The route I have taken as a red teamer has been a very interesting one. Last year, I attended a “Becoming Odysseus” course hosted by The Watermark Institute and Dr. Mark Mateski (founder of Red Team Journal). It’s highly recommended, and while our class of 12 varied, we all had a knack for alternative analyses. One of the most important discussion points I felt was the point by one of my classmates that “children make excellent red teamers.” Her point triggered a realization that I had been embedded in this mindset for much longer than a year, but actually since growing up. Many factors growing up helped cultivate my red team mindset: books, films, games, interactions, and cause-and-effect situations. While I cannot speak for others, I can speak for the path that led me to become dedicated to red teaming.
When I was young, I loved to read. More specifically, I loved to read anything and everything about military science, history, and tactics. In particular, ancient history, the American Civil War, the Wild West, the Napoleonic wars, English history, and the First and Second World Wars were my primary foci. I came to learn that there are a plethora of schools of thought. To test out the “stratagems” and theories I would read about, I would habitually challenge my parents or find ways around the rules they set. Why? I was curious, and I intuitively realized that “discovery requires experimentation.” I recall reading a quote by General Douglas McArthur, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.” This resonated with me because after seeing my methods work with my parents, I came to realize that anything that was made by man can be circumvented or nullified by man.
The schools of thoughts I adopted were threefold: “Hannibalian,” “Rommelian,” and “Lawrencian.” Hannibal Barca left the strongest impression on me because of his very actions. He red teamed Rome on several occasions by “doing the impossible.” Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, revolutionized desert warfare in World War II and made strong headway until his defeat by Montgomery. Lastly, Colonel T.E. Lawrence was able to enlist the help of the Arabs to oust the Turks during World War I via uniting different coalitions and using terrain to his advantage. I rotate through these three mindsets depending on the situation, be it work or leisure.
While there are some who see video games and gaming as a waste of time, there is merit in gaming. It can help instill creative thinking and deductive reasoning as well as foster red teaming growth. A wide variety of puzzle and action games can make many an individual ponder for hours to determine what the solution could be or which stratagem might unlock a door, defeat a boss or a friend, and so on. For me, the games that helped cultivate the red team mindset were Age of Empires, Rome: Total War, the Command and Conquer series, and Metal Gear Solid. Both Age of Empires and Rome: Total War allowed me to practice the various strategies that I read about or partake in the actual scenarios where these strategies were actually employed and, importantly, to improvise upon them. The Command and Conquer series focused more on modern warfare and a more advanced version of tactics and strategy. Finally, Metal Gear Solid harnessed the core of red teaming because concepts such as social-engineering, strategy, small-team tactics, reconnaissance, and many of the Red Team Laws that I have read on this blog were ever present in the background.
The last category of red teaming influence growing up was movies. The movie that left a red impression on me at the early age of six was Under Siege with Steven Seagal (Die Hard on a battleship). The plotlines of these two movies are known to our community so restating them would be pointless. However, the so-called children’s movies I grew up watching (Mulan, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and so on) all had red teaming lessons or facets. In Mulan, for example, Fa Mulan socially engineers herself into the Chinese army posing as a man. Shan Yu, the leader of the Hun Army, lures Mulan’s detachment into a trap. He also captures the Emperor of China through deceptive tactics, but Mulan is able to utilize similar deceptive tactics to defeat and neutralize him. In Aladdin, Aladdin masquerades, with magical help from a genie, as a wealthy prince to court the Princess Jasmine. The evil vizier Jafar uses magic to “convince” the Sultan to do things for him, and he launches a coup that works temporarily. The same type of coup is launched in The Lion King by Scar, who kills his brother Mufasa (heart wrenching, I know) and takes over the land. His coup implodes when he alienates his hyena allies. All of these stories shared the red teaming theme, but they also illustrated the lesson that even red teamers can be red teamed when they assume they are successful. (I learned Red Teaming Law #3 very early on by seeing it in effect.) This is just a small portion of the factors that helped influence my mindset and passion for red teaming at an early age.
Tigran Terpandjian is a senior security analyst at a large consulting firm.