Disinformation, fake news, cyber assaults. How to combat hybrid threats?

From immigration turned into a geopolitical extortion weapon to infrastructure sabotage, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns based on lies. A new report highlights how hybrid threats are intensifying and diversifying. In addition, it provides some clues on how they can be countered.

In the words of Carlos Galán, from the Elcano Royal Institute, hybrid threats are "new tools that are used to make old aspirations come true ". In Galán's view, they can be defined as "coordinated and synchronised actions – usually, but not exclusively, originating from the intelligence services of threat agents – that deliberately attack systemic vulnerabilities of states and their institutions using a wide range of means and in various sectors (political, economic, military, social, information, infrastructure and legal) using cyberspace as the most appropriate and versatile tool for their purposes".

Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, threats of this type would be the continuation of war by other means. According to José María Blanco Navarro, head of Prosegur Research and professor of International Relations and Criminology at the University of Comillas, "a wide range of possible hostile acts in the grey zone between peace and war". These are acts of sabotage such as that suffered at the end of September by the Nord Stream gas pipeline, but also terrorist attacks, political, diplomatic or economic pressure and, increasingly, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, fake news, cyber attacks and attacks on digital infrastructure…

"A wide range of possible hostile acts in the grey zone between peace and war". José María Blanco Navarro, mánager at Prosegur Research.


Blanco adds that hybrid threats are extremely varied, but usually have in common the aim of destabilising the societies that receive them, causing objective damage and, above all, creating a sense of chaos and uncertainty both in their institutional sphere and among public opinion. For Carmen Jordá, head of the Intelligence and Foresight Office at Prosegur and a professor at Camilo José Cela University, "these are destabilisation strategies that have proven effective and which are very difficult to counter". He adds that they must be resisted using technology, developing response capacity on the ground, but also empowering people and enhancing their resilience. The more hybrid the threat, the more changeable and uncertain it is, which is why the right combination of people with technology becomes more necessary.


Clandestine (and silent) wars

The concept already has a certain back story. As Guillem Colom, a professor at Pablo de Olavide University, explains, it began to be used with some frequency from 2006, during the conflict between Israel and Palestine, when it became clear that "thanks to Iranian financing, the Hezbollah militia had a war arsenal (drones, anti-tank missiles...) that seemed more like that of the regular army of a state". To describe this type of action halfway between irregular aggressions and conventional military conflicts, which were new at the time, a concept that was already circulating in the field of geostrategic studies was used: hybrid warfare.

The concept has become established both in the academic sphere and in the media and social networks. Over time, it has become more versatile and flexible, and today, Colom points out, it is used to refer to coercive actions of all kinds carried out both by governments and by non-state agents and, in some cases, endowed with a strong technological base.


Against confusion, clarity

When a concept becomes popular and begins to form part of everyday conversation, there is a risk that it will be distorted and lose part of its original meaning. And in Blanco's view, something like this is happening with hybrid threats.

To help define the boundaries of this increasingly important phenomenon, the CIDOB (Barcelona Center for International Affairs) has just released its report "Hybrid threats, vulnerable order". The central thesis of the study is, in the words of CIDOB director Pol Morillas, that hybrid threats have been intensifying and diversifying in recent years, and have already become "one of the main destabilising elements of the liberal order." The research centre frames them in the context of what it describes as "the resurgence of geopolitics and the emergence of new spaces for confrontation between international powers." A new framework of burgeoning conflict whose most dramatic effect is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but which is also manifested in phenomena such as the complex trilateral relationship between the United States, China and the European Union.

The CIDOB document begins with an article in which Pol Bargués and Mussa Bourekba precisely define hybrid conflicts, highlighting their main characteristics: the uncertainty that surrounds them, since they make the barrier separating war from peace increasingly blurred; the appearance of new tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of states, and, a crucial new development, that these tactics are increasingly oriented towards seeking to erode the values and legitimacy of the adversary's political systems. Not to achieve victory, but to foment chaos.


The lie as a missile

The journalist and teacher Carme Colomina participates in the collective work with an analysis of the growing use of "the word as a weapon". Colomina explains how "old-style propaganda has been exponentially amplified by technology and hyperconnectivity and its power and sophistication have multiplied," leading the world into a new era of systematic disinformation and "a global battle for the narrative." For the researcher, it is important to highlight that "abuses of power, dysfunctional political systems, inequalities and exclusion are breeding grounds for disinformation to succeed". Consequently, striving to correct these vulnerabilities and to create more inclusive, functional and just societies is the best strategy to resist the destabilising actions of "techno-authoritarian powers like Russia and China".

Other topics covered in the report are the use of migrations as hybrid threats (a phenomenon studied by the historian and anthropologist Blanca Garcés), the strategies that a democracy can develop to survive hybrid threats (from the perspective of geopolitical analyst John Kelly), hybrid attacks on critical infrastructure and the increasingly mass and difficult-to-counter proliferation of cyberweapons (in an article by Manel Media Llinàs, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia) and, finally, the current geographical spaces of confrontation.

In this last section, Andrey Makarichev, Yulia Kurnishova, Guillem Colom, Inés Arco Escriche and Eduard Soler i Recha review the principle sources of hybrid threats on the planet, from China to the Maghreb via a Ukraine in which, according to the report,, "the reaction of Ukrainian society is also hybrid, a story of resilience", since it does not fit in with the usual vertical logic (a government and an army give orders that civilians and soldiers obey), but rather that Ukrainian society has shown "a high degree of autonomy and self-management capacity".

This could be the ray of sunshine at the end of the hybrid threat tunnel: to counter increasingly sophisticated destabilisation attempts, the response involves more articulate, better informed societies, with greater critical capacity and, consequently, more and better response capacity.