Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics

  • Published

Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics edited by Ofer Fridman, Vitaly Kabernik, and James C. Pearce. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019, 271 pp.

Conflict of the last decade has been described using buzzwords like “hybrid warfare” or “information warfare,” opaque in meaning yet often held to have altered the “nature of war.” Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare is an academic text that seeks to dispel some of the confusion regarding these terms, what they truly describe, and the strategic implications of these ideas. The work was inspired by discussions at a 2017 conference organized by the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications at King’s College London. It is unique in bringing contrasting conceptualizations of hybrid warfare from Western and Russian scholars together in one volume. Beyond these important lines of inquiry, the final chapters provide a fascinating discussion of these concepts as applied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Academic readers, military practitioners, and analysts can glean valuable insights from this work. For military practitioners and analysts, this work offers a glimpse of the perceptual lens of Russian leaders and experts. Perhaps the most striking difference between the Western and Russian authors’ arguments is their perceptions of their competitors’ mastery of hybrid warfare. Multiple chapters (Georgy Filimonov’s in particular), indicate that Russian experts perceive the United States to have a mastery of using network-centric approaches to materially support and incite popular resistance, or even revolution, against authoritarian regimes. The so-called Color Revolutions of the 2000s and 2010s, along with the Arab Spring, are cited as examples of US social engineering through hybrid warfare. Some readers may disagree with the conclusions or opinions of Russian researchers. An important takeaway is that even if some claims are factually incorrect, they present an important view of Russian security and policy experts’ mindsets.

With such a broad selection of research on display, there are ideas that stand out as especially valuable. Oxana Timofeyeva’s chapter, “Using Information: Methods and Cases from Russia,” is an example of a Russian researcher identifying cases of the Kremlin’s online propaganda efforts like the reporting of television network RT and Sputnik International. Another example is botnets (networks of fake social media accounts) used to promote or suppress narratives in social media. Drawing on previous scholarship, Timofeyeva lists excellent potential methods of propaganda to obscure the correct narrative, such as “dissolution of valuable information in data smog,” “simplification, confirmation, and repetition,” and “terminological substitution.” This higher-level analysis of the rhetorical methods of propaganda and misinformation allows those fallacies in logic to be identified, providing a framework for academic and professional study.

The third and final section focuses on the history and relative sophistication of ISIS’s information campaigns. Experts on terrorism and counterterrorism will find significant value in the detailed exploration of the ISIS organization and the character of its recruitment efforts. Akhmet Yarlykapov’s chapter, “Islamic State Propaganda in the North Caucasus,” gives a Russian cultural perspective in a regionally focused examination of ISIS information warfare. It acknowledges the socioeconomic context that has created a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS in the Caucasus, in a similar vein to other recruitment studies in counterterrorism literature. The other writings offer a fuller perspective of ISIS, including the high priority placed upon its media section and the range of media outlets created by the group, such as the A’maq News Agency, al-Bayan Radio, and the al-Naba newspaper (sources studied by Charlie Winter, who focuses on ISIS reporting during the battle of Mosul). These chapters examine ISIS narratives in detail to form a coherent picture of its trends and are well written scholarship.

Very few chapters miss the mark in their claims and merit constructive critiquing. One is Mervyn Frost and Nicholas Michelsen’s chapter “International Ethics and Information Warfare,” which attempts to explain information warfare behavior through an ethical interpretation. They contend that all states and international groups (e.g., ISIS) conform to a set of ethical norms in their strategic communication. That is, even ISIS appeals to a common ethical norm by villainizing the US for civilian casualties from air strikes. However, this section minimizes the disruptive effects of social media and the nonattributive nature of disinformation propagated through these platforms. Individuals, non-state groups, and state-sponsored organizations can perpetuate narratives that do not appeal to a standard set of norms or practices. They may use morality-based narratives in their messaging but are not beholden or limited by those standards.

As an edited volume with contributed chapters, there is diversity in style and focus from the authors. Certain chapters are written in a heavier academic style. While insight can be gleaned across the board by dedicated scholars and analysts, some selections will be more valuable and interesting to the warrior-scholar. “The Idea of Hybridity” by David Betz, “The Color Revolutions in the Context of Hybrid Wars” by Georgy Filimonov, “The Russian Military Perspective” by Vitaly Kabernik, and “Using Information: Methods and Cases from Russia” by Oxana Timofeyeva are recommended for their insights and more approachable prose regarding hybrid warfare from diverse perspectives. Each of the chapters from part 3 examining the “Case of the Islamic State” is highly recommended as a unique study of ISIS and the decisions made in its information warfare efforts. The chapters omitted from these recommendations are more prosaic in their writing and organization, dealing primarily with the definitional debates over the ambiguous term “hybrid war.” The consensus is that “hybrid” is a poor descriptive word because it is highly nonspecific. However, the meandering theoretic path taken to reach this conclusion by some of the authors is not of great utility to military practitioners. Overall, the collection in Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare is a strong contribution to this subject matter.

2d Lt Dreyton J. Schafer, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."