Texas Army National Guard Soldiers attached to Joint Task Force 176’s Task Force Capitol support law enforcement during protests at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, June 19, 2020. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Giles, 36th Infantry Division Public Affairs)

PERSPECTIVE: Understanding the Subversive Manipulation of Crowds in U.S. Streets

The current unrest in major U.S. cities is a dynamic that counterintelligence agents and special forces operators were very familiar with over 50 years ago. Training in the areas of subversive manipulation and exploitation of crowds was standard training for those combating the communist menace up to the end of the Cold War. Up to that point, it was a dirty game played by dirty methods, and whether the U.S. special operations and intelligence professionals were working with foreign elements to incite or neutralize unrest depended on which side the U.S. was supporting in any given proxy war with the Soviet Union. The peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, coupled with excesses such as the “Project X” training of Central American forces that was linked to atrocities in the 1980s, resulted in a kinder and gentler U.S. approach to covert operations in global competition after that point. Given the events now taking place in America’s streets, it is a good time to understand today what we practiced long ago.

Perhaps the best example of providing historical context to current events is the study titled Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies, which was produced by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1966. This was “the book” for training insurgents to overthrow governments or training governments how to suppress insurgencies – again, depending on which side was fighting for democracy and against communism. The study was based on a detailed analysis of underground organizations during WWII and 24 insurgencies since WWII, some of which were still ongoing at the time of the publication, and most of which were Soviet-sponsored, communism-motivated insurgencies. The study was updated in 2013, but the updated version was skewed toward the more recent global terrorism issues, so the original 1966 version remains the best reference for understanding the civil unrest tactics that are being employed in America’s streets today.

The following are excerpts from chapter titled Subversive Manipulation of Crowds. Although not completely verbatim, none of the context has been altered.

The indispensable element in civil disturbances is the crowd; not just any crowd, but a crowd made up of individuals who have been conditioned either by subversive manipulation or by other events. The subversive manipulation of crowds involves techniques that play on an understanding that crowds that participate in civil disturbances are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by a relatively few underground agitators. Selected individuals are given special training in the subversive manipulation of crowds. A small core element of “agitators” and “riot leaders” will incite the unrest.

There are many techniques historically employed to infiltrate peaceful protests, manipulate crowds, and incite violence, one of which is by exploiting a precipitating event. Precipitating events give generalized beliefs immediate substance. As a controversy develops, new and different issues, unrelated to the original, frequently emerge or are introduced. These added elements may reflect deep-seated prejudices or individual grievances.

One highly effective form of crowd manipulation is made possible when the precipitating event facilitates the creation of a Martyr. A unifying martyr-figure can have a sustaining effect upon destructive crowd activity. A martyr turns an ordinary grievance into an emotional crusade. Individuals who cannot easily identify with abstract issues readily empathize with the emotional demands brought on by apparent injustice to or “brutal” attacks on innocent people.

The precipitating event which results in the formation of a crowd depends for a great deal of its effectiveness upon communication. The desired change in attitude of the members of the target group is usually accomplished through distribution of selected communications, the contents of which are designed to increase anxiety and emotional stress. Chosen themes are constantly repeated. By concentrating on specific grievances, a group is conditioned to phrases and slogans to which its members may later react under conditions of emotional stress. In order to demonstrate the uncompromising position of the government, the demands against it are usually vague and impossible to meet.

After the crowd has been formed, the “agitators” assume the decisive role. This function is described as bringing to flame the smoldering resentment of the crowd through emotional appeals and then giving social sanction to their actions. The agitators in the crowd play upon the audience’s suspicion of things they do not understand. The agitator seldom invents issues, nor does he have to, since his appeals are vague, and he plays upon the basic emotions of fear and insecurity. The agitator seldom justifies his facts, nor does he need to, since he chooses emotional themes common to all people.

After the crowd has been emotionally aroused, some event must set it in motion. Normally, well prepared, equipped, and armed agitators initiate activities that compel police and other security forces to react (ideally over-react) in a manner that harms a portion of the crowd which is much larger than the agitators, and many of whom will have likely been peaceful protestors or innocent by-standers. Larger portions of the crowd then begin to react to the actions of the police. Once the destructive action of the crowd is under way, agitators try to maintain the level of emotional excitement. This can be accomplished in various ways. The core team of agitators may include “cheerleaders” who chant rhythmic and inspiring phrases or songs. Slogans can be displayed, and banners unfurled.

“Booster” incidents can be created or capitalized upon. A rather universal type of booster activity is the looting of stores and shops. Other acts — such as the verbal abuse and stoning of police — which permit the individual to release aggression and hostility against the symbols of authority — also increase the emotional involvement. Attacks upon symbols of authority, such as police stations and the offices of local officials, increase the intensity of the disorder.

Police and security force counter-riot tactics are studied so that steps can be taken to circumvent them. Routes usually taken by internal security forces are blocked with barricades, overturned vehicles, and debris. Attacks upon police stations and their communications systems serve to disrupt police countermeasures. Arrangements for members of the underground group to flee the area are planned in advance. These consist primarily of establishing routes of escape containing safe houses or other hiding places. Safe zones are established with householders and shopkeepers where demonstrators may seek cover when fleeing from the police.

The internal security forces, who bear a major share of the burden of maintaining order, should understand that the control of subversively manipulated crowds requires special considerations. Standard priorities of force may be adequate for dispersal of ordinary civil disturbances, but in dealing with a subversively controlled riot, internal security forces must be alert to situations or acts which compel them to respond in ways that the subversives can politically exploit.

End of excerpts.

Techniques based on emergent technologies will come and go, but techniques based on human factors such as perceptions and emotions will continue to span the existence of mankind. The previous exemplar is a very small fraction of the information available to educate security professionals on the subversive underground tactics we are seeing today and will continue to encounter.

The horrific murder of George Floyd disgusts all decent Americans. Very responsibly, Mr. Floyd’s family and reputed civil rights leaders implored Americans not to use this reprehensible event to rationalize random violence. However, a review of the communist tactics demonstrates how this event had the textbook components for radical exploitation. From the precipitating event that enraged the masses by providing an innocent martyr as a symbol of injustice, to the mostly peaceful protestors who provided crowds that were vulnerable to subversive manipulation, the pieces fell neatly into place. The “themes,” “phrases,” and “slogans” are widely recognized. And then, of course, the demands to be met by local governments before the protests would end were so intentionally unattainable that the standoffs continued, and the subversives were able to continue their routines night after night after night.

The book titled Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is the most detailed account of the Antifa movement’s history and ideology. The book, which is very sympathetic to the Antifa movement, describes anti-fascism as a “method of politics, a locus of individual and group self-identification, and a transnational movement that adapted preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace.” Not only have Antifa and other related organizations adopted the communist philosophy, they have also embraced time-proven communist doctrine to incite civil unrest. This doctrine, such as the cited 1966 publication titled Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies, is well documented. However, there is a tendency to falsely assume that dated information regarding Cold War communist methodologies is somehow irrelevant. The current episodes of unrest are not the first seen and will certainly not be the last. Security professionals responsible for countering the costly and destabilizing subversive manipulation of crowds should not falsely assume that they are facing an ad hoc and chaotic threat. Alternatively, they should understand that there is a “method to the madness,” and that they need to be “reading from the same book.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Aden Magee is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer specializing in terrorist and unconventional warfare threats as a senior consultant/advisor to the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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