Combat using a false flag is a nom de guerre, a "Name of War" and is a legal tactic as long you hoist true colours prior to engaging, even if it is mere seconds before. This is the origin of the idiom "to show one's true colours".
  • Similarly, but less commonly, wearing the uniform of your enemy is also legal, as long as you discard the false uniform prior to engaging. Such a tactic was used in World War II, with the resulting post-war trials resulting in the tactic being recognised as legal to order, as long as the troops ordered to do so were reminded and advised that they would need to discard the uniforms or potentially be liable to be executed as unlawful combatants, spies or saboteurs.
  • Britain used disguised ships to trap German commerce raiders during WWI. They sailed under neutral flags (often American) with the guns hidden, lured a commerce raider into challenging them, then hoisted the White Ensign and opened fire. Since the raider was 1) at close range and 2) probably surprised, this was an effective tactic. (Supposedly, at least one of these ships had special rigging to let it lower the decoy flag and raise the correct one simultaneously with a pull on a single rope.)
  • In both great wars, armed merchantmen or auxiliary cruisers (the German term for retrofitted fast merchantmen) both operating under false flags from neutral or opposing nations. While the British primarily used these ships in a defensive role to sucker their opponents (as noted above), the German ships would be used against other merchant ships as commerce raiders and minelayers, seeding well-trafficked areas with mines, but particularly in the First World War, British AMCs were also used in a raider role against German ships that had escaped the blockade. Infamously, and demonstrating the confusion that can result from this practice, in the First World War, the armed merchantman RMS Carmania encountered the SMS Cap Trafalgar, disguised as the RMS Carmania. The former immediately recognized the deception and subsequently engaged and sank the Cap Trafalgar in the Battle of Trindade. Accounts of the battle are often embellished by claiming that RMS Carmania was also disguised as SMS Cap Trafalgar. This was not the case, but it makes the story much funnier.
    • HMAS Sydney, an Australian light cruiser was sunk as a result of this tactic being used by the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran (converted from a civilian merchant ship) which had disguised itself as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. The use of the false flag, camouflage, and signal trickery combined with slack handling by Sydney saw the two ships enter very close range, at which point the surprise of the Kormoran allowed it to gain an upper hand on the heavy cruiser and pound it with torpedoes and heavy gunfire. While Sydney was able to sink the Kormoran in retaliation, the majority of the German crew survived and were rescued, while the Sydney went down with all hands (the largest Allied ship to be lost with all hands) in a major blow to Australian morale. There was much speculation in Australia that Kormoran might have opened fire while still flying the Dutch flag rather than identifying herself first as German (which would've been a war crime) or that a Japanese submarine was also present to torpedo Sydney, but no evidence exists for either theory and they seem to just be attempts to erase the embarassment of how a much less powerful opponent sank a major Australian warship.
  • During The American Civil War, Confederate raiders disguised themselves as ships of foreign nations. CSS Alabama, a case in point, disguised itself as HMS Spitfire, a British warship, before the battle against USS Kearsarge. The only requirement, which all legitimate combatants followed, was that they identify themselves as warships of the correct nation before fighting (or, seizing a merchant ship.) It's still done today, in fact - there's a story floating around the interweb of the HMS Illustrious responding to radio challenges in Urdu when on exercises and pretending to be a cruise liner from Pakistan, thus fooling their opponents. This only works when outside visual range, but that isn't such a problem when you are an aircraft carrier.note 
  • The Lavon Affair: In 1954, Israeli agents in Egypt (mostly Egyptian Jews) planted bombs at British and American targets in Egypt, hoping it would be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, or any number of nationalistic groups in the country. The Egyptian authorities found out about it, informing the Brits and Americans, neither of whom were amused. As for the Egyptians themselves, they considered it evidence that their Jewish population was all potential agents of Israel, and could potentially be a threat to security (this was probably wrong, but that didn't matter at the time), and so proceeded to de facto expel the Jews from Egypt (they weren't direct about it of course; mostly, the government let life get unbearable for them). To this day, the episode is often called "haEsek haBish (the Unfortunate Affair)" in Israel. The eponymous Pinhas Lavon, who OKed the plot, was forced to resign as Defense Minister as a result of the botched operation.
  • Operation Northwoods, a Cold War era program declassified in the 2000s, was a series of military proposals to commit false-flag operations and frame Cuba for it to justify an invasion, such as pretending to send a plane full of college students over the Gulf of Mexico, shooting it down, and blaming Castro; and planting false evidence of a Cuban attack should John Glenn be killed in his spaceflight. The scary thing? The plan was approved by all the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sent to the desk of the Secretary of Defense. JFK however, was not at all amused when he found out, as General Lemnitzer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was forced to resign afterwards. Cue conspiracy theories galore in 1...2...3...
