The Iraqi Army defenders of Ramadi had held their dusty, stony ground for over a year and become familiar with the increasing adeptness of their opponents waving black flags. At first, these Iraqi Army units simply faced sprayed rifle fire, but then it was well-placed sniper rounds that forced these weary units to keep under cover whenever possible or risk a death that only their comrades — but never the victim — would hear. Tired, beleaguered, and cut off from reinforcements from Baghdad, they nonetheless continued to repulse attack after attack.
The last months witnessed a new weapon — car bombs. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had long been the masters of using car bombs, but almost always against isolated checkpoints or undefended civilians. But an old tactic found a new situation. Car bombs, now parked against outer walls and driven by suicide bombers, were thrown against the Iraqi Army’s defenses in Ramadi.
The defenders were professional soldiers, and the last decade of war had taught them a great deal about the use of concrete barriers to defend against explosives of all kinds. So while the car bombs created a great deal of sound and fury, they availed little.
Then one bright day in May 2015, the defenders awoke to a new sound. Crawling forward slowly toward the heavily barricaded road was a bulldozer followed by several large cargo and dump trucks. The soldiers began to fire as the bulldozer entered the range of their machine guns and rifles, but it was armored by overlapping welded steel plates. The bullets bounced off the advancing earthmover. The defenders lacked one key weapon system — an anti-tank missile that could penetrate the armor of the tracked vehicle.
So while the soldiers kept up a steady volume of fire, they were helpless as the dozer began to remove the concrete barriers that blocked the road between their positions and the row of large armored trucks. One layer of concrete was removed after another until the road was clear.
And so the trucks begin to pour through. While creating vehicle-borne bombs is an ISIL specialty, the technology is actually remarkably simple, as each truck carried in its five-ton bed the same basic formula used two decades ago by Timothy McVeigh at Oklahoma City — ammonium nitrate fertilizer soaked in gasoline. As each truck closed on the defenses, its suicide bomber detonated the payload, shocking beyond reason those who were not killed outright. As truck after truck delivered its lethal payload, black-clad fighters poured from behind the trucks to exploit the newly created hole in the defenses. The survivors fell back and tried to maintain some semblance of order, but it was far too late to have any hope of saving this day. Ramadi had fallen.
The explosion of ISIL onto the international scene in June 2014 informed the world that a new type of force had arrived. In some ways, this should have been less of a surprise. ISIL had seized Fallujah the previous January, and there were also several clear precursors of this type of force. The Israelis had experienced a near-defeat in their fightagainst the non-state actor Hezbollah years earlier. And only a month after the fall of Mosul, Russian-backed separatist forces in Ukraine would shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
None of these actors — ISIL, Hezbollah, or the Ukrainian separatists — can be classified as traditional insurgent groups, guerrillas, or terrorists. All three groups possess capabilities that take them beyond more familiar non-state actors without qualifying them as full-fledged armies. Whether the bulldozers and social media savvy of ISIL, the missiles and electronic warfare of Hezbollah, or the high-altitude air defense of the Ukrainian rebels, all these forces have deployed capabilities traditionally associated with nation-states. The hybrid warriors have merged these capabilities with traditional insurgent tactics in their fight against nation-state forces.
While the debate rages on about the utility of the concepts of “hybrid warfare” and “gray zone conflict,” this article is not about these debates. This article is agnostic as to whether these types of warfare are best called “hybrid wars” or “political warfare.” It is similarly agnostic as to whether the “gray zone” concept is “hopelessly muddled “or “real and identifiable.” These debates, while important, are not what this piece attempts to settle. Rather than discuss the strategies and operations conducted in these ambiguous physical and legal spaces, this paper is concerned with the new actors emerging in said spaces. This essay maintains that there is something interesting and new occurring, as it relates to the actors operating in this space. While calling them “hybrid warriors” when the larger concept of “hybrid warfare” is still deeply contested may be linguistically problematic, there is no necessary linkage between the terms. That these fighters are a “hybrid” of insurgent and state-sponsored strains seems very clear, and therefore appropriate, regardless of distinct and separate debates over the characteristics of the environment.
Hybrid warriors are new (or at least new to us). These non-state hybrid warriors have adopted significant capabilities of an industrial or post-industrial nation-state army that allow them to contest the security forces of nation-states with varying degrees of success. Retaining ties to the population and a devotion to the “propaganda of the deed” that characterizes their insurgent and terrorist cousins, these non-state hybrid warriors present a challenge unfamiliar to most modern security analysts (though those who fought against either America’s 19th-century native tribes or the medieval Knights Templar, might see similarities).
Hybrid warriors specialize in the ambiguity of the “gray zone,” a term this essay will continue to use despite its definitional issues. While they can both administer territory (at the low end of the spectrum) and fight conventional war (at the high end), it is in the spaces in between that they truly excel. Girded by their relative safety from police forces, immunity from international norms (characteristic of all places where the state and rule of law are weak), and the active or passive support of the population, these hybrid warriors enjoy a low degree of risk, at least when compared to open warfare against Western interests. Within their sanctuaries — so long as they survive the occasional airstrike or commando raid — hybrid warriors face few security concerns, save when local armies probe the boundaries of their loosely controlled terrain. And yet — as the United States clearly learned on 9/11 — non-state groups possess a new ability to launch attacks against the integrated state system. These hybrid warriors live among the insurgents and counter-insurgents, terrorists and counter-terrorists, spies, saboteurs, propagandists, organized criminals, and money launderers — but while they may participate in any number of these activities, they are not limited by them.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks