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Hybrid Warfare and Unorthodox Tactics: A Case Study on Italy's Falange Armata


Introduction & Overview

The past decade has seen many warfare analysts and specialists discuss the intricacies of hybrid warfare, especially in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the early role of Russian spec-ops in Donbass, which have been considered as applications of ‘hybrid warfare’ (HW) par excellence. The resulting spike in academic and military interest has resulted in a burgeoning conceptual expansion of the early model, which has resulted in the emergence of concepts such as fifth generation warfare (5GW) and, most recently, gray zone conflict (GZC) (1).

This analysis offers a detailed exploration of varying theories and approaches to hybrid warfare (HW), including fifth generation warfare (5GW), gray zone conflict (GZC), and unorthodox warfare. Along with a definition of their characteristics and an identification of their key differences, this report highlights the unique aspect of Italian unorthodox warfare, manifesting in the case of the enigmatic terrorist organization Falange Armata (active in the 1990s). This analysis aims to demonstrate that hybrid warfare extends beyond conventional conflict, infiltrating various societal domains. Specifically, the Falange Armata case sheds light on a unique form of hybrid conflict where factions under state cover operate against the state for external gains, thus blurring the lines between the battlefield and the belligerent.

Hybrid Warfare, 5th Generation Warfare, Gray Zone Conflict, Unorthodox Warfare?

These various explanations and descriptions of hybrid warfare possess substantial differences. On one hand, the existence of a specific Russian HW doctrine, often referred to as the 'Gerasimov doctrine' after the general credited with its creation, has been a subject of debate (2). However, the concept of fifth generation warfare (5GW) predates any proposed Russian approach, with early proponents like Robert David Steele advancing its basic principles as early as 2003. 


Another comprehensive literature review on 5GW was published by Daniel Abbot in 2010 (3), in which he succinctly describes how “5GW is the manipulation of the observational context in order to make the enemy do our will” (4). In this sense, deception and the unidentifiable use of violence characterize 5GW, with the target not being able to discern who it is fighting against, or even whether a struggle is taking place at all (5).

While 5GW remains a popular approach in some countries (6), NATO has adapted the basic concept in what is now known as ‘cognitive warfare’, which eminently focuses on the increased alteration and extremization of political discourse (especially through piloted narratives online) in a way that damages trust in society and leads to skepticism, distrust or outright opposition of state institutions (7).

Frank Hoffman is often credited as the inventor of HW as a concept, but in his original meaning, this scholar mainly described the blurring of lines between regular and irregular forces, organizational boundaries, tactical choices, financial and cyber operations, low tech and high tech attacks, all happening separately or at once during confrontation (8). In this original sense, this depiction of hybridity as the use and recourse to disparate methods on planes of different orders of magnitude to oppose an adversary could aptly describe NATO’s behavior vis-á-vis the Russian invasion of Ukraine, insofar as the alliance has employed propaganda methods, logistical and financial operations to support Ukraine and damage Russia, cyber operations and intel gathering, etc (9).

Lastly, GZC was developed relatively recently, seemingly conjured as an attempt to overcome or augment the concept of HW. The study which proposed it, authored by Michael Mazarr, advanced the notion that specifically revisionist powers – states whose sole objectives are to terminate the current system – can implement GZC to pursue their interests while also keeping the confrontation at a sub-war level of intensity. In this sense, the four main characteristics of GCZ are: cohesive campaigns launched by belligerents to achieve political ends, the use of non-military and non-kinetic tools, escalation avoidance, and step-by-step tactics (10).


In particular, proponents of GZC theory describe this kind of operations as designed to reach military, economic, or political objectives that would generally be the result of an armed conflict, without actually reaching the threshold of aggression that would result in a conventional war (11). However, a similar conceptual approach has notoriously been elaborated by two Chinese colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiansui, in their 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare. This work put forward the notion that modern warfare should not be limited to armed force, but could instead be expanded to include financial (trade) warfare and cultural warfare with an accordingly indefinite number of potential battlefields (12).


