Tradecraft: ‘Stay Behind’ operations and resistance operations

Washington, DC (TFC) – The nation you are in has been invaded, or a military coup has taken control of large parts of the country. Your side’s forces have fled to friendly territory. The city you live in is frantic. Guerrillas are throwing molotov cocktails at the opposition’s armored vehicles. There is sporadic gunfire in the street below your apartment. You’re calm. For you, everything is going according to plan. You take a nap on the couch and prepare to wait the next few days in silence, giving the enemy the chance to settle in and expose their weaknesses. You are part of a Stay Behind Organization.

A “stay behind” operation is a contingency plan that is to go in effect if the territory in question is overrun and occupied by the enemy. Personnel assigned to the stay behind operation do not evacuate with friendly forces to unoccupied territory. Instead, they stay in the occupied territory and form a resistance movement. Sounds complicated? It is. A stay behind organization is much more than a network of people that chose to stay in occupied territory and engage in guerrilla warfare. In fact, guerrilla warfare isn’t even a primary concern of those saying behind. In this installment of the Tradecraft series, you will learn how to organize your own Stay Behind Organization. In order to facilitate this, you will need some basic history of SBOs.

History and Mythology of SBOs:

It’s probably easier to begin by taking a look at one of the most infamous stay behind operations in history. It’s commonly known as “Gladio.” At the time, Operation Gladio only referred to the Italian Stay Behind Organization (SBO), and each country that participated had it’s own code names. What is called “Gladio” publicly was a NATO plan during the Cold War that sprouted dozens of sub-campaigns, operations, and abuses. Before the personnel involved with the various SBOs began running amok, the plan was very simple. In the event of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of any of the countries under the protective umbrella, the network would spring into action. They would relay information about opposition strength, gather intelligence on enemy locations, coordinate with local guerrillas, disseminate propaganda, and encourage or conduct sabotage. In very rare instances, they were to actually engage the opposition’s forces. The SBOs were too valuable to risk in normal guerrilla operations.

It should be carefully noted that “Gladio” refers only to the Italian portion of the NATO network. There are many sites that attribute massive conspiracies to Gladio. If the writer didn’t do enough research to determine that Gladio was not even a Europe-wide project, how well can you trust the rest of their research?  Gladio certainly got out of hand, there are plenty of documented abuses. There is no reason to make more up. The following NATO countries established SBOs as part of the global network:

  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Germany (West)
  • France
  • Greece
  • United Kingdom
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Canada
  • Luxembourg
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Netherlands
  • Turkey
  • United States

Today’s Relevance:

Today’s climate is one of constantly changing borders and alliances. We’ve seen invasions, coups d’etat, and border changes all over the world in the last few years. Beyond the typical uses for SBOs, many feel they are already “behind enemy lines” in their own countries. While the likelihood of an invasion in the United States is very small, the polarized nature of American politics, the uncertain economic situation, and the growing police state increases the likelihood of coup or breakup. The same planning used in SBOs is also very useful in planning for natural disasters or riots.

The Operational Environment of an SBO:

While countries all over the world operated and currently operate clandestine SBOs, there are not many examples of the organizations being deployed in the role for which they were designed. To understand the operational environment an SBO is likely to face, the reader must look to the ad hoc SBOs of World War II. While they were not, for the most part, preplanned SBOs, the resistance movements in various countries behaved as SBOs.

Those movements operated under military occupation. In most cases, the local government cooperated with the occupying army. Their activities had to be done in secret. Capture meant death. While the technologies of World War II and today are very different, the Operational Security concerns are the same.

Priorities of an SBO:

The primary goal of an SBO is gathering intelligence. While Hollywood dramatizes the daring and sometimes reckless actions of the French Resistance, the most important contributions of the resistance movements were not carried out with rifles, but instead used radios. Once behind the lines, the SBO is sometimes the only source of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) for the allied forces on the other side of the lines. Human Intelligence assets in occupied territories are the single most valuable intelligence assets a fighting force can have. The world recently watched in horror as the United States bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital. Even before the investigation is complete, one thing is certain: the US did not have a human visually lay “eyes on” the target. Aside from avoiding tragedies such as this, HUMINT capabilities allow a fighting force to obtain much more accurate and pertinent information about the battlefield. A satellite or a drone may be able to tell allied war planners that four divisions of troops are forming a line on the outside of a city, however HUMINT can tell the war planners that the division on the Eastern portion of the line is made up of fresh ill-trained conscripts. Information like this can alter a war. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), or the interception of opposition communications, may tell war planners that a new respected General is moving into the area. However, it will be HUMINT that tells them that he is really taking credit for plans put together by a Colonel under his command. This can make certain that allied war planners can move to take out the appropriate person. After all, if they take out the General, the Colonel may very well be his replacement. This is the type of information that wins wars. Gathering this information is much more important than any other possible use of an SBO. To expand on the priorities of an SBO, it is important to remember that the further the reader travels down the list, the less important it is. Unless critically important at a strategic level, none of these are worth getting the SBO caught.

