New Report: from NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence

May 10, 2019 | General
Hybrid Threats: A Strategic Communications Perspective

The report is available to download HERE.

This report is the result of 2 years research conducted by the NATO StratCom COE. The project was designed to deepen our understanding of the wide range of measures which come under the umbrella of ‘hybrid threats’. Analysis has been conducted from the perspective of ‘Strategic Communications’, which is articulated for this report not simply as a suite of capabilities disseminating messages to explain actions or intentions in support of strategy but as a basic function of statecraft. 250 cases studies were chosen as examples of potential hybrid threats. Of these 30 were analysed in detail. 

Hybrid threats

  • Despite intense academic inquiry and widespread usage of the terms in NATO and national strategies, a consensus definition of ‘hybridity’ remains elusive.
  • Despite the lack of conceptual clarity in definitions, the underlying phenomena the term encapsulates remain very real and a matter of urgent concern for the NATO nations.
  • This report takes a pragmatic approach which accepts a degree of conceptual obscurity but addresses the underlying security issues by focusing on the characteristics of hybrid threats:
    • Are coordinated and synchronized. 
    • Deliberately target democratic states’ and institutions’ systemic vulnerabilities.
    • Use a wide range of means. 
    • Exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution as well as the border between war and peace.
    • Aim to influence different forms of decision making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level
    • Favour and/or gain the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.


  • Everything communicates. All policies, actions and words influence decision-making, therefore communication should be integral to strategy and considered from the outset of planning.
  • Whole-of-government. Hybrid threats are generated from a mix of adversarial measures to influence political decision-making of the targeted nation, therefore an integrated approach across government is needed to effectively identify and address such threats.. 
  • Understand the strategic logic. In order to understand an adversary’s strategic logic, national authorities should grasp the underlying thinking and calculation behind adversarial measures.
  • Determine what you want to protect and identify vulnerabilities. Hybrid threats deliberately target and exploit existing vulnerabilities of the target state, often opportunistically. Nations should continually assess their vulnerabilities in an honest and transparent manner and articulate this in national security policy. 
  • Build resilience. Resilience not only mitigates the harmful effects of hostile influence, but it can also change the adversary’s overall cost-benefit calculation. Deterrence through resilience is therefore a key component of reducing a nation’s susceptibility to hybrid threats.
  • Activity should be based on values, with clear objectives. Governments need to be clear about their strategic aims and ensure that statements and actions are consistent with core values. 
  • Understand the information environment. The ultimate purpose of any hybrid threat is to affect the political decision-making of the target nation by influencing key target audiences.
  • Official statements should be specific and coherent, capture the nuances of the situation and give enough factual, credible information to inspire public confidence in the government. 
  • Not every activity is a threat. Defining an activity as a threat and attributing it to a state actor is ultimately a political endeavour, and governments should be mindful not to inflate the threat level for political ends, either deliberately or inadvertently. 
  • As hybrid threats target a nation’s weaknesses, it is a challenge to distinguish hostile influence from legitimate social grievances or failings of the government. Inflating or misattributing hybrid threats can affect the government’s credibility in the long-run and risks unnecessary escalation.