Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 1  /  

Covert Operations and Strategy

Covert Operations and Strategy Covert Operations and Strategy
To cite this article: Anglim, Simon, “Covert Operations and Strategy”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, Winter 2011, pages 21-25.

Covert operations provide a cost-effective method for pursuing policy aims internationally with reduced risk. 2011 has provided strong evidence in support of this proposition. March brought allegations of Colonel Gadaffi enlisting some distinguished Western universities to launder his reputation, thwarted apparently only by press attention following the opening of military operations against him; news soon followed of a British ‘diplomatic team’, incorporating personnel from the Secret Intelligence Service and 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS), detained while liaising with anti-Gadaffi rebels inside Libya.[i] By April, ‘former’ SAS men and ‘Private Military Companies’ were reported inside Libya providing ‘support and advice’ to the rebels.[ii] Interestingly, this period saw published Duff Hart-Davis’ excellent account of a previous generation of ‘ex’-SAS men, backed secretly by the UK and Saudi Governments, providing similar ‘support and advice’ to the Imam of Yemen’s resistance to the Egyptian occupation of the 1960s.[iii] Gadaffi has used covertly supported proxies against his enemies before, sponsoring the IRA and al Fatah, and, responding to the 2011 NATO airstrikes against him, promised that hundreds of Libyans would ‘martyr’ themselves in Europe in retaliation.[iv] Then, 27 July saw the US, UK and French Governments recognise the anti-Gadaffi rebels as the ‘sole governmental authority’ in Libya and release over £90 million in Libyan assets held in Western banks to assist them further.[v] Beyond Libya, 2011 saw several mysterious incidents in Iran: two scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear programme and one of the founders of its ballistic missile programme were killed by bombs planted by persons unknown, and in November 2011 another bomb detonated near Iran’s main nuclear facility in Isfahan, as the Obama administration stated openly that ‘covert action’ was part of a strategy to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.[vi] Throughout 2011, stories emerged of a veritable ‘reputation laundering’ industry in London, some elite consultancies being employed allegedly by unenlightened and sometimes vicious regimes to connect them with high-profile apologists and front-men in the UK, including a former Prime Minister, serving Members of Parliament and a prince of the Royal Family.[vii]

It was put by some that supporting the Libyan rebels was strategically pointless and imposing dangerous levels of overstretch on British forces committed heavily already to Afghanistan at a time of fiscal belt-tightening, demonstrating thereby the current British Government’s strategic illiteracy (e.g. ‘As we attempt to wage intervention on the cheap, we are unprepared conceptually and militarily to wage war on a sovereign state again… This crisis demonstrates some disturbing flaws in the country’s capacity to think coherently and plan strategically’).[viii] Such views reflect a purist – and mainly academic – view of strategy as using armed force to pursue clear policy goals via a comprehensive and immutable plan unfailingly matching a single means to the end in point. This is rarely the case in real life – strategy is an intrinsically political activity, and politics is far from the neat, sequential affair many think it is. Politics is the means by which clashes of interest between collectives of people are resolved, and, as both Machiavelli and Clausewitz realised, effective political activity must be reactive and opportunistic, even the most long-term of policies having to use various means in combination, and adapt to shifting contexts if they are to stay relevant; it must also, in many cases, be duplicitous and obfuscatory of both ends and means if interests are to be pursued effectively against competition.[ix] A Machiavelli might, therefore have argued that Britain and France seized opportunities presented by the Libyan rebellion, managing the situation cost-effectively via combining hard power, diplomacy and covert operations; likewise, if the Iranian bomb attacks come from covert activity by outside powers, then this forms part of a coherent policy programme as well.[x] Indeed, so convinced are some countries of the efficacy of such activities that they have created ‘fourth forces’ specialising in them; the Second World War saw Britain create Special Operations Executive (SOE) to ‘set Europe ablaze’, followed by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS); more recent events have been shaped by organisations such as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Special Operations Division and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s al Quds Force. Establishing the importance of such activity on paper is problematic, nevertheless, most obviously because it is covert, therefore covered by official secrecy beyond examples decades past; moreover, the sheer range of covert activities – from bloodless, subtle propaganda of the ‘cultural diplomacy’ variety to deploying Special Forces in surreptitious paramilitary support of friendly forces engaged in war – hinders the kind of grand general theorising underpinning much of the academic study of strategy.