  • During the Cold War, the ostensible idea behind NATO intelligence agencies’s alleged Strategy of Tension during Operation Gladio was to cow citizens into rallying behind the anti-communist, NATO-oriented governments of their respective states in Europe through exploiting their fear by backing several ultranationalist and neofascist terrorists and then attempting to pin their attacks, such as the Bologna bombing, on leftist terrorists (who were also active at that time). The twist? The idea itself was a false flag; the entire so-called “strategy of tension” never existed. The alleged leaked documents outlining it were actually Soviet-made forgeries, designed to smear NATO and the US in particular. This hasn’t stopped the proliferation of Conspiracy Theories concerning the alleged use of the “strategy”, however.
  • The Mukden Incident provided the pretext for the invasion of Manchuria by Japan.
  • You know those ads for secrets "the credit card companies don't want you to know"? Most of those companies are owned by credit card companies. The logic being that if one goes bankrupt, they get nothing, but if they arrange even a partial payment, they get some kind of money.
  • The Lindsay Pamphlet Scandal: Prior to the 2007 Australian election, Liberal Party members were caught distributing pamphlets purportedly from a radical Muslim organisation (that did not actually exist) supporting the Labor Party. They were immediately dismissed.
  • Operation Trust, in which the Cheka (the first USSR state security service) ran fake counter-revolutionary groups so they could expose and arrest real Soviet counter-revolutionaries.
  • In 1965, a clandestine group of army officers in Indonesia attempted, and failed, a coup against the military leadership. The army promptly blamed the whole incident on Indonesian communists...not the party, mind you, but all Indonesian communists, leading to the largest mass murder in Indonesian history to kill every last one of them (~500,000 or more). The operation was so successful the mass murder of communists and leftists is largely still unknown, ignored, or blamed on the actual communists who were among the first of hundreds of thousands killed.
  • In 1975, Indonesia then tried to convince the international world that their invasion of East Timor was in fact an independent action by pro-Indonesia factions such as APODETI by giving their paratroopers Russian weapons, and... not much else. If that's too hard for you to believe, consider the fact that during the invasion, Indonesian cargo planes accidentally dropped troops on the sea and the forces on the ground traded so much friendly fire that there might've been more Indonesian casualties from friendly fire than from the poorly-armed Fretilin resistance fighters.
  • In 66 AD, a band of Jewish Zealots known as the Sicarii infiltrated the city of Jerusalem and proceeded to commit a series of atrocities against their own people in order to ensure that they would have no choice but to continue warring with the Romans rather than negotiate for peace.
  • Hostels in southern France inhabited mainly by Muslim immigrants were bombed in 1988; notes were left at the scene of one of the bombings with the perpetrators describing themselves as the Zionist "Masada Action and Defense Movement". Once French police tracked and caught the perpetrators, they found them to be neo-Nazis who were trying to stir up tensions between Muslims and Jews.
  • The Cinema Rex fire in Iran, which was a major prelude to the Iranian Revolution. This one was particularly notable for actually being a Batman Gambit (and something of a double subversion) pulled off by the revolutionaries. The cinema at the time was widely seen a symbol of Western intrusions into Iran's traditional society and was a frequent target of criticism by Islamists. The revolutionaries who burned down the cinema knew that the Iranian government was well aware of their hatred of the institution and correctly predicted that Shah would immediately jump to blame them for the attack. This then allowed the revolutionaries to counter-accuse the government of making a baseless accusation against them without any evidence and, in turn, claimed that the fire was a false-flag committed by the secret police SAVAK. As much of the public was already sympathizing with the revolutionaries at this point and since SAVAK itself was already known for being a not-so-benevolent force that had executed false-flag operations in the past, the event was a huge PR victory for the Islamists and became a lightning rod that pushed the country into further chaos.
  • The Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands, a fake pro-China communist party in the Netherlands set up by the Dutch secret service to develop contacts with the Chinese government for espionage purposes.
  • In the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a Mormon militia disguised themselves as local Ute braves, attacking and massacring emigrants moving through the area. While the massacre was intended to Leave No Witnesses, this failed because one of the participants later confessed to his crimes and identified the ringleaders.
  • There have also been a lot of documented agent provocateur activities, both recently and a while back. In 1977, CBS News obtained a US Army document that detailing plans for dealing with protesters at the 1968 DNC. According to the document, about one out of 6 people at the protests was an FBI operative or some other type of government asset.
  • In June 1968, during the Brazilian Military Regime, several officers of an air force rescue unit planned to blow a bank, a department store, an American embassy, a gas holder, and a dam with remote explosives. One of the objectives was to blame left-wing guerrillas. One officer denounced the attack, and the Government was less than pleased with the news.
    • Later, in April 1981, two Brazilian officers tried to bomb a music concert and blame a group called the "People's Revolutionary Vanguard" (inactive since 1972). The bomb exploded earlier than planned, killing one of the men and injuring the other.
  • The whole goal of the murders committed by the Manson Family were intended to start a race war between the black and white people of the country. Their idea of how to plant "convincing" evidence that the murders of wealthy white victims had been done by black militants included writing in blood on the walls and making a small paw print, referring to the Black Panthers (there are some reports they also left watermelon rinds in the sink but it is hard to verify, so it might be a rumor). Manson and his gang were arrested, tried, and convicted, their clumsy attempt at a false flag horrifying many but fooling nobody.
