HybridCoe dots

Hybrid threats as a concept

The term hybrid threat refers to an action conducted by state or non-state actors, whose goal is to undermine or harm a target by influencing its decision-making at the local, regional, state or institutional level. Such actions are coordinated and synchronized and deliberately target democratic states’ and institutions’ vulnerabilities. Activities can take place, for example, in the political, economic, military, civil or information domains. They are conducted using a wide range of means and designed to remain below the threshold of detection and attribution.

Hybrid action is characterized by ambiguity as hybrid actors blur the usual borders of international politics and operate in the interfaces between external and internal, legal and illegal, and peace and war. The ambiguity is created by combining conventional and unconventional means – disinformation and interference in political debate or elections, critical infrastructure disturbances or attacks, cyber operations, different forms of criminal activities and, finally, an asymmetric use of military means and warfare.

By using the aforementioned unconventional and conventional means in concert, hybrid actors veil their action in vagueness and ambiguity, complicating attribution and response. The use of different intermediaries – or proxy actors – supports the achievement of these goals. Hybrid action is cost-effective as it turns the vulnerabilities of the target into a direct strength for the hybrid actor. This makes hybrid action more difficult to prevent or respond to.

The ongoing transition in international power structures provides a fertile environment for hybrid action. The intensifying conflict of values between the West and authoritarian states erodes international norms and institutions and makes open Western societies targets of comprehensive hybrid action. A conflict of values that extends to the domestic sphere of Western societies increases polarization and disunity within and among Western actors, making them more vulnerable to external interference. Recent developments in modern technology and an increasingly complex information environment provide powerful instruments for hybrid actors if not properly countered by the Western community.

Accordingly, Hybrid CoE characterizes hybrid threats as:

  • Coordinated and synchronized action that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions’systemic vulnerabilities through a wide range of means.
  • Activities that exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution, as well as the different interfaces (war-peace, internal-external security, local-state, and national-international).
  • Activities aimed at influencing different forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level, and designed to further and/or fulfil the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.