One of the big, if largely unspoken, issues in counterterrorism is the considerable role played by intelligence agencies in manipulating terrorist groups – penetrating their cells, confusing them, sometimes wrecking them altogether. This sort of thing, termed provocation by insiders, is a messy business which is understood by counterintelligence hands worldwide yet seldom gets mentioned by BigTerror “experts” since it doesn’t fit the neat and tidy “good guys v. bad guys” narrative they prefer.
Yet provocation happens in the real world and plays a big part in defeating terrorists. The most successful campaigns against terrorism have usually incorporated provocation, often with great operational success and baleful humanitarian consequences. Provocation works, so many intelligence services employ it. But provocation isn’t nice, indeed it’s a nasty business, so BigTerror “experts” usually avoid mentioning it.
When provocation is employed effectively by your intelligence agency – you take your time, you place agents carefully inside the terrorist group – you wind up taking effective control of one terror cell, then another, until eventually you’re running the show. At which point you run the terrorists into the ground, encouraging them to do stupid and self-defeating things, and you declare victory. Sounds like a bad movie, but the Russians, who invented this sneaky tactic, have been taking it to the bank for over a century. They call it provokatsiya.
Others do it too, and it leads to situations where it can be difficult to determine which terrorists are legit and which are “under control” as the pros say. Unraveling it all can be challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible. It makes analysis tough, which is why conventional analysts simply avoid the issue altogether … and thereby miss the real story.
One of my favorite examples goes back over thirty years. Back in the 1970s, strange as it may sound today, Croatians were one of the world’s biggest terrorism problems. Emigres living in the West who hated the Communist regime in Yugoslavia waged a shadow war against Tito by attacking Yugoslav embassies, shooting up regime facilities, hijacking airplanes – ah, the good old days, when terrorists took over commercial planes to win sympathy and not just fly them into buildings – and even staging commando raids into the motherland. Most of their activities were in Western Europe, but the Croatian freedom fighters brought terrorism to Australia, Canada, and even the United States, where they did bombings, killed rivals, and are the top suspects in one of the bloodiest terrorist outrages in U.S. history.
Naturally, these shenanigans got the attention of the Yugoslav secret police, the dreaded UDBA, which successfully penetrated many of the terrorist groups deeply. During the Cold War, UDBA waged a very successful and very nasty campaign against troublesome emigres which involved assassinating over eighty people in the West – some of them actual terrorists, some of them people Tito just didn’t like. By the 1970s UDBA was in functional control of several of the Croatian terrorist groups and proceeded to eliminate them one by one. By the mid-1980s Yugoslavia’s emigre terrorism problem had been liquidated (just in time for Yugoslavia to collapse under its own weight, but that’s another story).
One of UDBA’s top successes was the case known as the Croatian Six, which remains a big story in its native Australia and offers an ideal study in provocation. In February 1979, Australia was rocked by the arrests of six Croatian immigrants who according to police were plotting to blow up a long list of prominent targets around Sydney, including a major theater packed with innocent people, several businesses, and even an attack on Sydney’s water supply. The police were tipped off by the seventh member of the group, Vito Virkez, who called the cops and dimed out his co-conspirators.
The Croatian Six from day-one protested their innocence, and from the outset there were whispers that things were not quite right. In the first place, the six guys were actually two groups of three, and they didn’t seem to know each other. The cops went hard on them and coerced confessions, and may have planted explosives. No one bothered to ask why six average immigrants, who hated Tito but had no grudge against Australia, would want to blow up a bunch of innocent Australians. How that would help liberate Croatia from the Communists and endear Aussies to their cause remained a mystery. Above all, the prosecution failed to disclose that ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence service, suspected that the whole thing was an UDBA set-up and knew that, shortly before calling the Australian cops, Vito Virkez had phoned the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney, which ASIO knew was staffed by UDBA officers.
As expected, Virkez testified as the star witness against the Croatian Six, who were convicted of a raft of charges and sentenced to hefty prison terms. That Virkez promptly left Australia to return to Communist Yugoslavia, which he allegedly had been fighting against, got less attention than it should have. To this day the case remains the highest-profile terrorism trial in Australian history, despite the fact that as far back as 1991 it’s been confirmed that this was all a fake. Australian TV reporter Chris Masters tracked down Mr. Virkez in his native Bosnia, who admitted that his real name was Misimovic and he was actually a Serb, not a Croat. He was an UDBA agent provocateur who’d been dispatched to Australia in the early 1970s to penetrate and discredit Croatian groups down under. By tarring the Croatian emigration with extremism and terrorism, UDBA gained a big political victory and neutralized its enemies in Australia.
A lot has come out since “Virkez” had his cover blown in 1991, including an excellent report earlier this year by Hamish Macdonald (full disclosure: I was a source for that story), and lawyers and activists are trying to get justice for the poor guys who got set up and falsely convicted of terrorism over thirty years ago. Let’s hope they succeed – better late than never.
UPDATE: Australian journalist Sasha Uzunov, who has closely looked at just-declassified intelligence documents, reveals that in January 1977, ASIO reported that Yugoslavia warned Australia that, if Australian authorities didn’t act to suppress anti-Yugoslav activities down under, Belgrade would take matters into its own hands … this appears to be UDBA’s warning shot across the bow before setting up the Croatian Six. Nice job, Sasha!