“Our 9/11.” That’s what some Russians were (and still are) calling the September (9, 13, and 16) 1999 bombings of four apartment buildings that left close to 300 dead, more than 1,000 injured, and became the spark that reignited a brutal war with repercussions that have lasted to this day. Soon after the attacks, a device similar to the others was found and defused in the Russian city of Ryazan (about 122 miles southeast of Moscow) before it detonated.

The next day, then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the aerial bombing of Grozny, the Chechen Republic’s capital, marking the beginning of the Second Chechen War. Russian authorities immediately declared the bombings the work of Chechen separatists, in what many took as an open-and-shut case. But then, not 36 hours later, three FSB agents were arrested by local authorities in connection with the defused Ryazan device, and murmurs of a false flag attack began to emerge. But just what are false flag operations, and how often have they been/are they used?

Russia's 9/11 and the art of the false flag
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For those who may not be up on spy/conspiracy theory lingo, a false flag operation is one carried out in such a way as to appear to have been carried out by a government, entity, etc. other than the actual perpetrators. The term has its historical origins on the high seas, when sailing men o’ war would fly a flag other than their own before attacking an enemy vessel. Now here’s the kicker: It was forbidden to fly that false flag while the attack was underway, as it was seen as ungentlemanly. The false flag tactic has been used in some well-known (but not always well-executed) operations, such as the A-26C Invader aircraft painted in false Cuban Air Force colors used (poorly) to cover the April 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs by the CIA-sponsored Brigade 2506. We know how that went.

A lesser-known false flag operation was carried out (in part, although planned and led by then-Major Kurt Student) by Austrian-born Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny is best known for being part of the daring glider-borne rescue mission to liberate Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but in December of 1944, under explicit orders from Adolf Hitler, a unit of his commandos was tasked with a bold undertaking to disrupt the aggressive Allied advance facing Nazi Germany. Dressed in American Army uniforms, the units had a threefold mission: