Home Digital Magazine April 2019 Issue The Doval Doctrine – India’s hybrid war against Pakistan

The Doval Doctrine – India’s hybrid war against Pakistan

Shahid Raza |

Lest we forget, World War I and World War II saw more than 100 million people killed. The battles that engulfed the entire globe began primarily as major international powers locked horns to establish dominance over each other. The disastrous results of these wars can no better be exemplified than by their culmination in the ominous nuclear bombings of Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The dawn of the nuclear age has tilted the cost of conventional warfare to a level where major powers have no choice but to refrain from using direct warfare as an instrument to achieving their national objectives. Nuclear deterrence was established as the world teetered at the edge of extinction during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The establishment of nuclear parity between the Nato and the Warsaw Pact countries maintained the status quo, but it did not diminish the need for warfare.

This led to a new type of warfare doctrine – the hybrid warfare – created to achieve national objectives while remaining under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”. “Hybrid warfare” waged by intelligence agencies, involves the use of irregular forces and unconventional methods to target key vulnerabilities of opponents. These vulnerabilities could be political, economic, social or diplomatic in nature; capitalising on weaknesses of adversaries to achieve the following objectives which are known as “The 3D Objectives.”

  • Destabilise
  • Demoralise
  • Disintegrate
Five major fronts of India’s hybrid warfare strategy against Pakistan

India’s hybrid warfare strategy against Pakistan is built on five major fronts around Pakistan’s perceived weaknesses to achieve the “3D Objectives” as enumerated above.

  1. Proxy Warfare

In the context of a hybrid warfare strategy, the use of irregular forces or terrorism is to be seen as an instrument of aggression. The Republic of India, cannot afford to risk an all-out war with Pakistan, which could lead to a nuclear exchange or even a “limited war” that may severely hamper its economic ambitions. The Indian air strikes in Jabba on the 26th of February are a clear example of the willingness found in New Delhi to use a limited conflict with Pakistan, not only for domestic political goals but also to indicate to Pakistan that it is able to project force inside Pakistan.

Indian leadership has therefore chosen to wage a hybrid war against Pakistan; in which, the use of irregular forces or terrorist groups is a key instrument. The spectrum of irregular forces deployed against Pakistan is carefully designed to target vulnerabilities of the Pakistani state, including economic, social, political and even territorial fault lines In order to better understand these dynamics, we must understand the nature of various groups which either represent a fault line or represent a significant vassal for political change. There are a number of such groups, some peaceful, some violent – which have a decisive impact on the overall security matrix of the country, these groups can be defined by the following categories:

  • Revolutionaries

These are political groups motivated to overthrow the Islamic constitution of the country in order to replace it with a secular constitution and a secular, Kemalist state – or replace it with an, even more, fundamentalist theocracy. There are a number of examples of this including:

  • The Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951 by communists.
  • Hizb ut-Tahrir attempted to overthrow the state through a bloody military coup in Pakistan – as revealed by the arrest and subsequent interrogation of Brigadier Ali Khan in 2011.
  • The India-backed Agartala Conspiracy designed to overthrow the state structure in East Pakistan.
  • Agitators

These are pressure groups agitating politically or by means of violence to protect or further their vested objectives by means of blackmail and sabotage.

  • Various militant groups such as BRA, BLA, etc. are led by tribal chieftains – primarily waging an insurgency for their vested financial and political interests. These groups have been actively supported by India under the Doval Doctrine – as revealed by Commander Kulbhushan Jhadav, a deep cover operator of RAW, who was captured by Pakistan.
  • These groups were responsible for many terrorist attacks, including the one on the Chinese consulate in Karachi which was traced back to Afghanistan-based and India-funded Commander Aslam Achu, who was later killed. Similarly, the hijacking of the PIA Flight 544 on May 25, 1998, is another example.
  • Reactionaries

These are violent groups created as a reaction to state policy or various geopolitical dynamics.

