Report

From Blurred Lines to Red Lines: How Countermeasures and Norms Shape Hybrid Conflict | Countering ISIS Propaganda in Conflict Theatres

September 30th 2020 - 11:57

Conflicts between states have taken on new forms and hybrid operations play an increasingly important role in this volatile environment. Belligerent powers introduce a new model of conflict fought by proxy, across domains, and below the conventional war threshold to advance their foreign policy goals while limiting decisive responsiveness of their victim.   

Given these hybrid threats, how should Western states respond? Are there any tools available Western states have that can draw red lines into blurred lines of hybrid conflict? 

Download this case study here.

About this Paper

In 2014, ISIS began embarking on a massive propaganda campaign primarily aimed at foreign audiences. This campaign notably abused new social media technologies to reach millions. Responding to such a campaign is tough for Western authorities, especially as rivals like Russia were hoping to exploit any precedents the West may set. How should they respond? How can they avoid setting undesirable precedents? 

This case study explores the Western countermeasures, their second-order normative effects, and a potential norm proposal for information operations. The key Western responses were strategic communication, psychological operations, and covert cyber operations. A common theme emerged from these countermeasures in the form of a normative benchmark of truthfulness for information operations: the broader the target audience and the mediums used (e.g. radio or television), the more truth is prevalent. Inversely, targeted covert influencing operations (e.g. PSYOPS and MILDEC) may leverage a higher degree of falsehoods.  

About the Paper Series

This paper is part of a series that argues that the West does have one powerful tool that can help shape hybrid threat actors. That tool is international norms. Norms set international expectations of acceptable state behavior – yardsticks which the international community can leverage when calling out unscrupulous states 

But norms do not develop out of nothing. This report applies the norm lifecycle theory, which analyzes norm development from emergence to cascade and internalization, to five case studies to to better understand the real-life strategies, tools of influence, dilemmas, and trade-offs that empower state-led norm processes. The report not only considers how norms develop, but also what role they play within the counter-hybrid posture of a state, and how they, in conjunction with countermeasures, shape adversarial hybrid behavior. 

This report also explores four other case studies on Russian, Chinese, and ISIS hybrid conflict actions. The case studies are published individually as a paper series and compiled in a full report with complete overview of the theoretical underpinnings of norm development and the key insights that emerge from the analysis, as well as the concluding remarks and policy recommendations. The policy recommendations explore ways for the Netherlands and its partners to help promote and enforce norms of restraint beyond classic like-minded groups of states while being cognizant of unintended consequences.  

Please find an overview of the other case studies below.

Louk Faesen is Strategic Analyst at the Cyber Policy and Resilience Program of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. He mainly focuses on international peace and security in cyberspace, norms of responsible state and non-state behavior, and confidence-building measures (CBMs) in cyberspace. Louk functions as the Project Manager of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace (GCSC), a multi-stakeholder initiative launched at the 2017 Munich Security Conference by the Foreign minister of the Netherlands that brings together leading experts from all major cyber powers and regions to help develop norm and policy initiatives related to international peace and security in cyberspace.
Dr. Tim Sweijs is the Director of Research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. He is the initiator, creator and author of numerous studies, methodologies, and tools for horizon scanning, early warning, conflict analysis, national security risk assessment, and strategy and capability development. Tim has lectured at universities and military academies around the world. His main research interest concerns the changing character of contemporary conflict. Tim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy and an Affiliate at the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Dr. Alexander Klimburg is Director of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace Initiative and Secretariat and Director of the Cyber Policy and Resilience Program at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Klimburg is an Affiliate at het Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, and an associate fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy. He is a former associate and former research fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.