Covert Operations and Strategy

Yet, these activities can be differentiated from others. Where open, peaceful methods are used to pursue external policy, it is called diplomacy; if force or threat of force is used overtly, it is called strategy; where external policy utilises means clandestine and concealed from the target government and its own public, it is called covert activity. All are instruments of policy; all have the same objective, each uses a different path to get there. It is put commonly that covert operations in peacetime are a tool of foreign policy, in wartime, of strategy.[xi] Remember, however, that strategy never stops.[xii] There are grey areas in which states clash short of open warfare when use of subversion, sabotage and fighting by local proxies may be a preferred strategic option to overt commitment of regular forces; moreover, given that much non-violent covert activity aims at undermining the target state’s military preparedness and will to fight, and steering its strategic decision-making processes, there are important strategic dimensions here, also.

A covert operation, therefore, is a single mission aimed at creating a particular situation in another country with concealed means and intent. Non-violent covert operations create disaffection among the target state’s population, weakening its will to affect the world around it, or steer surreptitiously its decision-making via placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations include sabotage, assassination, and paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the opposing power. To reduce political fallout if things go wrong, peacetime covert operations should have ‘plausible deniability’: put bluntly, if things go wrong, the head of the originating government should be able to deny they authorised the operation or even knew of it. Therefore, official records might not be kept, and use will be made of front organisations, middlemen and local allies, including indigenous insurgencies, private military companies, tame media outlets, private consultancies and PR companies.[xiii] It is conceded that this brings risk to the policymaker, due mainly to there being no clear definition of what should be ‘deniable’ under such circumstances and how ‘plausible’ the deniability should be. It may be that the President or Prime Minister is not informed at all of what is going on, allowing them to be truthful when they say they did not know about it; not only can this make them appear incompetent but it can also conceal ‘rogue’ agencies pursuing their own idea of the national interest, and thereby undermining state policy – the Lavon Affair comes to mind, here.

Non-violent Covert Activity

Non-violent covert operations depend heavily upon ‘agents of influence’, persons able to influence either the government of the target country or opinion among its people. Those working directly upon the government tend to be taskable agents of the attacking power’s intelligence service, while public opinion can be steered by other agents or just as often, and with more ‘plausible deniability’, through what Lenin (purportedly) called ‘useful idiots’, influential apologists duped into propagandising for the attacker through being propagandised thoroughly themselves.[xiv] Whether taskable agents or ‘useful idiots’ are used depends upon intent, opportunity, and the political culture of the target state: the endemic corruption and factionalism characterising many ‘developing’ states makes recruitment of local agents relatively easy. Economically developed liberal democracies are less prone to these things but with their multiple competing parties expressing multiple competing agendas, plethora of organised special interest groups, powerful and often aggressively querulous mass media and cultural mores emphasising unfettered freedom of expression and the ‘right to protest’, they actually offer no end of entry points for subversion via a judicious mixture of agents and ‘useful idiots’. Indeed, ‘useful idiots’ were a cornerstone of ‘permanent revolution’ as advocated by Leon Trotsky, the USSR’s Commissar for Military Affairs, in the 1920s, which was aimed specifically at undermining democracies. Trotsky saw the USSR as the vanguard of a ‘world revolution’, combining conquest by the Red Army with hastening the internal collapse of ‘bourgeois’ states through ‘entryism’ – finding sympathisers among opposing states’ education system, trade unions and mass media who would agitate schoolchildren, students and industrial workers, leading to them to form revolutionary cells and repeat the process seen in Russia before 1917.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union controlled other communist parties worldwide via the Comintern from the 1920s onwards, maintaining plausible deniability by claiming this was an international fraternal organisation of such parties, rather than an arm of the Soviet state.[xv] Soviet bloc intelligence agencies also infiltrated ‘peace’ movements in the West, albeit with limited success. The majority of the membership of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) fit firmly into the ‘useful idiot’ category, MI5 noting with some amusement the willingness of senior CND figures in the 1970s to accept ‘briefings’ from the Soviet Embassy in London at face value.[xvi] However, active ‘entryism’ was also apparent: at one point in the 1970s, eight of the fifteen seats on CND’s national executive were held by members of the staunchly pro-Soviet Communist Party of Great Britain, while in 1999 it was revealed that Professor Vic Allen, who ran for the organisation’s leadership in 1985, was ‘in regular communication’ with the East German secret service at a time when CND was campaigning to remove American cruise missiles from British soil and had steered the Labour Party’s defence policy towards Britain scrapping its nuclear deterrent and pressuring European allies to do likewise.[xvii]

Similar operations were pursued by William Casey, the Director of US Central Intelligence from 1981 until shortly before his death in 1987. Having observed the effective Soviet use of covert operations, Casey concluded that religion could form a potent counter-ideology behind covert resistance to atheist communism worldwide.[xviii] Consequently, he provided the Polish trade union, Solidarity, which developed gradually throughout the 1980s into a peaceful mass movement, opposing the communist government of Poland in alliance with the Polish Catholic Church, with money and printing presses alongside smaller-scale support for Jewish and Muslim dissident groups within the USSR.[xix] However, Casey’s most ambitious covert operation was in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to be discussed in the context of other armed operations.