  • Al-Qaeda, for example, was created as a reaction to the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia which were installed in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
  • In Pakistan, the TTP was created as a reaction to Pakistan’s role in the USled war on terror. India found a willing ally in the TTP to attack Pakistan, with ferocious terrorist attacks on both civil and military targets, in order to bring about a breakdown of the state structure internally. Former US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel has also confirmed India’s role in fomenting proxy terrorist forces in Pakistan
  • Separatists

Read more: Baluchistan: The heart of Ajit Doval doctrine

These violent groups are created and supported by hostile state actors to try and undermine the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

  • The clearest example of this category of militants would be India-backed Mukti Bahini militant group which waged a civil war in East Pakistan with full backing from the Indian military and the Indian government, as was also confirmed by PM Modi when he went to Bangladesh in 2015.
  • Afghanistan-based BLF is another example of militant separatists – with a clear inclination towards serving the Indian hybrid warfare objectives in Pakistan. This terrorist group is behind the gruesome executions of migrant labourers in Balochistan.
  • Mercenaries

These are pressure groups created and aided by hostile state actors to undermine the political, economic and social stability of Pakistan in order to internally weaken the state system, erode public trust in the state and government, and to harm Pakistan’s international relations, image and trade often through propaganda and other non-lethal means. The narrative and actions taken by the PTM are consistent with the role defined under this category.

  1. Information Warfare

The 21st-century battleground is defined by the emergence of “information warfare” which constitutes a multitude of facets that keep complicating an already saturated battlespace. With the emergence of digital technologies, like the Internet, the World Wide Web, the Darknet, digital data, and social media platforms, etc; the fifth dimension of warfare has now arrived. The use of weaponised information has existed for a long time under the ambit of espionage, subversion, propaganda, and counterintelligence.

Majority of techniques and technologies that are specifically invented for military use manage to find their way into the public domain. The information warfare has also managed to penetrate into all areas of public life where it is being used by corporations, political parties and most alarmingly by terrorist groups. The 2011 Arab Spring which started in Tunisia, followed by Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, Euromaidan in Ukraine, and protests in Syria shows the key role played by social media platforms in mobilising huge crowds of people.

Read more: Understanding India’s Land Warfare Doctrine

To a casual observer, it may seem like a normal and perfectly logical way to organise, conduct and expand protests using social media. However, these events of civil unrest are also an ideal opportunity for forces that aim to swing the debate and dictate the direction of legitimate protest movements, in a way which may result in further instability of a country, a technique which is known as “engineered chaos”. Social protests movements are and can be started by foreign-funded NGOs. Pressure groups are empowered by foreign actors to achieve their own foreign policy objectives. In Pakistan, the PTM movement has come to be seen as one such movement.

Information warfare experts are deployed when a country wants to disseminate inaccurate information which is strategically designed to alter the perception of the masses in an attempt to influence the outcome of a particular protest movement. There are numerous countries in possession of highly sophisticated information warfare capabilities, deployed in service of specified foreign policy goals of the country involved.

Indian information operations are often conducted in coordination with local “activists” or “influencers” who rally the public debate, spread panic, stoke public fears and uncertainty through social media trends, tweets, blogs, posts, videos, and fake news. The targeted country is subject to relentless internal and external propaganda. Such influence operations have also been used during the recent public protests in Iran, Catalonia and during the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

In short, the public protests and revolutionary movements that used to be a genuine method for the public to express their discontent have now become a soft target for countries, interest groups and politicians who possess sophisticated information warfare capabilities and are motivated to deploy these capabilities to leverage public discontent by engineering dissent, chaos and anarchy in order to meet their own ends Many such examples can be found on the Hashtag being run by BJP #WeWantChowkidar.

The proliferation of hybrid warfare capabilities has made it very easy for nation-states to develop and deploy these capabilities against their adversaries to undermine their interests or to exert pressure on them. These capabilities are used to divide societies and tarnish the image of the adversary by presenting a bleak image of their stability/instability paradigm. These notable trends have now become commonplace in the digital battlespace. A unique event took place in 2017, when the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decided to boycott Qatar, because its official news agency issued a press release on its website, praising Iran and criticising other GCC member states.