The Chinese approach is particularly interesting, since China’s strategic culture dates back thousands of years and has produced fine understandings of the relationship between wu (the military realm) and wen (the civil realm) and of the way these two principles interact at a strategic level (13). Without digressing too much on Chinese strategic culture, it must also be noted that the notion of jingbing (troops specialized in asymmetric warfare and special operations) was developed as far back as the Warring States Period and remains a central tenet of the People’s Liberation Army tactical and strategic understanding (14).

While all of these approaches take into account the variable geometry of warfare and the fact that, in principle, no societal domain is immune from aggression, GZC is the only one that more explicitly moves beyond ‘proxy warfare’ into the dimension of state-on-state actions; it therefore is the most state-centric approach of all (15).


Unorthodox warfare, on the other hand, remains a seldomly used term, which is at times used to describe the Maoist approach to tactical operations. Outside of the Anglosphere, however, unorthodox warfare has been noted as a common thread amongst spec-op and black-op specialists. The infamous Strategy of Tension, which enveloped Italy during the ‘years of lead’ between the 1960s and the 1980s, is perhaps the most high-profile example of unorthodox warfare (in the Italian understanding of the concept) applied in the context of a sui generis hybrid conflict.


The eminent differences of Italian-style hybrid warfare (and in a tactical sense, of Italian unorthodox warfare) lie on the fact that factions, even if they are supported by foreign powers, emerge within the state, remain under the state’s cover while at the same time operating against the state to produce effects without the state. Hence, the hybridization of conflict envelops the target almost completely and renders the distinction between battlefield (as a coherent, cognitive landscape) and belligerent useless. In one instance, belligerents may act as ‘apex predators’ and maneuver consciously against others, just for them to become the hapless pawns of other actors in another instance.

The Falange Armata: the Record 

The Falange Armata (“Armed Phalanx”) is a mysterious organization that emerged in Italy in the 1990s, and which has claimed between 900 and 1200 attacks in the country. Initially self-style as Falange Armata Carceraria (“Prisonhouse Armed Phalanx”), the organization was later suspected of being a rogue offshoot of Gladio, the stay-behind secret organization that was meant to counter a communist takeover of Western countries. Most active between 1990 and 1995, the Falange Armata re-emerged in 2014.

The first attack claimed by the Falange Armata was the murder of a prison officer on the 11th of April 1990 (16). It was claimed in May of the same year, and again in October, when an individual with a heavy German accent phoned the ANSA news agency and read a communique, which included death threats against four more prison wardens (17). In October, two directors of a steelwork were gunned down as they were driving to work in Catania, Sicily. The double murder was originally attributed to the Mafia, but a phone call to ANSA read, once again, by a man with a German accent, claimed responsibility for the Falange Armata Carceraria (18). In this communique, other than renewing threats against prison officers, the caller gave some hints about Operation Gladio (which was being uncovered during that time) and the Bologna bombing, as if the Falange Armata knew something about those (19). In December 1990, multiple similar communiques were delivered, but after 1990 the brand Falange Armata Carceraria was never again used (20).

On the 4th of January 1991, a group of three young Carabinieri (Italian military police) were slain in the Pilastro area of Bologna. The attack was claimed twice by the same caller with a German accent on behalf of the Falange Armata, on the 5th and on the 7th of January (21). In the latter call, the individual speaking expressed anger against the police for supposedly recovering and destroying a tape which contained the Falange’s political manifesto and revelations about Gladio and the Strategy of Tension, and promised further attacks (22). However, later calls denounced that some calls had been fake and/or copycats, while also saying that the three Carabinieri were killed only because of contingent reasons (23).

The “Pilastro massacre” was later attributed to the White Uno gang, a group of rogue policemen who robbed businesses and murdered people in the Bologna area (24). Nevertheless, the Falange Armata went on to claim this and other crimes committed by the White Uno gang.

Later, the Falange Armata started threatening journalists, judges (usually those investigating the Falange itself) and political parties more explicitly, such as the Italian Socialist Party (25). In late 1991, the Falange Armata claimed the killing of a police officer and the bombing of famous TV show presenter Pippo Baudo’s villa in Sardinia (26). A criminal investigation later attributed the bombing to Mafia members who held a grudge against Baudo (27).

