Hybrid Warfare: the New Approach to Conflict

By Stefanie Fisher,  MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, specializing in Intelligence and National Security

The dynamic and adaptive nature of terrorist organizations has indefinitely changed the landscape of conflict. This nuanced understanding of conflict has been explained by some scholars as hybrid warfare – “warfare in which elements of ethnic or tribal conflict, ideological based insurgency, factional squabbling, and organized crime are inextricably intertwined, with the same actors playing multiple and partially conflicting roles.” The assumed method of attack by terrorist entities remains that of guerilla warfare, a much more low grade series of tactics, generally consisting of bombings (suicide and otherwise), armed assault, and kidnapping.  However, as has been elucidated, terrorist organizations are blending these irregular forms of warfare with conventional tactics, such as the use of the internet to spread propaganda and gain supporters internationally and the acquisition of high grade weaponry such as IEDs and commercial level drones. Of further concern are the ways that terrorist organizations participate in other forms of organized crime in order to fund their operations, often involving other separate actors.  Therefore, the phenomenon of terrorism has cast a much larger net, encapsulating various crimes, and necessitating a much more advanced response.

Why is hybrid warfare problematic for states?  

The emergence of hybrid warfare has exposed vulnerabilities in current counterterrorism strategies. The United States (US) has spent over a decade refining their combat techniques in order to properly address the irregular forms of warfare used by terrorist organizations. This can been seen in their Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, which was reworked in 2006 by the US Army, in order to better speak to the conflict in Afghanistan. This has resulted in a strategy that is divergent from conventional strategies, something in which the US has been successful. States have been primarily concerned with addressing one form of warfare at a time, leading to strategies which may be successful at countering one threat but are unable to speak to others. This is mainly based off the belief that Western nations (mainly the US) have superiority through conventional tactics and surveillance capabilities, therefore, insurgents will choose unconventional asymmetrical tactics, given that they would have a comparative disadvantage against Western nations if they were to use conventional methods.

This entrenches the idea that counterterrorism policies, which seek to counteract only one or two forms of warfare, are functional against terrorist organizations, not taking into account the potential for overlap of tactics. Further, it has been expressed by scholars that there is need to produce a strategy that combines both an understanding of conventional and irregular tactics.[i] There are varying implications associated with hybrid warfare for states. Those being, that some terrorist organizations are functioning at an extremely high level of sophistication, and that states are failing to react with strategies that can respond to several different threats simultaneously.

What is the best way forward?

The shift to a more complex warfare setting has necessitated a change in counterterrorism strategies. It has become necessary for states to adopt a much more comprehensive approach, wherein they respond to the differing ways that terrorist groups are engaging with warfare, meaning that they take into account the use of both sophisticated and low grade tactics. Israel has been the most preemptive with the implementation of a multi-year defense plan, coined Gideon, which will seek to prepare the state against: “hybrid sub-state actors that blend conventional and terrorist tactics.” Israel has had to take this type of action given the threat that Hezbollah poses. Hezbollah has on numerous occasions flown drones into Israeli airspace, compromising the safety of their citizens. Given that Hezbollah operates as a highly sophisticated hybrid terrorist organization, and often within Israeli territory, Israel must take precautions against the various risks that they may encounter.

This is perhaps an extreme example, given Israel’s proximity to a hybrid threat. However, other nations are not immune from this type of terrorist organization, nor is the setting for warfare remaining one-dimensional. The threat of hybrid warfare has already been felt by way of homegrown terror attacks and the use of the internet for recruitment and propaganda. Further, it is alarming that terrorist organization are becoming armed with sophisticated weaponry. And, while their capability with such weapons is still in their infancy, they are learning quickly. Therefore, it is in the best interest of states to build proactive strategies, that are able to deal with the emergence of hybrid organizations, instead of continuing with policies that are primarily concerned with countering one area of terrorist activity.                  


[i]Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Warfare and Challenges,” JFQ, Issue 52 1st Quarter (2009): 35.

Egyptian Peacekeepers at Work in North Darfur, Sudan” by United Nations Photo is licensed under NC ND by CC 2.0

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s