The result would have been a normal turn of events if the press release was genuine; however, soon afterward, the Government of Qatar declared that the statement attributed to the Emir of Qatar was false and that hackers had planted it on Qatar’s official news agency’s website. By that time the damage was done; the GCC states had taken a strong stand against the small but rich kingdom, implementing a boycott of Qatar as well as issuing military threats to the country. Two years later, the boycott of Qatar by the rest of the GCC member states still continues.

Read more: Ajit Doval and Kulbhushan: Configuring subversion inside Pakistan

Now, let us allow that scenario to sink in for a while; a geopolitical crisis was engineered by unidentified hackers using cyber tools and a carefully-crafted press release, which was designed specifically to bring these countries face-to-face, and it worked. This is a classic example of information warfare in the digital battlespace and the unprecedented consequences that it can cause. Another example is the “Free Balochistan” advertisements that were seen on buses and billboards in Europe and the US in 2017. Although it is a rather obvious information warfare technique; it was deployed by the Government of India against Pakistan to serve its geopolitical desires.

The campaign first started in New Delhi where it was financed by Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a close aide to Prime Minister Modi – who himself has a vested interest in creating unrest in Pakistan. In September 2017, political analyst Agha Iqrar Haroon asserted that India had spent INR seven billion to run an anti-Pakistan campaign in Geneva, Switzerland. The impact sought by this campaign was to mobilise the self-exiled proxy elements (the World Baloch Organization) who felt sympathetic towards India’s approach towards Balochistan, this is, perhaps the most visible application of information warfare that has been adopted by the various terrorist organizations that are operating in different parts of the world.

For terrorist organizations using information warfare is a cost-effective method for getting their message across to their potential recruits and supporters around the world. Although it is not new for terrorist and insurgent organizations to deploy various techniques of propaganda to further their cause, the terrorist group which brands itself as ISIS has mastered the art of digital information warfare to an extent that is truly astonishing. It is clear that terrorist organizations have a keen interest in developing integrated information warfare capabilities so that they can carry out influence operations in order to appeal to their potential financiers, to recruit their potential members and to propagate their battlefield performance.

Terrorist organisations make full use of the Internet-based information dissemination platforms ranging from social media, websites, blogs, dark web, and video streaming services to spread and propagate their ideologies. The information war waged by various terrorist and insurgent organisations is becoming very sophisticated thus presenting a challenging situation for nation states. Experts are of the view that the radicalisation process for potential terrorism recruits starts from the internet and therefore it has become absolutely critical for nation-states to develop their own counter-information warfare capabilities in order to mitigate this threat.

Read more: Ajit Kumar Doval – An Indian jackal or a wily old…

For example, during the United States elections in 2016, widespread allegations of Russian information operations were reported. These reports claimed that the Russian intelligence operatives manipulated public perceptions in the United States just before the elections to help the then-candidate Donald Trump. The evidence of Russian information operations also led to the discovery of a systematic psychographic targeting programme run by a British big data firm called Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, the Strategic Communications Lab. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a full-fledged investigation into these allegations, which they believe were designed to undermine public trust in the integrity of the US electoral system.

  1. Cyber Warfare

Cyber warfare has come to be known as one of the most important facets of a hybrid warfare strategy due to the emergence of terrorist organisations and their reliance on the latest communications and technology. This enhances the importance of cyber warfare operations because the terrorists have become the best users of anonymity by relying more on the use of technology to bypass standard monitoring systems to carry out their activities in a clandestine manner. In today’s connected world, digital data is moving from private devices to the social cloud. Encryption is widely available to protect the users’ privacy from prying eyes.

Therefore, cyber warfare is a very important aspect of a hybrid warfare strategy, given threats are increasing as hostile entities are heavily investing in developing offensive capabilities. In May 2014, the Russian hacker group CyberBerkut exploited cyber vulnerabilities (routers, software and hard drives) of the Ukranian National Election Commission to undermine the credibility of the elections. Cyber defense is an actual element of cyber warfare where the initiative is taken by the state to thwart a threat or create such circumstances using cyber warfare capabilities to neutralise the effects of any possible hostile action.