In 1992, a bomb failed to destroy a passenger train on the Lecce-Zurich line because the convoy was travelling with some delay. The attack was once again claimed by the Falange Armata, and the caller had the usual German accent (28). On the 12th of February of the same year, two Carabinieri were shot dead during a traffic stop. The killings were claimed by the Falange Armata, but two members of the Camorra crime syndicate were later apprehended, charged with the murders and imprisoned (29).

Later in 1992, the Falange Armata claimed the killing of a mayor who was implicated in corrupt business with the Camorra but had started cooperating with law enforcement (30). Subsequently, the bombing (over 1000kg of explosive) that killed judge Falcone and his escort, was also claimed by the Falange Armata, even if attack has been investigated as a Mafia attack (31). Likewise, the Falange Armata claimed the killing of judge Borsellino a few months later (32).

Throughout 1993, a number of bombings were carried out in Italy, which killed 10 and injured 95 people, and most of these were claimed by the Falange Armata (33). Once again, however, Mafia members and bosses have been tried and sentenced because of these terrorist acts, which were meant to induce politicians and institutions to reduce the severity of the prison regime for Mafia inmates (34). Other than the usual calls to claim the attacks, a more interesting call was received by the ANSA news agency on the 28th of May 1993. The caller, who claimed to be someone with insider knowledge of the Falange Armata, asserted that the Falange was composed of secret service operators, arms and drugs dealers, opportunists, and low ranking soldiers, while also suggesting the minister of the interior should look into the SISMI’s (Italian secret services) archives (35).

On the 21st of September 1993, another notable call took place. Someone phoned the Adnkronos news agency and threatened the then President of the Italian Republic, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, by paraphrasing a sentence about his daughter he had uttered a few days prior, with only some of his staff present, thus suggesting that the Falange had intimate access even to the highest ranks of Italian institutions (36). In 1995, an apparent major breakthrough in investigations against the Falange Armata lead to the arrest of Carmelo Scalone, one of the same jail officers who had been repeatedly threatened since the emergence of the Falange Armata (37). After years of trials and re-retrials, it was revealed that unknown individuals had tampered with his phone lines to make it appear as if Falange Armata communiques and calls had been carried out by him, indicating a high degree of technical and tactical dexterity by the Falange Armata (38). In this regard, it is also notable that the Falange Armata had also claimed a hacker attack that took place in December 1994, when the computers of the Adnkronos news agency had been hacked into (39). At the time, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and such IT-specific expertise was not common (40). In 1995, the Falange Armata hacked into the computers of the Bank of Italy, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics and some private companies (41).

After 1995, the Falange Armata went silent until 2014, when it threatened imprisoned Mafia boss Totò Riina, who had been revealing details of the Mafia’s dealings while being secretly recorded by investigators (42).

Gladio and Unorthodox Warfare in Action?

Starting in 1991, an Italian ambassador was continually threatened by the Falange Armata after he was promoted to director of the CESIS, the authority which controlled Italian secret services, and he decided to investigate the organization using his connections to security service. He came across a list of 15 or 16 names, almost all of which belonged to the XVII division of the SISMI, the Italian military intelligence service (43). These individuals were noted as possessing extraordinary qualities and skills that made them precious assets for Italian covert operations and hybrid warfare (known in Italy as Guerra non ortodossa, “unorthodox warfare”), and were expert in handling explosives, infiltrating enemy lines, and special operations (44). These agents were organized in the OSSI, (Operatori Speciali Servizio Italiano, “Special operators (of the) Italian Service”), and were integrated into what became known as Gladio, the stay-behind secret organization that was intended to counter a communist takeover of Western countries (45). They were also used to protect Italian ministers when they would travel abroad (46).

