Hybrid warfare and global terrorism

13 February 2022 | A close point of view

A ‘nonlinear war’ and a ‘hybrid war’ are terms that have recently gained popularity in the media. But these are not new terms and although they are difficult to define, their history is nearly as long as the history of wars in general.

According to many experts, the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 is an example of nonlinear or hybrid warfare. It was around that time that these terms became widely used, with the former gaining traction first and the latter becoming more widespread later on as well. To date, there haven’t been many academic publications on this topic, so it is difficult to define what a hybrid war really is. The most popular non-scientific articles speak about a war with the use of disinformation, economic and political pressure and cyber-attacks, all of which can be used along with conventional warfare. Some dismiss both terms, calling them a media gimmick that is catchy but imprecise.

Certainly, the contemporary battleground doesn’t resemble much the one from the past. Even if clashes between two countries occur, more often they are of regional rather than global nature. The already mentioned annexation of Crimea has not morphed into a total war, similarly to the recent war in Artsakh (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh war) that was treated neglectfully by the media. In Nagorno-Karabakh, both sides used drones, a modern warfare technology that is included in definitions of a hybrid war. This technology aims to carry out war activities with the minimal use of an army. In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War written in the 4th century BC, we can read that “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Most probably point strikes and local conflicts with the use of various methods of operations will become a new norm in the next years replacing large-scale wars. This also applies to the still existing threat of global terrorism.

ISIS and a hybrid warfare

The authors of The Informational Dimension of a Hybrid Warfare (original title: Informacyjny wymiar wojny hybrydowej, Marek Wrzosek, Szymon Markiewicz, Zbigniew Modrzejewski, Warsaw 2018) conclude that „a hybrid warfare combines four types of threat: traditional, irregular, terrorism and information technology.” Traditional and irregular activities involve fighting with the use of an army, including special forces, as well as the use of sabotage methods that cause chaos and confusion in the enemy’s ranks. Terrorism includes all attacks aimed at causing fear and panic among the civilian population, but its strategic value is relatively small. However, the resources used to prevent terrorist attacks are massive. They are also associated with the widespread media coverage which is the last of the threats mentioned, namely the use of information technology. In this case, the role of the mainstream and social media is of crucial importance.

Based on the description of a hybrid war presented above we can conclude that ISIS was applying this type of warfare. In Iraq and Syria, the terrorists were combining elements of a traditional war, that is taking over and occupying large territories of both countries, with terrorism. They were carrying out suicide attacks, attacking military posts and destroying towns and villages. But they didn’t aim at merely conquering those territories. The burning of bridges, not behind but underneath, was a tactic they used deliberately. They wanted to destroy everything that was associated with the land they conquered and the people who that land belonged to.

I’ve come across some opinions that ISIS were ‘terrorists in flip-flops’ who never posed any real military threat. I agree with that to some extent, but several issues need to be taken into account. First, at the beginning their adversary, that is the Iraqi army, in 2014 was weak and with low morale. It was well equipped with large amounts of weapons and military equipment received from the US, but it lacked proper leadership and a will to fight. On the other side were fanaticism and vast knowledge on sabotage activities and methods of sowing fear. Not many have heard about the massacre carried out by ISIS terrorists two days after taking over Mosul (12 June 2014), when within several hours they murdered 1700 cadets in a military camp near Tikrit. That massacre decreased the army’s morale even more, and the soldiers at all costs wanted to avoid captivity where their fate would have been sealed.

Secondly, the ISIS fighters were not as badly organized and trained as it is sometimes believed. They had many war veterans in their ranks, for example from Chechnya, and a large number of well-paid mercenaries. On top of that, they had experts in many fields, including the media, which I will write about in a moment. So they had resources at their disposal that the armies of many countries in the world could only dream about (at the peak ISIS controlled nearly 90,000 square kilometers, or as much as the territory of Hungary, with the use of 2-3 times bigger army). It was enough to destabilize a country where state structures had only recently been built. Where did ISIS get the money from for all of that? Partly from rich Arab donors, partly from robberies. In Mosul, they robbed at least a dozen of banks, including (allegedly) the Central Bank of Iraq that was holding several hundred million dollars. Add to that the equipment intercepted from the Iraqi army’s warehouses and the support they received from the local population which initially in the occupied Muslim territories was rather significant (at least until when repressions began and the Islamic State revealed its true face). But that’s a topic for a separate article.

Still from the report: “Enforcing Sharia in Raqqa: The Islamic State”, source: YouTube – VICE News

ISIS’s media and press

I’ve mentioned the experts in the field of media image creation. ISIS has mastered the techniques of media manipulation. The terrorists published their own press which is available on the Internet to this day. They were creating propaganda movies that were distinguished not only by the brutality of the scenes shown but also by professional editing and music. Such materials are not created by amateurs but by people with expertise in the filmmaking industry. But the fear machine they had built didn’t exclusively aim at shocking the public. In many of their movies and articles, one could see or read advice on how to build a happy family or reach self-fulfillment. They were expanding their ranks recruiting young people with the use of social media, encouraging them to fight for a better world where everyone would be granted equal opportunities. Their caliphate was meant to be a utopian state entirely different from the “rotten West”. In practice, in the ISIS-occupied territories, people were not permitted to watch American movies, women were not allowed to leave their houses alone, and one could be sentenced to death for watching a football game in secret.

Today, ISIS no longer controls vast territories in Syria and Iraq. Although they still occupy several villages in western Iraq, their criminal march has been stopped. But have they been defeated? In their view, they most certainly haven’t. They only limited one of the methods of fighting, namely traditional warfare. Terror and the use of (dis)information have remained. We do not hear about them every day anymore like in the past because their activities are not widely circulated on social media. But they are still present on the internet, although in a more careful and subtle way. In Iraq, they went underground and are currently mostly engaged in guerilla warfare. They kidnap people for ransom, blow up power lines and rob properties.

Terrorists from Boko Haram – Nigeria

Let’s not forget that ISIS is also active in Africa, something that sooner or later will become noticeable in Europe, for example through increased immigration from the countries in the Sahel region. Terrorists associated with ISIS are trying to take over water resources and food production in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia or Somalia. They burn down villages, murder their residents, kidnap women and girls and gradually gain more power. The corrupt and weak governments in these countries are unable to deal with this brutal opponent that slowly reaches its goals. In 2020, when we were preoccupied with the fight against the pandemic, a river of blood was flowing in Africa. Terrorists from ISIS and al-Qaeda carried out over 5000 attacks. Their number increases year after year. It’s not shown in the media, but people are dying every day over there.

Author: Dawid Czyż

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