In essence, it is the capability to assure a response and its importance cannot be overlooked. A quick cyber response will enable the state to minimise the damage of any action done by a hostile element and the same data can be analysed and quickly used to launch a cyber-warfare operation. During the post-Pulwama attack escalation in February 2019, the Indian state launched a covert cyberattack on Pakistan in which Pakistan’s government, military, and commercial assets were targeted. Websites of Pakistan’s Foreign Office were hacked and put out of service. Cyber warfare is a very dynamic  threat which can be divided into the following categories:

  • Cyber Terrorism

Terrorist groups equipped with skills to launch a cyber attack to damage, disrupt infrastructure or to steal information. During the past few years, terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used cyber-warfare as an instrument of spreading extremism and committing terrorism. The threat was so serious for the United States of America – that it decided to kill one of the top ISIS hackers, Junaid Hussain by a drone strike in Raqqa – Syria.

  • Cyber Sabotage

Rogue actors equipped with cyber-warfare capabilities can aid a hostile state actor to infect systems, computers, software and other critical networks, specially installed on strategic installations.

  • Cyber Intelligence

The capability to execute an illegal harvest and analysis of large sets of highly important digital data. Revelations by the former US intelligence analyst, Edward Snowden, about the mass surveillance programme run by the US National Security Agency, are an example of cyber intelligence.

  • Cyber Weapons

The capability to develop and deploy highly sophisticated cyber weapons, designed specifically to target high-value installations such as nuclear reactors, dams, electricity grids, or economic targets such as the stock market, financial institutions like the banks or industrial assets such as oil refineries, etc. Cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz by a cyber-weapon called the “Stuxnet” succeeded in delivering immense damage to the reactor in 2010. It was the first time a cyber weapon was used to achieve military objectives in the real world.

  • Cyber Espionage

The capability to attack and steal information stored on highly secured installations. For example, military secrets, industrial espionage, technical intelligence and ongoing surveillance of native networks. Such attacks are mostly targeted at highly fortified military systems. The hacking of data of Lockheed Martin on the F-35 fighter aircraft is considered to be cyber espionage.

  1. Economic Warfare

Economic warfare is used to weaken a country’s economy and slow its rise to a point where it cannot threaten the domination of the existing superpower or regional power. This type of warfare is currently being waged between the United States and China, the so-called “Sino-American Trade War”. The economic warfare also poses a great risk for Pakistan, as its hostile neighbour India has a vested interest in keeping Pakistan’s economy stagnant and uncompetitive. Economic warfare can be further divided into the following categories:

  • Hydrowarfare

Violations of Indus Waters Treaty by India. River Nile dispute over Renaissance Dam between Egypt and EretriaBlockade of the Kabul River by Indian construction firms in Afghanistan to starve Pakistan’s share of water.

  • CAATSA

Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is an instrument to wage economic warfare against America’s key adversaries, which is best exemplified by the American-Chinese trade war. In 2018, Washington imposed sanctions on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Equipment.

Development Department (EDD) for purchasing Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. The restructuring of Nafta, and an increase in import tariffs by the US government is also another such example.

  • Energy

Gas sanctions on the Russian Gazprom by Europe, and oil and gas export sanctions on Iran by the United States are examples of using the energy market as a policy weapon.

  • Financial Institutions

Sanctions on key financial institutions of Iran, and Russia, etc, as well as cyber-attacks directed against Pakistan’s financial institutions, can be described as instruments of a hybrid warfare strategy. For instance, in 2018, the head of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s cyber crime wing has said data from “almost all” Pakistani banks were stolen in a recent cybersecurity breach.

  1. Political Warfare

Political warfare is the fifth and final element of a hybrid warfare strategy. This dimension of hybrid warfare employs a mix of legal warfare (Lawfare), diplomatic warfare and other political instruments to weaken the target country. Asad Umar Pakistan’s Finance Minister in March 2019, asked the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to remove India from the co-chair of the Asia-Pacific’s Joint Group.

