The claim: The Brooklyn subway shooting was a false flag operation
After a gunman threw smoke grenades and opened fire at a Brooklyn subway station on April 12, viral posts airing doubts about the attack spread online.
A Facebook post shared April 13 shows a screenshot of a tweet WCBS shared April 12. The tweet includes a link to an article with the headline “BREAKING UPDATE: No working cameras at Brooklyn subway station during mass shooting: report.”
“Well well well would you look at this another false flag shooting,” reads the caption of the Facebook post.
A false flag operation is a “military action carried out with the intention of blaming an opponent for it,” according to BBC News. Conspiracy theorists regularly misuse the term to falsely claim major news events were staged.
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Video and photo evidence, eyewitness accounts and official statements show the attack was not a false flag, as independent fact-checking organizations have reported. Subway cameras weren’t working during the attack because of a technical malfunction.
USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.
Cameras had technical issues
The New York Times reported the security camera system at the 36th Street station had “a fiber-optic cable connection failure” on April 10, two days before the attack.
This problem also affected camera systems in two other stations: the stops right before and after 36th Street. At the time of the attack, the cameras at those three stations failed to work.
New York City’s subway cameras have long had maintenance issues.
A 2018 review of “223 cameras at 10 stations” found 31% of maintenance checks never took place, according to CBS News. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority took more than three days to respond to a “quarter of calls” about camera issues, BBC News reported.
However, MTA spokesperson Tim Minton told The New York Times “cameras and technology elsewhere in the transit system” captured images of the shooting suspect. USA TODAY reached out to the MTA for additional comment.
Attack was not staged
Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told USA TODAY in an email there’s no evidence the subway attack was a false flag operation. Eyewitness accounts back that up.
Sam Carcamo, a victim, previously told USA TODAY he watched “bleeding and panicked passengers spill out from a smoke-filled train car.”
New York University’s Langone Hospital treated 21 wounded patients. Five received aid at Maimonides Medical Center and three went to the New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, the Post reported.
Patrol officers arrested shooting suspect Frank James on April 13.
New York Police Department Chief of Detectives James Essig said in a press briefing that James has had “nine prior arrests, dating from 1992 to 1998” in New York. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the gun left at the scene of the shooting to an Ohio pawn shop, where James purchased it in 2011.
False flags are real, but not common
Though the Brooklyn shooting wasn’t a false flag, military experts told USA TODAY these operations do exist.
They normally occur at the start of wars, according to David Silbey, a senior lecturer at Cornell University who teaches courses on defense policy and military history.
“The most famous is the Germans in 1939 dressing their own people up as Polish soldiers and then attacking their own border station to make it seem like the Poles had attacked them,” Silbey said. “This served as an excuse for the Germans to invade Poland.”
Blazakis said U.S. law enforcement has also identified and stopped false flag operations, such as the Iranian effort to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington in 2011.
“In that example more than a decade ago, a combination of intelligence and law enforcement work stopped the false flag from happening,” Blazakis said.
But false flags are less widespread than social media posts make them seem, according to PolitiFact.
Blazakis said conspiracy theorists have falsely tied a number of events, such as the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, to false flags. USA TODAY has debunked claims that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol were false flag operations.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the Brooklyn subway shooting was a false flag operation. The cameras didn’t work during the attack due to a technical malfunction. Eyewitness accounts, news reports and official statements indicate the attack was not staged. Baseless conspiracy theories frequently and wrongly claim actual events were false flag operations.
Our fact-check sources:
- PolitiFact, April 14, No, the Brooklyn subway shooting was not a false flag attack
- USA TODAY, April 15, Brooklyn shooting suspect held without bail; prosecutor says he ‘carefully planned’ attack: Latest updates
- USA TODAY, April 14, NYC subway shooting: Multiple injuries at Brooklyn station
- PolitiFact, Feb. 8, False flags: They’re real, but far less widespread than social media suggest
- David Silbey, April 15, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Jason Blazakis, April 18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- BBC News, Feb. 18, False flags: What are they and when have they been used?
- USA TODAY, April 15, Nightmare on the N train: Inside the terrifying moments during the Brooklyn subway shooting
- NBC New York, April 14, Why Wasn’t It Working? MTA Faces Surveillance Cam Questions After Subway Shooting
- New York Police Department via YouTube, April 13, Watch as Mayor Adams & NYPD Executives provide an update on yesterday’s shooting incident
- The Washington Post, April 12, Police seeking ‘person of interest’ after Brooklyn subway shooting
- The New York Times, April 13, Cameras at the station where the subway shooting occurred were flagged as faulty days earlier
- CBS News, April 13, Brooklyn subway shooting: Sources say cameras inside 36th Street station failed to transmit to NYPD, MTA
- The Columbus Dispatch, April 13, Report: Brooklyn subway shooting suspect bought handgun from Columbus pawn shop
- BBC News, April 12, Brooklyn shooting: Footage shows panicked crowds on NYC subway
- New York Post, April 12, Photos: Brooklyn subway shooting leaves dozens bloodied, injured
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