Armed Covert Operations

Integrating armed covert operations into theatre-level strategy was pioneered in the First World War, the best-known example involving the British providing weapons, engineers and aircraft to the Hashemite revolt against the Turks in the Hejaz region of Arabia in 1917-1918. The technique was perfected by Nazi Germany in the 1930s, using the Austrian Nazi Party and pro-Nazi movements among the Volksdeutsche of the Sudetenland and Silesia to instigate and steer the crises of 1937-1939, and in 1940, agents of the Brandenburg Special Operations Organisation of the Abwehr, German military intelligence, wearing French or Dutch uniforms or civilian dress, carried out deep reconnaissance and sabotage ahead of the advancing Wehrmacht. The activities of Brandenburg, combined with the rapid collapse of resistance in France and the Low Countries, led the British to assume that Germany had created a Europe-wide network of ‘Fifth Columns’, based on emigrant communities or pro-fascist traitors, to spy, sabotage and subvert ahead of the Blitzkrieg.[xx]

It is therefore unsurprising that British strategy, post-1940, incorporated the ‘encouragement of revolt’ in Axis-occupied territory. At the behest of the War Office, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Gubbins authored The Art of Guerilla [sic] Warfare, a manual for armed covert operations which was distributed in the hundreds of thousands in dozens of languages, and also became operational doctrine for the best known ‘fourth force’ in history, SOE – of which Gubbins, promoted major general, was Director from 1943. Gubbins described conditions for such operations to succeed still holding true now – an occupier or government unloved by the populace, overstretched in space and time and facing threats on its borders, a credible leader-figure or government in exile around whom the resistance could coalesce and providing it with a motivating cause, and physical and political geography enabling the maintenance of concealed lines of communication to the insurgents. To exploit this situation, teams of specialist military personnel should infiltrate insurgent territory, to provide local partisans with logistical support, professional staff work and technical advice, but, more importantly, ensure their activities furthered Allied policy.[xxi]

This is possibly what the outside ‘advisors’ were doing in Libya in 2011, and has been observable elsewhere throughout the Postwar period. Much has been made recently about trans-national ‘networked insurgencies’ producing a ‘new paradigm of war’.[xxii] This is a sensible strategy for attacking the democracies in the 21st century, given their propensity for large-scale, open-ended ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the developing world, allowing them to be drawn into proxy insurgencies and other local conflicts, while the questionable strategic value of many such interventions can lead to exploitable controversy back home, particularly in cases such as Iraq, 2003, when intervening governments obfuscate their aims and motivations.[xxiii] However, the ‘paradigm shifters’ might try reading some more history, the method being neither new nor unprecedented.[xxiv] This is what SOE, OSS and the Soviet NKVD did in the Second World War, and in the 1950s, Nasser’s Egypt organised Palestinian Fedayeen for cross-border raids from Sinai into Israel while pursuing a policy of ejecting British and French ‘imperialists’ from the Middle East via providing weapons, money and training to insurgents in Algeria, Oman and, later, Aden. The strategy was soon applied again globally: observing the success of the 1959 Cuban revolution, in 1961, Aleksandr Shelepin, chairman of the KGB, proposed supporting ‘national liberation movements’ in the Third World to build Soviet influence globally while forcing the USA and its allies to disperse armed strength away from Europe.[xxv] By the 1970s, not only were the Soviets supporting the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and insurgencies in South Africa and Rhodesia, but via their proxies, Cuba, Libya (Gadaffi), South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, were arming and training insurgents and would-be insurgents in Venezuela, Guatemala, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Northern Ireland, Italy, West Germany, Angola, Mozambique and Oman – covert operations within covert operations.[xxvi]

And, of course, this is what the USA developed in Afghanistan in the 1980s, via a three way alliance between the CIA, the Saudis, and the Pakistani secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), one of the most effective and experienced covert warfare organisations in the world. The Americans provided training, coordination, planning and, later, weapons. The Saudis funded the operation, and recruited foreign Mujahedeen to fight alongside the Afghans. ISI supplemented the funding, created training camps on the Northwest Frontier, and used networks built up over the previous thirty years in Afghanistan and Central Asia to provide liaison with the resistance.[xxvii]

