As governments around the world, including our own, face more and more popular resistance, we’re witnessing a revival of the use of agent provocateurs. An agent provocateur is the well-used tactic of using undercover military or police to join a dissenting group or protest in order to provoke others in the group to carry out illegal actions and violence. The goal is to discredit the group from the inside. Sometimes the group gets discredited with those outside. Other times the group is enticed into internal divisions and collapses.

The most recent and clumsy attempt was the Egyptian government’s use of plain-clothes police officers to incite violence amid the largely peaceful anti-Mubarak protests. They tried to resemble the genuine protesters at first, but then the Mubarak agents showed their true colors. They rode horses and camels, carrying weapons and throwing fire bombs. Even the international media wasn’t fooled. For the first time, mainstream media started using the language of agent provocateurs.

In decades past in the U.S., the FBI was exposed for using agent provocateurs to pose as members of right wing groups and the Black Panthers. This was the infamous COINTELPRO program that operated from the 1950s into the 1970s. It was thought to have been shut down in the early 1970s, but another version of it came to light during the Reagan years.

Italian police were caught using agent provocateurs during the G8 financial meeting in 2001, and the British police did the same during the 2009 G20 meetings in London. In 2007, a Canadian police force in Quebec first denied and then admitted it used disguised officers during a protest of a Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting. The police denied that the disguised officers were inciting violence, though they were carrying rocks.

New York City police officers were accused of using agent provocateurs during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and the Denver police were discovered using undercover detectives during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In this case, police officers ended up using riot-control chemicals against their own officers. In recent years, the FBI has used a growing number of agent provocateurs to infiltrate Muslim communities in the U.S., the most notable being exposed agent Craig Monteith in Orange County, California. He said he had been paid between $2500 and $11,000 a month to help radicalize Muslims.

As the paranoia common to governments grows, the question arises: will your group or church or political action committee be targeted with agent provocateurs at some point? Why not? The targets have been quite various, with government certainly not always focused on so-called radicals. At the same time, governments’ definitions of what groups are risky can change quickly and silently. It certainly wouldn’t be advertized. Many groups haven’t discovered their agent provocateurs until years after their activity.

Would you be able to spot an agent provocateur? They try to blend in and make friends. They appear to share your interests.

Drawing from several sources, experienced observers have suggested some tips for identifying such agents. They’re not foolproof, but they’re a start.

  • Agents will often lack background connections or references. No one in your circles or related groups will know them.
  • Agents try to keep discussions and action unproductive and still. They’ll spend plenty of time debating issues, with little action. They focus on ideas over people.
  • They tend to create messes in groups and between group members. They leave chaos in their wake.
  • They tend to gravitate toward people in the group who are dissatisfied. Once relationships with those folks grow, the dissatisfaction spreads.
  • Some agents have been former prisoners who do this work as part of a deal. These folks tend to jump from organization to organization in a relatively short time.
  • Agents don’t have known sources of income. They might have a job that doesn’t match their spending or claim their money comes from prior savings.
  • They tend to provide gifts for key figures at first. This helps them build trust with the group.
  • When confronted, they will get defensive and start making their own accusations.
  • They act like zealots, but they don’t have the fruit of it. They have passion but don’t truly care.

Of course, good but immature people can do all these things. Discernment involves sound judgment calls. Protection from agent provocateurs increases as your group matures. If your group has rich relationships and trust, you won’t as easily fall prey to cheap provocateurs.


  • Avatar
    El Lobo Feo Posted March 23, 2011 9:42 pm

    A big reason the Cuban resistance movement failed, was that early on, Castro was able to insert his own informants et al into the nascient cause. By the time the “Bay of Pigs” invasion was launched, many of the key players in Cuba were already arrested & in jail cell days before, unable to be of aid & direction to the Freedom Fighters.

  • Avatar
    Steven Tsillan Posted October 1, 2011 4:19 pm

    El Lobo Feo <— Agent Provocateur.

  • Avatar
    resistingthemilieu Posted October 6, 2011 4:29 pm

    It seems like there’s almost no difference between being provocative and an agent provocateur. So after reading this I feel like I had better keep my dissent to myself, just toe the line and keep my head down. And the part about not having an income? I get financial aid and don’t have a job. I disagree with a lot of organizers and I focus on ideas, because ideas are the currency of a movement. So I feel like I shouldn’t show up to anything because I’ll just be attacked as an agent.

  • Avatar
    Marcus Posted October 10, 2011 12:17 pm

    This article is crap.

    You want to spot a plain clothes cop, Pinkerton, or provocateur?

    Most often they’ll have a regulation haircut. Maybe not the high and tight, jarhead look of the Marines, but it will be short hair, low fade on the sides to where hair doesn’t touch their ears, and hair on top that isn’t longer than an inch or two.

    Pay close attention to the things they wear, sometimes you can find clues in them.

    If they talk at all, they’ll try to get you to do something stupid, like smashing up something or lighting something on fire.

    Finally, talk to them about politics. If they claim to be with you, do they have ideas that are fleshed out similarly to your group, or are the things they say only skin deep?

    Don’t attack the person, don’t accuse them outright of being a cop yet, but talk to others around you, and if a consensus is reached between people you trust, simply approach the person and tell them “We suspect you of being a cop/provocateur.” Judge what they say as a group. If you continue to suspect them, isolate and ignore them. If they offer reasonable explanations, lay off them.

  • Avatar
    sue Posted November 4, 2011 10:38 pm

    Marcus — A person part-timing for the FBI or Homeland Security can have any kind of haircut, beard, anything.

    Here is an article I wrote on the topic of Agents Provocateurs:

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    GuitarMan Posted June 27, 2013 4:08 am

    The Sayanim will be expected to cooperate in any Mossad enterprise including murder, sabotage and any form of Fifth Column activity (does 9/11 ring the Liberty Bell for you?). A division of the Mossad ( Katsas ) keeps records, and stays in active contact with this group.

    The Sayanim, sleeping cells who spy/act for the Israeli Mossad in the host nation they live in, sometimes pretending to be Christians, Moslems, Israelites, etc.

    “The individual is handicapped by coming face to face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists”. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director 1924-1972, quoted in The Elks Magazine (August 1956).

    “ALL JEWS are Provocateurs in Peacetime, Saboteurs in Wartime, and Subversives All The Time.”

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