The group is reviewing the country’s progress on implementation of the FATF action plan. Pakistani policy makers suspected that India was attempting to get the country blacklisted for its own internal political and foreign policy purposes. This element of Indian hybrid warfare strategy against Pakistan can be further divided into the following instruments:

  • Lobbying

Indian lobbying in Washington DC is believed to have been a contributing factor for the denial of 6X Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, which were due to be released to Pakistan Navy in 2010- 2011. Israeli lobbying in Washington is believed to have been responsible for the denial of AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles for the Egyptian F-16 aircraft, which massively reduced their capabilities to shoot down a hostile aircraft from a beyond visual range. Sanctions are used to undermine a country’s technological and military industrial potential, thus reducing their self-defense or power projection capabilities, which in turn have a devastating impact on the overall national power.

  • Containment

A policy of strategic containment is used to choke a country from global trade, energy, technology, and military cooperation. Such a policy is currently being applied against Iran, Russia, and China. The policy of strategic containment was also applied against the USSR during the Cold War.

Arms embargo imposed on Pakistan back in the 1990s under the Pressler amendment gave India an unfair tactical advantage over Pakistan and consequently a greater say in geopolitical issues.

  • Blockades

India in 2016 blockaded Nepal from its trade access routes in order to influence its internal political situation and to draw diplomatic and political concessions from the landlocked country. Blockade and nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt lead to an invasion by Britain and France in the 1950s. Iran regularly threatens to blockade the vital Strait of Hormuz as an act of geopolitical blackmail and saber rattling. Blockade of vital ground and maritime lines of communications is an instrument of hybrid warfare, especially when used in conjunction with the aforementioned tactics. Hybrid warfare has immense societal, economic and security-related implications for Pakistan, some of which are listed below.

  • Civil unrest
  • Cultural subversion
  • Division in civil-military relations
  • Economic crisis & economic sabotage
  • Espionage and terrorism under hybrid warfare umbrella
  • Political extremism and separatism
  • Subversion of Pakistan’s international image and foreign, economic, and diplomatic relations
  • The decline in conventional warfighting capabilities because the military is deployed inside the country as a police force.

It is clear that hybrid warfare not only poses a great threat but also presents innumerable opportunities through the employment of a paradigm shift in the war of narratives. The implications of this type of warfare resonate deeply with the security of Pakistan as social cohesion, economic well-being, and its political stability are all at risk. It is very important to understand that social media and internet platforms are an excellent source for information but they have an immense capability to be exploited for negative purposes. This fact should be kept in mind when attaining information from social media, especially during politically sensitive times such as during protest movements, elections, or times of great political upheaval and instability.

Read more: Can The Modi Government Amend It’s Anti-Pakistan Policy? – Subhajit Naskar

What does this mean for Pakistan?

It is of utmost importance for governments and state institutions to carefully study these dynamics and strategically develop countermeasures against external forces that would use these tools to engineer chaos and instability in the country. Military institutions need to pay special attention to the new type of hybrid warfare, which in itself seeks to subvert the national fabric, political system, economy, culture, and national security.

There is an urgent need for the hybrid warfare capabilities to be understood and developed not only to safeguard our national interests and ensure state stability but also to remain globally competitive and politically relevant in this new, fast-evolving battlespace. In order to achieve that, Pakistan must develop a national policy plan to effectively respond to aforementioned hybrid threats throughout the entire spectrum of hybrid warfare doctrine, ranging from cyber, information warfare to physical kinetic operations, and political/diplomatic warfare.

The policy ought to be designed to achieve and protect Pakistan’s national objectives. The government ought to restructure national broadcasters such as the Pakistan Television (PTV) to compete with the likes of BBC, Al-Jazeera, RT, TRT, DW, and CGTN, etc. so that Pakistan can spread its voice and opinions to the world. The PTV should have its international operations based out of Europe and the Americas with a network of native English-speaking reporters, producers, newscasters, and analysts.