These individuals therefore possessed the full array of technical tools to attack targets in an unconventional fashion, while also likely possessing extraordinary abilities that had them selected as special operators. Amongst others, the capacity to lead effective cyberattacks was more than exceptional in the 1990s, especially if the targets were institutions such as the Bank of Italy; effective tampering with telecommunications to misdirect investigations also implies the highest degree of technical knowledge but also a deep understanding of investigative techniques and magistrates’ cognitive maps. It has also been noted that speech and technical terms used in communiques were highly specific to security services and people involved in military special operations (47)


The members of the OSSI were never investigated in relation to the Falange Armata. Some have suggested that the Falange Armata actually emerged from the Nuclei per la Sicurezza dello Stato (“Nuclei for State Security”), another stay-behind organization similar to Gladio and that likewise employed selected personnel (48). The purported connection to the White Uno gang could also hint to the involvement of low ranking rogue police officers. Yet, the blurring of lines (in the typical fashion of hybrid warfare) renders these kinds of links possible and unlikely at the same time – and thus, the misdirection and cognitive effects of hybridity are fully realized.

The Falange Armata’s capacity to access classified or inaccessible information related to the activity of high-ranking state officials could be interpreted as a testament to the Falange’s capacity to infiltrate and operate within state institutions. It is possible that Falange operatives were “sheep-dipped” – a term that indicates the habit of some intelligence agencies to formally remove or release from service their personnel while retaining them in practice and assigning them to ‘black ops’ (49). Although this practice has not been documented in Italy, Italian security services are believed to operate unscrupulously in a much more informal structure than other comparable agencies, and agents are recruited from any walk of life without any formal transfer to the intelligence services (50).


When Gladio was uncovered, in 1990, a list of 600 “gladiators” was made public, alongside a list of 1200 “negatives”; people who were approached and introduced to the organization, but for unknown reasons did not end up joining (51). This reveals the high likelihood of the ‘sheep-dipping’ practice, for it is heavily unconvention to keep a list of “non-agents”, especially if this concerns a top secret organization of strategic relevance and of dubious (if not outright unconstitutional) legal nature.

Without devoting too much attention to the organizational structure of Italian secret services and the relevance of Gladio, we have to briefly consider a few further issues. One is the tendency of Italian secret services to spawn a “Matryoshka-like” structure used to cover sub-organizations that could then act relatively independently. As an example, later control of Gladio units was assigned to Office ‘R’ of the secret services, which itself created a training section (SAD), which managed a saboteurs’ training section (CAG). Additionally, operational structures included 40 nuclei and 5 rapid deployment units (52). The OSSI may have been one of the latter.

It is thus easy to imagine that such a cell-like structure, once set up and covered in a shroud of secrecy (53) – even within the conventional security apparatus of the state – may well have left leeway for operatives such as the OSSI to “go rogue”.

Furthermore, the stated aim of Gladio was to create a network of reliable fighters who would resist foreign invasion. However, a meager list of 600 members of the organization was made public amid various parliamentary inquiries, which would put into serious question the ability of such a small network to have any significant influence in a hypothetical guerrilla war involving a communist invasion. This is particularly the case in Italy, where almost half of the population voted for communist and socialist parties throughout the Cold War). A more thorough examination of the organization’s internal documents (revealed after 1990) indicates that Gladio was indeed tasked with combating ‘internal subversion’ as well. This double function, which can be metaphorically described as anti-Soviet externally and anti-PCI (Italian Communist Party) internally, is actually quite aptly exemplified by Gladio's homonymous symbol, a double-edged Roman dagger (54). In a context of a hybrid warfare situation, 600 operatives represent a sizable contingent (55).


As a final thought, one also has to consider that entire parallel structures of Italian secret services have been uncovered throughout the years, often in connection with the planned and attempted coups d'état (56). Some of these rogue structures have been identified as the Anello, the Supersismi, and the Parallel SID (57)(58)(59). The various attempts at reforming secret services in Italy (which included disbanding them repeatedly) are a testament to just how difficult these structures are to control for elected officials (60).

The involvement of high-ranking officers and leading officials of the Italian secret services in establishing or hijacking legitimate structures for parallel security services raises serious questions. The possibility that field operatives such as the OSSI may have "gone rogue" cannot be easily dismissed. They may, in fact, have been operating within these parallel structures, maintaining a hierarchical relationship mirroring that of their legally sanctioned counterparts, namely the legitimate secret services.

