Key features are that 1) terrorist or guerrilla activity is never the work of the people who appear to carry it out, 2) instead it is the work of a Sponsor, 3) that only action against the Sponsor will be effective, 4) even if there is no obvious sign of the Sponsor's hand, this only demonstrates their malign skill, and 5) there is evidence, but it is too secret to produce. In the strong form, it is argued that all nonconventional military activity is the work of the same Sponsor.
Reasons for its popularity: 1) it suits existing 2nd/3rd generation military-bureaucratic structures, intelligence collection and analysis processes, and presents targets to traditional weapons systems, 2) it removes agency from the terrorists, 3) because of 2, efforts to engage with the population from which the terrorists come are delegitimised, 4) it postulates a centralised enemy and hence enhances the power of the central government.
Intellectual archaeology: US response to 1979 Iranian revolution/South African military's "total onslaught concept" of same period/Israeli (specifically Likud) efforts not to engage with the PLO/USSR's belief in global capitalist conspiracy/1950s McCarthyism/Rollback doctrines.
Warning signs: States that espouse this theory are often in a position where they have to deal with guerrillas/terrorists in day-to-day practice, whilst political considerations incline official discourse towards Dr Evil theories. This entails a divide between the military/intelligence professionals and the government, or else a horizontal division between those lower on the rank scale who actually deal with the problem and the senior panjandrums. The end effect, and screaming red-flasher warning sign, is a deprofessionalisation of analysis.
Consider Dick Cheney, trying to talk Schwartzkopf into dropping the 82nd Airborne in the desert of western Iraq and then march to Baghdad, on the basis of the US Civil War documentaries he'd been watching. (At least Churchill got his crazy military ideas from books.) Consider Dick again, dragging the Iraq Survey Group inspectors out of bed with suggested WMD locations in the Beka'a Valley. The cultural role of the Beka'a in all this is nontrivial. It's the state sponsorship fiend's happy hunting ground, a zone onto which any kind of political fantasy can be projected. This began when it was hard to reach during the Lebanese civil war, but those days are 15 years gone now, and press men regularly drive over from Beirut to find...nothing.
A key point is fictionalised difficulty. Consider this tale, via Gilliard's. JSOC was so convinced that Lebanon was so wildly dangerous to deliver a radio there, a night-time HALO jump from outside Lebanese airspace, sideslipping in towards the beach, and swimming in with wetsuits would be necessary. And they were desperately pissed off when it was suggested that it just be put in the diplomatic bag and driven over the border (through the Beka'a - did they realise that?) Michael Ledeen continues his career as an "Iran expert" despite the handicap of never having visited the place, as if it was North Korea or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Mike, the cellphones work and you can catch a flight via Heathrow.
Now, as an exercise, let's have a read of this. Apparently the new RPG-29 rocket has reached Iraq. Not good news. But look at this:
"The first time we saw it was not in Iraq. We saw it in Lebanon. So to me it indicates, number one, an Iranian connection," he told defense reporters here. "It's hard to say in our part of the world that we operate in as to whether or not people have given us a hint about things to come," he said.So, because they were used in Lebanon first, the one in Iraq must come from Iran. Does he realise that the shortest route between Iran and Lebanon is through Iraq? Surely he does. Later, he mentions other possibilities - but dismisses them. You can almost hear the cognitive dissonance jarring away.
He said only a single RPG-29 has turned up in Iraq so far, and it was unclear how it was smuggled into the country. But he said it was the latest in a number of new and more sophisticated weapons that appear to be moving onto the region's battlefields from Iran.
He said longer-range Chinese rockets that looked new also have been found in Iraq. Abizaid said he believed the Chinese rockets came from Iran although they may have been taken from the arms inventories of the former Iraqi regime and cleaned up.
Update: Readers may wish to apply the principles of this post to this.
Update again: Ouch. Terrible mis-Shakespeare corrected.