Radio Pakistan ought to be restructured along the lines of the BBC and it ought to serve as the premier source for online news according to accepted global standards. The radio ought to broadcast in all major global and regional languages. A comprehensive strategy must be developed to bring Pakistan’s diplomatic operations around the world to international standards of engagement and service. All Pakistani diplomatic establishments around the world ought to be trained in the use of strategic communications through social media platforms to actively engage with their local populations to get Pakistan’s message across in an effective manner.

Read more: India needs to change its Anti Pakistan policy – Subhajit Naskar

They ought to be equipped with modern tools and training to build Pakistan’s soft image overseas and to promote Pakistan’s culture, traditions, sports, and heritage as well as to actively promote Pakistan’s tourism and trade interests. An effort must be made to actively engage overseas Pakistanis in order to bring about a “reverse brain drain” to Pakistan so that the country can benefit from the immensely talented and educated human resource and a large investor base as well as to develop support for Pakistan’s diplomatic and geopolitical interests.

The government should make sure that all college grade students should be taught fundamentals of international relations and political science, so they graduate with a better and clear understanding of challenges and threats faced by the country at an international level. Moreover, an effort should be made to impart a clear understanding of hybrid warfare to senior military officers, civilian leaders, senior diplomats, and bureaucrats. The government should also make provisions to ensure that all imported equipment and devices should be thoroughly tested and certified according to cyber, information security standards before they can be allowed to be sold in Pakistan.

The hijacker Hashim Qureshi likely worked for Indian BSF 1971 plane hijacking: India’s masterstroke of cloak-and-dagger policy

On January 30, 1971, an Indian Airlines Fokker plane took off from Srinagar for Jammu, IoK. But it never arrived at its destination. Instead, it ended up in Lahore, Pakistan. The plane was hijacked by two teenage cousins from Srinagar; Hashim Qureshi (18 years) and Ashraf Qureshi (16 years), using toy guns. Upon landing the plane in Lahore, Hashim introduced himself as a member of Maqbool Bhatt’s National Liberation Front (NLF) and demanded the release of 36 NLF political activists jailed in India, in return for freeing the two dozen Indian crew and passengers.

Interestingly, the plane “Ganga” itself had been withdrawn from service for many years and was re-inducted a few days before the hijacking itself. On February 2nd, the released crew and passengers were sent back to India and the plane was burnt at the airport. However, the event itself pales in significance to its consequences for Pakistan. India’s immediate reaction was to ban its airspace for Pakistani planes. The timing of this had a significant impact on events in former East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.

The ban severely curtailed Pakistan’s ability to move troops and other resources to East Pakistan. After the air space embargo by India it now took three times longer for Pakistani planes to arrive to East Pakistan, as they flew around Indian Airspace. As Mukti Bahini’s insurgency spawned, West Pakistan authorities continuously fell short of resources and manpower to effectively deal with the situation. The civil war ended with the secession of East Pakistan. Indian leadership including Modi, who on his maiden visit to Bangladesh in 2015 proudly speak of the role India played to help Bangladesh gain its independence in 1971.

BM Sinha, an Indian intelligence officer, writes in his book, “Samba Spy Case” that the hijacking was a masterstroke of cloak and dagger policy, it benefited India while putting the blame squarely on Pakistan. The objective according to Sinha was stopping West Pakistan’s military movement to East Pakistan. “The transporting of troops to East Pakistan had to be suspended on some ground to save Mujib’s movement for Bangladesh,” wrote Sinha. He emphasizes that since India and Pakistan relations were normal in 1970 – India needed a pretext for closing its airspace and the hijacking provided one. Pakistan denounced the event as an Indian conspiracy and tried the hijackers and NLF leaders for the act. Hashim Qureshi was found guilty and sent to jail.