Intelligence Gathering: Gathering information and sending it back to friendly territory is always going to be the first priority.

Coordinating with guerrilla movements: Undoubtedly, some of the local citizenry will take up arms. The SBO can function as a conduit for the guerrilla movement to coordinate with allied war planners in friendly territory. This coordination should be done in a manner that limits the possibility of the SBO becoming compromised. Guerrilla units are often captured. Under interrogation, it would be better if they were completely unaware of the SBO’s existence.

Propaganda: The SBO should, if possible, work to coordinate propaganda efforts that are designed to keep the morale of citizens up. At the same time, a separate campaign should be introduced to degrade the morale of the occupying forces.

Encouraging sabotage: While it is unlikely that SBO personnel should actively engage in sabotage operations, it should constantly encourage others to do so.

Combat operations: The SBO should almost never engage in combat missions. The only exceptions are operations that can drastically alter the course of the war; especially if timing or a lack of assets mean that the SBO is the only allied force capable of conducting the operation.

Organizing an SBO:

With the above extreme scenarios in mind, it may seem like slight overkill to consider organizing anything even remotely close to an SBO. The threat of invasion in whichever country you reside may be as low as it in the United States. However, can you see a situation in which the security services of your country keep people under almost total surveillance while trampling their rights? Can you foresee a situation in which, due to natural disaster, you are cut off from rescue and it is only your community’s unity and resources that are keeping people alive? What about the possibility of a man-made disaster?

The first rule of SBOs is that you do not talk about the SBO. Even the reckless and loose-lipped members of Gladio operated under the motto of “In silence, we serve freedom.” An effective SBO will have very few people aware of its existence. Those people will be highly-trained, highly-motivated, and completely dedicated to the cause, whatever it is.

The most effective SBOs conducted their operations and prepared for their operations by co-opting existing organizations within the community. Many large SBOs organized at the city level and the SBO operatives in one city were completely unaware of the identities of those in other cities. In many large cities, multiple SBOs existed at once. If one was shutdown, the others continued to operate unharmed. By organizing at this level, ten to twenty individuals could join a variety of civic or volunteer groups and use the resources of those organizations for their own purposes. As an example, a list of organizations that would be prime targets for co-opting is provided.

Red Cross/Red Crescent/other medical nonprofits: In addition to the obvious access to medical supplies, Red Cross personnel often are allowed a great deal of latitude by occupying armies. Because of their position as first responders, the military will often give them a short warning prior to heavy fighting. Red Cross vehicles are often allowed to travel to areas that are not accessible to the average person.

Volunteer Fire Departments: Occupying armies will still need to maintain civil order. Organizations like this allow personnel to be seen in a positive light by military police, who will also be responding to fires. It provides SBO personnel with the ability to destroy evidence in the event of arriving at the scene of sabotage. It also provides access to medical supplies and a vehicle that is almost above suspicion.

Libraries/Universities: Large banks of computers that could be used to transmit intelligence reports to friendly forces anonymously are a great asset. If an SBO operative volunteering at the library can control the sign-in logs, it would even be possible to make it appear as though those reports are coming from someone who, in reality, is actively collaborating with the opposition.

Meals on Wheels/Food banks: Organizations that deliver food to the elderly, not only provide the SBO with a ready source of food, they provide the ability to drive around town delivering packages. The homes of bed-ridden elderly persons make for excellent storage sites for weapons, radios, and other equipment.

Church Organizations: Despite the activities of the Islamic State, in most cases an occupying army will allow the locals to practice their religion in peace. Unless the religion has been scapegoated by the occupying army, the functions will be allowed to continue. Churches tend to have their hands in just about everything and it provides the ability to have private discussions face to face without a huge risk of electronic surveillance.

Scouting organizations: While the organizations are often forced to adopt the propaganda of the occupying army, they are also typically allowed to function. Even if they are shut down, the contacts made prior to occupation provide a ready list of people whose nationalistic beliefs are verified and can be exploited by the SBO.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it give the reader a general idea of how SBOs can quietly infiltrate existing organizations and use them when the time comes.

The result of infiltration:

When done properly, the SBO becomes completely transparent. It appears more like a “good old boys” network in peace time and becomes totally hidden once activated. In many cases, an SBO will exist for years before use. This leads to personnel becoming lax, especially if they aren’t being paid for their activities. It becomes necessary for members to be reminded of their mission. It also requires that the people involved are committed to the cause for the long haul.

Image Source: Petit_louis, Flickr, Creative Commons AK 47 , RAY BAN Tag canal de l'ourcq

Image Source: Petit_louis, Flickr, Creative Commons
AK 47 , RAY BAN
Tag canal de l’ourcq

The importance an SBO can play in a critical situation cannot be overstated. It becomes a “fifth column” within the affected area and greatly increases the effectiveness of any campaign. As governments all over the world crack down on dissent of any kind, understanding this structure and method of co-opting existing organizations becomes extremely important for activists of all kinds.