This situation presents a sort of dual identity, where in one instance, these entities are acting within the confines of the law, and in another, they operate outside and even against it. Notably, there appears to be a significant overlap in the operational structure of these two sides. These alternate identities suggest a complex interplay between legality and covert operations, which warrants a deeper investigation into the nature and actions of such entities.

The Falange Armata: Hybrid Warfare à l'Italienne 

In the 1990 communique, the Falange Armata identified their enemies as the financial and political/judiciary institutions, and specifically the penitentiary system and its administrators (61). Later on, the targets of the Falange Armata became more often than not Italian law enforcement and judiciary, especially those who were combating the Italian Mafia in the early 1990s.

While the communiques released by the Falange Armata often included hints and comments about the “militarization” of the territory of Italy, it is not clear what this entailed. A purely ideological element is only necessary to describe “organic” militant and insurgent groups, who necessarily emerge out of some sort of motivating, coherent belief and are “triggered” by contingent circumstances into embracing armed struggle. However, opposition to Italy’s prison system is a scarcely believable ideological cover because of the nature of the prison system itself, which imprisons anarchist bombers, mafia members, and common criminals with little semantic distinction – for the same reason, these groups may oppose the prison system for entirely different reasons, many of which may be non-ideological and pure self-interest.

Nevertheless, if one accepts the connection of the Falange Armata to “rogue” secret services, then the Falange’s ideological component is exposed as a mere smoke curtain, intended to the Falange Armata’s operations may be interpreted in the context of hybrid warfare and a wider continuation of the political destabilization of Italy as a fundamental goal of the Falange (62).

Destabilization, however, can only be understood as a fundamental goal of hybrid warfare (and thus, of unorthodox warfare) insofar as it eventually becomes clear who was damaged and who profited from said destabilization. Regarding the wider 'Strategy of Tension', historical research suggests that destabilization in Italy during the Cold War was organized from within the Italian state (63) in order to destabilize the country. This served to protect and reinforce the liberal and atlanticist establishment while marginating the leftist parties and social movements (64).

While the Falange Armata is now a forgotten footnote in Italian history, it remains one of the most interesting examples of unorthodox warfare when it comes to the techniques, the cognitive manipulation, and the constant dissemination of red herrings in order to manipulate targeted individuals and institutions. What their specific objective was remains a mystery, since no formal inquiries into the group have ever been conducted, nor has anyone involved with the group ever stepped forward. If they indeed came out of the Gladio stay-behind network, why did they not disappear when that operation was dismantled? Did they offer their services to a new master? And why did they eventually vanish? It is impossible to know. Their activity, however, can very well be juxtaposed to the same operational tactics that have been seen and documented during the Cold War in Italy, and it is a testament to the specificity of unorthodox warfare in the field of Hybrid Warfare studies.

Amongst all the approaches we have reviewed initially, unorthodox warfare represents an ante litteram application of Gray Zone Conflict (GZC) theory, but this association remains problematic insofar as the distinction of targets, pawns/proxies, and objectives (which imply that someone has to define the objectives) is mere speculation. While the complicated history of Italy in the Cold War has slowly been pieced together by historians and parliamentary inquiries (Italy is one of the few countries which has investigated Gladio), the tail end of the Strategy of Tension remains more obscure, and the Falange Armata remains difficult to understand. However, their actions are fully coherent with unorthodox warfare á la italienne and represent a unique case of its application.

Works Cited (Chicago)

(1) - Cfr. Krishan, A. Fifth Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, and Gray Zone Conflict: A Comparison. In: Journal of Strategic Security, 2022. pp. 14.

(2) - Dominioni, S. & Tafuro Ambrosetti, E. Russia’s Hybrid Strategy: Myth or Reality?. In: ISPI, 2/07/2020. Available at: [last consulted: 16.05.2023]

(3) - Cfr. Krishan, A. Fifth Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, and Gray Zone Conflict: A Comparison. Cit. pp. 17.

(4) - Ibidem.

(5) - Ibidem, pp. 17-18.

(6) - Cfr. Krishan, A. Fifth Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, and Gray Zone Conflict: A Comparison. Cit.

(7) - Ibidem, pp. 18-19.

(8) - Ibidem, pp. 19-20.

(9) - Ibidem, pp. 21.