This clandestine alliance benefited from the conditions for success laid out by Gubbins forty years before, and it changed the course of history. One outcome was the Soviet ejection from Afghanistan, a factor in the USSR’s discrediting as a world power; another was the birth of al Qaeda. Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden founded the Afghan Services Bureau in 1984, with the probable backing of Prince Turki, head of Saudi intelligence, to improve the training and supply of Muslim volunteers going to Afghanistan.[xxviii] They built up a worldwide net of covert fundraisers, and by 1985, had their own training camp in Pakistan and some 3,000 professional guerrillas from all over the Muslim world, trained by American and Pakistani Special Forces. This formed the kernel of al Qaeda, whose true claim to originality is that it is a non-state actor carrying out a transnational terrorist insurgency on a global scale – a Salafist SOE or OSS which works in not dissimilar ways. Like those organisations, it provides these local groups with training, planning and tactical advice via the internet and other media, occasionally attaches agents to local groups to coordinate them with the aims of the overall movement, and sometimes withdraws operatives for training at the home base.[xxix] This ‘hands off’ approach worked, taking the USA almost a decade to realise that numerous apparently unconnected local incidents formed part of a coherent global strategy – yet, its frequent reliance on disgruntled minorities, and the steady elimination of local leader-figures is likely to cap al Qaeda’s success. A concurrent, less high-profile but possibly more efficient linked insurgency has been run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps al Quds Force via its proxy, Hezbollah, which in addition to setting up a mini-state in southern Lebanon and executing terrorist attacks on Israel, has allegedly hit Jewish interests in Latin America, and US facilities in Saudi Arabia. Iran also inserted agents into majority Shi’ite areas of southern Iraq, following the abortive uprising of 1991, recruiting locals who became the kernel of the Shi’ite insurgency which ejected British forces from Basra in 2009.[xxx] In 1996, the uncovering of a Hezbollah-backed coup d’état plot in Bahrain led to President Clinton contemplating military action against Iran.[xxxi]

While deficient in planning, Hezbollah showed sound strategic logic here, as perhaps the most efficient covert operations of all neutralise potentially hostile governments altogether via coups d’état, following the Sun-Tzu-like path of finding dissenting elements in a strategically important state’s armed forces and security services, turning them into strategic instruments in our own hands, and using them to replace their government with one more pliable. This was a favoured method of Western powers during the Cold War period. Probably the best-known covertly-organised coup of the modern era was also in the Gulf region, that against Mohammed Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, organised by the CIA in 1953 on behalf of the British after he nationalised Iran’s British-owned oilfields, which ensured the Shah would remain in command of Iran for another 26 years. This particular operation bears study not just for its historical impact, but for its illustration of what goes into a successful outside-sponsored coup – an ostensibly popular but actually divisive government, powerful vested interests ideologically sympathetic with the intervening power, and a credible alternative leader-figure willing to cooperate fully with the interveners.[xxxii] And it appears that clandestine warfare goes on there still….


The unseen hand of clandestine warfare lies behind many historical and current events. It played its part in shaping recent global history, including the evolution of the Cold War, the recent history of the Middle East and events before and after 9/11, and continues in Libya and, possibly, Iran. This is growingly important for liberal democracies, needing as they do to reconcile the demands of Realpolitik with their liberal and ethical self-image and the apparent post-Iraq public distaste for large-scale foreign adventures. As such, they will need to consider options which leave the lowest possible political-strategic footprint. Moreover, the nature of such operations allows countries to ‘punch above their weight’ globally and cost-effectively, Libya 2011 indicating the UK Government may realise this.


