The Most Important False Flag Attacks in History  

Mike Rothschild
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Which acts of terrorism, mass shootings, and other major incidents have alleged false flag theories associated with them? In military terms, a "false flag" or "false flag attack" is any operation designed to make your opponent think you're someone else. The term was used in naval warfare denote a ship that literally ran up the flag of the nation they were at war with, then attacked any ship from that country that approached it, thinking it was friendly. False flags have also denoted incidents used by aggressor nations to start wars, often staging an encounter and using it as an excuse for war or invasion.

To conspiracy theorists, a false flag is something beyond even the general descriptions above: a terrorist attack or shooting staged not by terrorists, but by the government of the nation that was attacked. These could be as localized as a school shooting or as major as the 9/11 attacks. Bloggers and YouTube channels often seize on inconsistencies in early reporting, conflicting eyewitness testimony, the behavior of victims, superficial similarities in the appearance or mannerisms of survivors, or "strange" coincidences - all to make the point that there is a great, evil intelligence at work.

These are the recent and historical incidents alleged by conspiracy theorists to be false flags - perpetrated by governments as an excuse for war, martial law, or massive military expenditures.

Please note: Some of the material in this list is based on pieces I wrote for the website Skeptoid, primarily this piece: False Flag Attacks: Myth and Reality.
Gulf of Tonkin incident is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Important False Flag Attacks in History
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/Public domain

One of the most misunderstood actions in recent military history, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident involved a US destroyer that was the victim of two attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, one real, the other probably jittery sailors firing at shadows.

There is ample evidence that the first attack happened, and no evidence that the second involved any deliberate deception by the US. However, conspiracy theorists seized on the subsequent passing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as proof that the incident was staged to justify an escalation of hostilities in Vietnam.
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Attack on Pearl Harbor is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Important False Flag Attacks in History
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/Public domain

It's a long-held belief of conspiracy theorists that the US, and in particular President Roosevelt, knew Japan was going to attack Pearl Harbor, but allowed the attack to take place - with devastating consequences. The reasoning is that Roosevelt was itching to get into the war, so he could make a lot of money and expand American power in the world.

The problem with this theory is that it's based mostly on misconception. There were numerous errors made by the US in the defense of Pearl Harbor, such as lining up airplanes wingtip to wingtip, as well as new radar technology that nobody actually knew how to use. Finally, the most often cited piece of evidence, that Roosevelt kept the US aircraft carriers out of Pearl Harbor because of their value, isn't true. In 1941, battleships were still the most dominant assets in a navy, and they suffered heavy losses.

More Attack on Pearl Harbor

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The September 11th Attacks
The September 11th Attacks is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Important False Flag Attacks in History
Photo: cliff1066/CC BY 2.0

Maybe the ultimate conspiracy theory of the 21st century, many "9/11 truthers" believe the attacks were a false flag, either engineered or permitted by the US as an excuse to enact sweeping legal restrictions and go to war in the Middle East.

Despite over a decade of investigation, none of these theories have proven to hold true. There are tested scientific explanations as to why the towers fell in the way they did, and no credible evidence that anyone in the US knew about the attack other than vague warnings about Osama bin Laden planning some kind of attack.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Important False Flag Attacks in History
Photo: Geordie Bosanko and Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons

As soon as MH17 went down over Ukraine in July 2014, a number of conspiracy theories arose as to what "really" happened. Most centered on the plane's shoot down being a false flag operation perpetrated by Ukraine as an excuse for war with Russia. According to these theories, the plane was either shot down by a Ukrainian jet, or blown up by explosives that had been planted on it earlier.

Most of these theories were advanced by state-owned Russian media outlets, and seized on by YouTube channels and bloggers. Few have any compelling evidence to support them, and it's generally accepted that the plane was accidentally shot down by Russian-backed rebels.