The cautionary tale of "the general's daughter"
Now that the U.S. has left Bagram Airfield, it's time to revisit the tale of Bagram Babe
If you’ve been on social media for a while and think you’ve never interacted with a catfish — i.e. a fictional online persona — you’re probably just optimistic. The lure of so-called “anonymity” (I put that word in quotes for a reason, just as Vladimir Nabokov once insisted that the word “reality” should be treated the same), means that people routinely pretend to be something they’re not online.
To some extent, social media itself ensures that all of us have a persona. It amplifies certain qualities and mutes others. All of that is not necessarily bad, of course. Some crazy kids, however, take it too far.
In the ordinary world, what usually happens is that feelings get hurt. In the world of national security, the stakes tend to be higher. And that’s where the cautionary tale of Bagram Babe comes in.
Bagram Babe was a Twitter account specifically set up to flirt and network with active duty people and veterans, as well as to create an image of a fierce woman in a man’s world. The woman behind the account claimed to be a contractor and the daughter of a general — once she divulged too many details about said general, it became obvious that her “father” was supposed to be General Joseph Votel.
Bagram Babe really capitalized on Twitter’s addiction for woke content with a national security/military bent. At one point, she detailed a story about how she stood up to a guy who was being cruel to his wife in Afghanistan — and how he spit in her face over it. She was also, of course, very much committed to exposing toxicity in military and national security culture culture:
Notice those likes?
Yeah, this was a pretty high profile account, for national security Twitter, anyway. It said the things that people wanted to hear, hence its popularity.
Of course, Bagram Babe also carried on private, potentially compromising conversations with multiple men, sometimes even making plans with them before standing them up:
Using standard OSINT techniques and photo comparisons, two gifted people I know, Justin and Red, were able to discover that the woman behind the account was a hair stylist in New Jersey. She was just 22 years old at the time. This podcast episode has a good summation of what happened (listen from the very beginning).
General Votel was absolutely contacted about this incident too. If someone’s posing as your daughter online, you should know about it.
Obviously, the way that Bagram Babe was unmasked is a cool story of great internet detective work and young woman’s toxic hubris. She truly was one of those people who thought she could live a double life online — while also repeatedly calling attention to herself. I’d love to get Justin and Red in a room to talk about it one day.
But the reason I wanted to revisit the saga of Bagram Babe right now is a bit different.
For one thing, as the U.S. left Bagram Airfield behind, one truly gets the sense of irresolution. For a lot of people, those feelings are painful and personal. For someone like me, a person who loves online rabbit holes, the question is: Why did Bagram Babe do it? What was the payoff? It didn’t seem like a standard “online honeypot” operation. It seemed weirdly personal.
I’ve considered reaching out to ask her directly — while I’m keeping her real name out of this essay, it’s not hard to find if you know where to look — surely enough time has passed, and she might be willing to talk. At the same time, I am wary of giving a proven con artist a platform. I’m especially wary, because in my experience, con artists don’t necessarily change — especially if they’re not doing it for money but for something more profound than money, which is usually validation and/or revenge. Or a combination of the two.
It seems obvious to me that the woman behind the Bagram Babe account has some kind of a connection to the U.S. military. She pretended to be a prominent general’s daughter — why? Could it be that there was once a military man who abandoned her or otherwise made her feel unworthy and unloved? I have a few theories when it comes to that, and I might do more digging. Stay tuned, as they say.
But most importantly, what Bagram Babe’s case demonstrated is how you can’t teach people to be safe online without teaching them about human nature. You can’t just tell them, “Don’t talk to pretty girls on the internet.” THEY’RE GOING TO DO IT ANYWAY.
Instead, you have to tell them to look for signs of what happens when someone is playing you. What were some of the signs with Bagram Babe? (Besides her cheeky handle itself, which should’ve tipped a bunch of people off that this was a catfishing operation?)