[i] Jeevan Vasagar and Rajeev Syal, ‘LES Head quits over Gadaffi scandal’,, accessed 13 July 2011; ‘London School of Economics to give Gadaffi money away’,, accessed 13 July 2011; Martin Chulov, Mark Tran, Amy Fallon and Polly Curtis, ‘SAS-backed Libyan diplomatic mission ends in humiliation’,, accessed 20 July 2011; ‘Libya Unrest: SAS members “captured near Benghazi”’, accessed 20 July 2011
[ii] ‘SAS “Smash” Squads on the ground in Libya to mark targets for coalition jets’,, accessed 20 July 2011; ‘Libya: SAS veterans helping Nato identiry Gadaffi targets in Misrata’,, accessed 20 July 2011
[iii] Duff Hart-Davis, The War that Never Was: The True Story of the Men who Fought Britain’s Most Secret Battle (London: Century 2011)
[iv] David Smith, ‘Gaddafi threatens attacks in Europe’,, accessed 22 July 2011
[v] See ‘UK expels Gaddafi diplomats and recognises Libya rebels’
[vi] David Sanger, ‘America’s Deadly Dynamics with Iran’,; ‘Has a war with Iran already began?’,
[vii] For example, see Robert Booth, ‘Prince Andrew row intensifies as he lobbies for Azerbaijan’,; Daniel Kalder, ‘Mr Blair goes to Kazakhstan: Western former leaders are making themselves available to corrupt regimes for PR purposes’, Spectator, 5 November 2011, pp.14-15
[viii] Dr Patrick Porter, ‘Lost in Libya: the UK does not understand strategy’, Infinity Journal No.3,; see also Shashank Joshi, ‘British Strategy in Libya’,; James Kirkup, Thomas Harding and Damien McElroy, ‘Libyan Air Strikes: Armed Forces Minister admits there is no exit strategy’,
[ix] Refer to Hew Strachan, ‘Strategy and Contingency’, International Affairs, Volume 87 Number 6, November 2011, pp.1281-1296, for a view of strategy somewhat at variance with the popular consensus
[x] A discussion of why this happened, or whether this constituted ‘good’ or ‘bad’ policy is irrelevant to this paper; whether policy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ has no bearing whatsoever on the efficiency of the methods used to pursue it.
[xi] Ibid, pp.75-76 provides a good summary of covert activity as a tool of foreign policy.
[xii] We should all be indebted to William F. Owen and A.E. Stahl for this aphorism
[xiii] Abram N Shulsky and Gary J Schmitt, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence (Washington DC: Potomac Books 2002), pp.91-95
[xiv] The term is often attributed to Lenin, but there is no direct evidence linking him with its origin.
[xv] Shulsky and Schmitt, Silent Warfare, pp.86-87
[xvi] Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London: Penguin 2010), pp.673-675
[xvii] ‘I regret nothing, says Stasi spy’,; ‘So who else spied on us? More about the Mitrokhin Archive and British spies’, Professor Allen was unapologetic about his activities, and went unpunished for it, possibly because several members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, including Mr Blair himself, and Lord Robertson, the then Secretary General of NATO, had all been members of CND in the 1980s and the whole affair therefore had the potential for immense embarrassment were matters taken further.
[xviii] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (London: Penguin 2004), pp.92-93, 97-98
[xix] George Friedman, America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle between the United States and its Enemies (London: Little, Brown 2004), p.15
[xx] AJP Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton 1961), pp.8, 51, 112-115, 176-179. For what the British suspected about Brandenburg in 1940, see FO Miksche, Paratroops (London: Faber and Faber 1943), p.65; PRO WO 208/2998, ‘Enemy Air-Borne Forces’, pp.10, 25
[xxi] Lieutenant Colonel C McV Gubbins, The Art of Guerrilla Warfare (London: MI(R) 1939), especially pp.1-4, 6-7, 9, 16-17
[xxii] See Colonel Thomas X Hammes USMC, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (St Paul, MN: Zenith 2006), pp.1-15, 130-152; David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (London: Hurst 2009), pp.5-29 Both these are excellent works, and Colonel Kilcullen in particular is to be congratulated for exploding a lot of the nonsense surrounding insurgency, but, sadly, like many other good books on strategy, both have been seized upon by certain others who have cherry-picked certain themes and ideas for their own agendas.
[xxiii] Friedman, America’s Secret War, pp.32-35
[xxiv] I am grateful to Colonel David Benest for suggesting this line of investigation. It is worth noting that Colonels Hammes and Kilcullen both have an excellent understanding of historical context, but some taking inspiration from them certainly do not.
[xxv] Mitrokhin II, pp.9, 40, 150, 432-433
[xxvi] Ibid, pp.246-262, 443-449; Robert Asprey, War in the Shadows (London: Little, Brown 1994), pp.1062-1121
[xxvii] For an inside view from the ISI, see Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin, The Battle for Afghanistan (London: Pen & Sword 2007)
[xxviii] Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.155-156; Hammes, Sling, pp.131-132
[xxix] Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.474-475, 489; Hammes, Sling, pp.134-138
[xxx] Friedman, America’s Secret War, pp.249-250, 301-302; Richard A Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (London: Free Press 2004), pp.101-104
[xxxi] Clarke, Against all Enemies, pp.111-121
[xxxii] See Donald N Wilber, Regime Change in Iran: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran November 1952-August 1953 (Nottingham: Spokesman 2006)