  • A rather silly example: a Tennessee high school football coach was fired and arrested after vandalizing his own school and spray-painting insults about his own players, in the hopes that a rival school would be blamed and his team would be riled up for the upcoming game.
  • While it's never been proven, there's a theory that many of the supposedly "Soviet" submarine incursions into Swedish territorial waters during the 1980s were actually done by US and British submarines. These happened after the so-called "Whiskey in the Rocks" incident where an actual Soviet submarine was grounded in Swedish watersnote , the theory stating that NATO wanted to create the illusion that the Soviets were continuing to disrespect Swedish neutrality. While the theory has never been proven, former US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has gone on record that US did regularly enter Swedish waters during that time.
  • This tactic appears to be a favorite of The New Russia.
    • The Russian apartment bombings were an alleged terrorist attack that served as the casus belli for the Second Chechen War and the impetus for Vladimir Putin's (who at the time was director of the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB) rise to power after 300 civilians were killed. There were multiple first-hand accounts of civilians finding some of the bombs on the night of the attack only to be brushed off by law enforcement, and multiple experts agree it was likely orchestrated by Putin himself as a Pretext for War. In fact, multiple investigators and whistleblowers either looking into the bombings or outright admitting that Putin's regime did it ended up getting assassinated on his orders.
    • It has been widely alleged, with evidence, that the Ukrainian separatists/insurgents/fighters-against-the-government, starting in 2014, have basically been the Russian Army with some upset locals mixed in. Numerous incidents have occurred where Russian soldiers have been found mixed among Donetsk fighters, including an infamous incident where Russian soldiers were discovered in Donetsk, claiming to have 'gotten lost'. These Russian soldiers even showed up in Russian Army uniforms, just with all the insignia removed. If it is a false flag operation, it is almost as much of an Epic Fail as the Gleiwitz incident noted above. The Russian government has Plausible Deniability, though, as all those soldiers are listed as being "on vacation" with all the paperwork properly filled out and signed. Though it falls into Implausible Deniability when you account for them driving Russian Army tanks and self-propelled missile launchers into Eastern Ukraine, simply painting over the Russian markings before crossing the border. A particularly infamous example is a Buk missile launcher used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, apparently mistaking it for a Ukrainian military transport. Russian attempts to pin the blame on Ukraine (which operates the same missile system) failed when photo analysis of military vehicles crossing the Russia-Ukraine border were able to identify the exact launcher that shot down the airliner when it crossed back into Russia with one of its launch rails empty (whereas all 4 rails were loaded when it entered Ukraine). While the insignia and serial numbers had been painted over, they didn't anticipate that satellite photos would have high enough resolution to identify a vehicle by dented metal and scratched paint.
  • In 1956, incensed that Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, the British government conspired with France to encourage Israel to start a war with Egypt. The goal of the operation was for Britain and France to step in as peacekeepers and to make sure that hostilities did not spill over from the Sinai Peninsula once that conflict ended, Britain and France would occupy and control the canal. This backfired spectacularly. Israel made it to the edge of the Sinai Peninsula but was forced to withdraw. Alexandria was occupied, but the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. forced Britain and France to admit that they had violated Egypt's right as a sovereign nation to take control of the canal, and forced them to withdraw their forces from the territory they captured. In Britain, Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign, in no small part because U.S. President Eisenhower warned that the U.S. will in no way support Britain's endeavor in Suez, and warned that the U.S. would decrease military aid.
  • A common Internet trolling tactic is to find some Flame War in progress and pose as a member one or both sides of the debate and making ever inflammatory comments toward to other side. This will ensure that the flame war stays hot and both sides don't make even the slightest progress towards reconciliation. Some of the more ambitious trolls will post in the community their identity is in but it's often simply as easy as creating an account.
  • This is the whole deal behind swatting (falsifying an emergency to trick a SWAT team into storming someone's home, typically just for fun and sometimes even specifically trying to get the police to shoot the victim). People have been hurt for real and in 2021 a Tennessee man died of a heart attack after his home was swatted by assholes trying to coerce him into giving up the "Tennesee" handle on Twitter. Fortunately, new laws have been (and continue to be made) to punish scum who engage in this sort of thing, including making them responsible for any property damage caused as a result.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): False Flag Attack


On the spot

Cartwright and Lamb have Taverner when the former gets photos of her meeting with an ex-MI:5 agent named Alan Black to infiltrate the Sons of Albion as proof that she's behind the kidnapping of a South Asian university student.

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Example of:

Main / FalseFlagOperation

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