— Telling people what they want to hear. This is a big one. Think of it the way you would think of an AirBnB deal that seems just a little too good to be true. There’s usually a catch when it comes to travel, and commerce, and other forms of transactions, and to be honest, the very same principle should apply in your online interactions.
— Stories calibrated for maximum social media impact… that are actually counterintuitive, when you think about it. Look, as a person who herself has many elaborate stories, I don’t even get offended when people don’t believe me. Social media makes you the protagonist, and it pushes you to exaggerate, or even lie. But again, some stories seem too perfect. That grainy, human element is not there. Check this out, just to give you an example of what I mean:
Now, she’s kind of implying that these men want to get involved with her. Which, fair enough, I don’t work in natsec, I just happen to write about it, and the day those men AREN’T trying to get laid or at least flirt a little is the day this nation might as well call it quits. However, who the hell in SOF is going to call you “Elle Woods”? Yeah, there’s just dudes sitting there, cranking out Legally Blonde references, sure.
I can think of many things a dude in a situation like that would say. None of them involve a Reese Witherspoon movie mostly popular with women.
Even if, BY SOME MIRACLE, a dude said that to her, a woman who is currently in that environment is not going to tweet about it. It’s a very specific detail. Miltwitter is a very small place, and people gossip their heads off. A woman in her position — considering her alleged wealth of experience and desire to appear professional at all costs — would not risk it getting back to him.
— Constant bragging and sly interjections of one’s status. Look, it’s OK to brag every once in a while. What’s the point of the internet if you can’t thirst trap, or pull rank, or whatever? But when someone is overdoing it, just as Bagram Babe did, it’s cause for concern. A catfish is not out there unfolding their story naturally, as a regular person would. They’re force-feeding it to an audience they need to dupe. So look at her getting on Twitter and posting something like this, for example:
Now, look at the date. This was earlier in 2018, when Bagram Babe was getting started.
You’re dipping your toes into the waters and just have to let everyone know your dad’s a high-ranking general. While you are a contractor. Suuuuuuure. A real woman in this situation would be worried about predatory behavior, dudes trying to use her or her dad for clout, harming her dad’s reputation somehow… Keep in mind, this was happening in 2018. Votel was NOT retired by then.
My mom is an actual (Soviet) general’s daughter. Grandpa’s been dead for a while, but before he died, my mom was very careful about with whom she was speaking to when she mentioned him, and what she divulged. And he was already RETIRED. But it was just common sense. It’s how she was raised.
Yes, people are much more chatty in the world of social media, but even so, an allegedly very professional and experienced woman — and Bagram Babe did repeatedly stress her credentials — who cares about her reputation would not be tweeting like this about her father.
— Remember, for lies to work, they have to be mixed in with the truth. Whatever her connection to the military, Bagram Babe sure knew how to pepper her tweets with terminology. If you read just a couple of the tweets and don’t really poke around, she might seem like she knows what she’s talking about:
I mean, this is funny. And reads as believable. Now maybe if a MARSOC dude saw this, he might scream, “WHAT CURTAINS, WE DIDN’T HAVE CURTAINS EVER!!” But even then — it’s the kind of detail that most people wouldn’t fight about.
What’s obvious is that she clearly studied her subject. She probably spent some time around active duty people and/or veterans, listening to the way they talk.
In fact, it’s exactly this constant name-dropping that should make you suspicious. If someone seems like they’re trying too hard… stop and think as to why.
While I definitely plan to revisit the subject of Bagram Babe, what I also want to stress is that people very much like her are operating on Instagram, and in one case, an account who constantly drops hints in DMs about her allegedly famous military father was flagged for me as a possible catfish with a double agenda.
In fact, the Bagram Babe case is a case study on what NOT to do as a fake thirst trap, and unpleasant people did learn from it.
Con artists and spies are always learning. It’s how they stay ahead of the game.
Are you worried that you may be targeted by a catfish? Shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, let’s talk. Also, please remember that just a $5 monthly subscription keeps this project going. Thank you!