Read more: A response to Dr. Subhash Kapila’s rants against Pakistan

Dangers of ‘Echo-Chambers’

‘Even with all these countermeasures, the battle will never end. Misinformation campaigns are not amateur operations. They are professionalized and constantly try to game the system.’ Facebook executive Samidh Chakrabarti

When we think of hybrid warfare, our mind wanders into imagining “Agent Smith” from the movie “The Matrix” and other similar characters, but hybrid warfare is more sophisticated and subtle than that. As a military strategy, hybrid warfare now exploits the “full spectrum” of modern warfare to achieve political, geostrategic and economic goals by governments, non-state actors and private corporations alike. There is nothing new about either fake news or Russian disinformation campaigns.

According to a media report back in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, an astonishing story appeared in a little-known pro-Soviet newspaper called the Patriot. It claimed to have evidence that the Pentagon had deliberately created AIDS as a biological weapon and was ready to export the virus to other countries, mainly in the developing world, as a way of gaining control over them. Within a few years, the story had reappeared in mainstream publications in more than 50 countries. However, this was just the beginning. Now hybrid warfare is the geostrategic weapon of choice to influence outcome of democratic votes in sovereign countries.

In 2016 US elections, Russian Internet Research Agency created fake Facebook pages and profiles to spread false stories about Hillary Clinton. They targeted Trump’s supporters with anti-immigration posts and black voters with related messages to discourage them from voting at all. According to The Economist, “Facebook estimates that during and after the American election in 2016 a Russian-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency was responsible for at least 120 fake pages and 80,000 posts that were directly received by 29m Americans.” The report adds, “Through sharing and liking, the number multiplied to nearly 150m, about two-thirds of the potential electorate.”

At the same time, Russian hackers attacked servers of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee to steal emails from their cloud-based accounts. Moreover, companies such as Cambridge Analytica profiled millions of U.S. voters using data gathered by a personality assessment test and used that to deploy targeted Facebook advertisements illegally. In February 2017, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced that he had created units within the army to wage information war: “Essentially the information conflict is a component of general conflict.

Deriving from that, Russia has made an effort to form structures that are engaged in this matter.” He added that these were far more effective than anything Russia had used before for “counter-propaganda” purposes. A week earlier, General Petr Pavel, the Czech head of Nato’s military committee, had revealed that Russia had concocted a false report of a rape by German soldiers in Lithuania. Social media tycoons have been tasked to work on curtailing false news on their platforms, however, the prevailing use of messaging services such as WhatsApp will belie these efforts. According to a media report, WhatsApp has become a social network to rival Facebook in many places, particularly in poorer countries.

Read more: India continues downplaying Pakistan’s counter-terror efforts

Of the service’s more than 1.3bn monthly users, 120m live in Brazil and 200m in India. According to the report, most of the 55bn messages sent every day are harmless, but WhatsApp’s scale attracts all sorts of mischief-makers. In South Africa, the service is often used to spread false allegations of civic corruption. In Brazil rumors about people travel quickly: a mob recently set upon a couple they suspected of being child traffickers based on chatter on WhatsApp (thankfully the couple escaped). In 2017, similar rumors led to the killing of seven men by angry villagers in Jharkhand state in India, who thought the men were kidnappers.

Later the video of the gruesome lynching went viral. In 2018, a British private corporation YouGov influenced the independence referendum for oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan province by profiling social media users and geo-targeted them with campaign material. Gulf Keystone Petroleum, an oil and gas company, focused on Kurdistan region, paid millions of pounds to directors of YouGov for pushing the agenda of an independent Kurdistan.

Terrorist group Daesh too has developed a sophisticated propaganda machine with a targeted approach to specific audiences like YouGov’s and that of Cambridge Analytica. Daesh’s media ads reach only the young population who are alienated from social institutions and are particularly susceptible to this messaging. The threat of hybrid warfare at present times is in fact as real as it gets.

Shahid Raza is the Assistant Editor of Strategic Affairs at GVS News. He serves as the Director of Geopolitical Research at Command Eleven. He is also a Policy Consultant and a writer who conducts independent research and analysis for Katehon Think Tank, Sputnik Radio International and the Geopolitica Russia. His work focuses on the geopolitical and security dynamics of Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The author can be followed on Twitter @schaheid. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.