Apr 15 2011, 10:16am

What is pseudo-terrorism? It is like terrorism. Except, instead of being a terrorist, you just pretend to be a terrorist. That makes it much easier to kill the people you deem to be terrorists. You dress up like them. You adopt their call-signs. You lure them into traps. You wipe them out. It is a method for catching rats that involves not only thinking like a rat, but dressing up in good quality rat pelts, devoting your time to rat activities like cheese-eating , living in sewers, and getting all pally with your new rat buddies--all before tip-toeing back a safe distance and calling in massive airstrikes on them.

Depending on how you feel about the Geneva Convention, pseudo-terrorism--aka 'false flag operations'--may or may not be illegal. Article 39 would seem to come down firmly against it:

“It is prohibited to make use of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of adverse Parties while engaging in attacks or in order to shield, favor, protect or impede military operations."

Which obviously doesn't mean it's stopped happening. Indeed, there are many who suspect pseudo-terrorism's already part of our decade-long freedom-fight in Af-Pak.

“I'm sure the Americans are big into it in Afghanistan,” reckons Dennis Croukamp, a retired sergeant with the Rhodesian Army. “When we started, very few people knew we were dressing like Terrs, infiltrating their lines, but in the end it became more of an open secret. If the Americans are doing it, it will come out eventually.”

Croukamp spent most of the 1970s crawling around in the Rhodesian bush taking part in the most effective example of pseudo-terrorism the world has ever seen. Nowadays, Rhodesia is called Zimbabwe, and its President, Robert Mugabe, is revered as an adored global leader, but back then he was a senior commander in ZANLA: the Zimbabwe Africa National Liberation Army. Freedom-fighter to many, but to the white-run Rhodesian government of Ian Smith: terrorist-in-chief.

At first, Smith's government viewed ZANLA and its allies as a manageable threat to law and order. But by 1970, the winds of change were blowing through Africa – or rather, the winds of assassination, bombing and ambush. Smith dug in, the guerrillas upped their game, and Rhodesia spiraled towards full-blown civil war.

Croukamp was white. He was Rhodesian. In 1964, he was 18. This would be something of a problem were he hoping for a quiet life in suburbia. “I did National Service in '64. During our training, a lot of our instructors were already talking about 'our pending war'. The Terrs [ZANLA and other 'terrorists'] were already being trained in Malawi, Tanzania, and so on. We were all hoping the war would hurry up so we wouldn't miss it."

For a man who spent sixteen years living in the African bush eating squirrels, sleeping rough, blowing up train lines and killing interesting people he met along the way, Croukamp seems to have readjusted to civilian life quite well. He does not garrote any of the serving staff at the upmarket Cape Town shopping center where we agree to meet.

For the bulk of his army life, Croukamp was part of the Selous Scouts – the top secret, much-feared masters of pseudo-operations: the darkest of the military arts. Formed by an iconoclastic colonel called Ron Reid-Daly, it was their job to work not behind, but actually inside enemy lines. The screening process was legendarily tough – only 20% passed a physical exam that culminated in a 100km endurance march while carrying 30kg of rocks. Those who made it through would be taught bush survival and how to pass themselves off as nationalist guerrillas.

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The likes of him--white youths in floppy hats, blacked-up in combat greasepaint--were only half the equation. The scouts became experts at acquiring what they called 'tame-' or 'turned-Terrs': ex-guerrillas who they had persuaded to switch sides.

Taming a terr was an art in itself. How, after all, do you persuade a man who has defined his whole life in violent opposition to your beliefs that maybe he should just can all that on the head and throw his lot in with his former oppressors? Well, very carefully, of course.

The standard procedure would run something like this. 'Terr' gets injured in battle, is captured, and then given the best medical care available; hopefully sparking a Stockholm Syndrome wave of gratitude to his captors. Then, while in hospital, another tamed ex-guerrilla, preferably one already known to this terr, is sent to visit him. They talk. Gradually, the terr is shown both the carrot – those who turn would be paid a secret salary and had their families relocated to safe zones – and the sizable stick: if they didn't turn, they'd be hung under the Law & Order (Prevention) Act.

At this point, Special Branch would be ushered in to establish whether any conversion was genuine. The risks entailed in absorbing an enemy-within were obviously massive: if Selous commanders weren't 100% convinced, he'd be cut loose. As a final test, some would be given their weapons back – without being told that their ammunition had been deactivated. Mainly, the final decision as to whether a Terr had been 'tamed' was made on a gut feeling.

By 1976, there were 1,000 former ZANLA, ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army) and ZAPU (Zimbabwean African People's Union) soldiers working for the Scouts. At their height, they made up 80% of the unit's total ranks. Croukamp has chewed over the remarkable ease with which Terrs would go tame, and sees deeper cultural implications beneath it. “I once asked one of the tame-Terrs why black African people seemed to accept their fate very easily in these sorts of situations. He said: 'Look, in olden times, when the Matabeles attacked the Shonas, there was no such thing as 'captured'. We accepted that we were going to die. It's just inherent in us. The men would die, and the women would be enslaved. That was the nature of war to us.' It was a bit shocking to me, but there you go.”

Once you had your tame-Terrs, the drill was simple enough – use fake letters to arrange meetings between different terrorist factions, and then, once you'd pinned your enemy to a particular place and time, stand back and order in airstrikes and infantry to obliterate them.

'Obliterate' was definitely the word: of all the ZANLA and allied forces killed during the Bush War, some 60% were killed by the Selous, and only 40% by conventional warfare. The tail was now wagging the dog. By 1976, it seemed as though the basic logic of warfare had been turned on its head.

Not that the doubts about the tameness of your Terrs ever entirely went away. “Of course, there was a lot of counter-agent stuff happening from time to time. Once, someone told us about this supposedly tame Terr who was on sentry duty. He snuck out in the night, called his Terr buddies, then stood on top of the unit's tent while they slept and blew them all away. It was a risky business...”

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Sometimes, it seemed like this sheer unquenchable thirst for risk was what drove the Scouts. Often, it was a factor in their greatest victories.

In August 1976, thirty – that's 30 – heavily-armed Scouts drove up to the Nyadzonya camp's gates in a handful of trucks painted to look like those of the ZANLA-allied Frelimo guerrillas. 5,000 – that's five thousand – freedom-fighters were in the middle of a parade day but, bar a few sentries, the entire camp had laid down their guns. What followed was, by any standards, a massacre – nauseating in its effectiveness. “My friend Peter MacNealy was involved in that operation. I spoke to him shortly afterwards, and he said: 'Dennis, it was so easy to kill people that after a while I stopped firing, just sat down and watched.' He just got sick of it.”

“It was like a scythe going through a cornfield,” Reid-Daly would later recall.

Official death-toll: ZANLA 1,026. Scouts: 0. Double that number were wounded, and it is estimated another 1,000 drowned trying to swim to safety across the Pungwe river.

“The irony is that one of the Terrs had recognized a white guy inside one of our trucks – he saw the eyes, and he started screaming warnings to his comrades. But they were already happily mobbing the truck, singing freedom songs: the shouting of joy was so overwhelming that he never got anywhere. Until they opened up...” Little wonder that the Scouts ultimately ended up killing more enemies in that single year than the rest of the Rhodesian Army did in the whole war.

And little wonder that there has been talk about reviving their tactics. Croukamp, of course, thinks it's already happening. Since the 70s, the key barrier to its deeper application has been mobile phones. When you can put in a quick call to HQ, making sure a Taliban unit are who they say they are becomes a lot easier. Holt counters that the US has the technology to block mobile phone reception. “Once the various Taliban factions become aware of the pseudo-operators we might see distrust, suspicion, red on red firefights, and chaos increase within the enemy.”

As Holt points out, more than direct casualties, the point of pseudo-operations is to sew doubt and division within units – making truth look like lies and lies like truth: turning a tough and determined guerrilla army into a quivering mass of paranoiacs who can no longer trust the evidence of their own senses.

Croukamp has self-published a memoir about his time in the Scouts: Only My Friends Call Me Crouks. He says he has a stack of emails 'that thick' from serving British and American military personnel, many in Afghanistan, who seem to be turning his book into something of a set-text for similar deep-penetration work.

“There's a guy in America who's been emailing me. He says he's made my book compulsory reading for his team-leaders. He said: 'I'm amazed at how much as an individual you did in your war.' My answer was that we lived with our war. My wife was also in uniform. She was a radio operator in the Scouts. She used to go into town with a 9mm in a holster and an Uzi in her lap to do the shopping."

Ultimately, though, it's today's environment of blanket media exposure as much as anything that stymies a broader future for pseudo-operations. Post-WikiLeaks, governments are learning to think long and hard about what might one day come into the public domain. Pseudo may be highly effective, but it's not a look Liberal democracies wear well. All of which is a far cry from the 1970s, when secret wars were far more a part of war, and ends were often all the justification necessary for the means.

"This commander in America,” Croukamp continues, “one of the other questions he posed to me was: 'What were your rules of engagement?' I told him I'd never heard of that term in my life until I saw the film of the same name. We only had one rule. Kill The Enemy.”