(10) - Cfr. Ibidem, pp. 21-22.

(11) - Cfr. Bensahel, N. Darker Shades of Gray: Why Gray Zone Conflicts Will Become More Frequent and Complex. In: E-Notes, Foreign Policy Research Institite, 13/02/2017. Available at: [Last consulted: 07/06/2023]

(12) - Ibidem.

(13) - Cfr. S. Miracola, Chinese strategic culture : origin, organization, operationalization and evolution of the people’s war doctrine, 2018. pp. 125-129. Available at: [Last accessed: 7/06/2023]

(14) - Ibidem, pp. 128.

(15) - Ibidem, pp. 25.

(16) - Giannantoni, M. & Volterra, P. L'operazione criminale che ha terrorizzato l'Italia. La storia segreta della Falange Armata. Newton Compton Editori, 2014. pp. 29.

(17) - Ibidem, pp. 30.

(18) - Ibidem, pp. 33.

(19) - Ibidem.

(20) - Cfr. pp. 34.

(21) - Ibidem, pp. 35.

(22) - Ibidem.

(23) - Ibidem, pp. 37.

(24) - Ibidem, pp. 37-39.

(25) - Cfr. Ibidem, pp. 41-42.

(26) - Ibidem, pp. 42-43.

(27) - Ibidem.

(28) - Ibidem, pp. 59.

(29) - Ibidem, pp. 59-60.

(30) - Ibidem, pp. 61-62.

(31) - Cfr. Ibidem, pp. 67-68.

(32) - Ibidem, pp. 72.

(33) - Ibidem, pp. 76.

(34) - Ibidem.

(35) - Ibidem, pp. 83.

(36) - Ibidem, pp. 108-109.

(37) - Ibidem, pp. 122-123.

(38) - Ibidem.

(39) - Ibidem, pp. 140.

(40) - Ibidem, pp. 139-140.

(41) - [Last consulted: 14/04/2023]

(42) - Cfr. Pipitone, G. Falange Armata: ‘Riina chiudi la bocca’. Dopo 20 anni ricompare la sigla del terrore. In: Il Fatto Quotidiano, 24/02/2014. [Last consulted: 14/04/2023]

(43) - Giannantoni, M. & Volterra, P. L'operazione criminale che ha terrorizzato l'Italia. La storia segreta della Falange Armata. Cit. pp. 91-97.

(44) - Ibidem, pp. 126-136.

(45) - Ibidem.

(46) - Ibidem.

(47) - Cfr. Ibidem, pp. 126-127.

(48) - Ibidem.

(49) - Cfr.

(50) - Cfr. Willan, P. An offer they can't refuse. In: The Guardian, 06/12/2001. Available at: 

(51) - Cfr. Ferraresi, F. & Castagna, J. A secret structure codenamed Gladio. In: Italian Politics, 7, 1992. pp. 37-38.

(52) - Ibidem, pp. 30-31.

(53) - Ibidem, pp. 128.

(54) - Ibidem, pp. 34-35.

(55) - Ibidem, pp. 128.

(56) - Ibidem, pp. 36.

(57) - Cfr. AA. VV. Licio Gelli: “Berlusconi un debole, Andreotti a capo dell’Anello e Fini è senza carattere”. In: Oggi, 15.02.2011. Available at: [Last consulted: 14/04/2023]

(58) - Mastrogiacomo, D. Il Supersismi é veramente esistito. In: La Repubblica, 30.07.1985. Available at: [Last consulted: 14/04/2023]

(59) - Cfr. Ferraresi, F. & Castagna, cit. pp. 42.

(60) - Cfr. AA. VV. The conflict between Italian intelligence agencies. In: Invisible Dog, 23, 2013. Available at: 

(61) - Giannantoni, M. & Volterra, P. L'operazione criminale che ha terrorizzato l'Italia. La storia segreta della Falange Armata. Cit. pp. 30.

(62) - Cfr. Pipitone, G. Trattativa, l’ex capo dei Servizi Fulci: “la Falange chiamava dalle sedi Sismi, alcuni 007 usavano esplosivi”. In: Il Fatto Quotidiano, 25/06/2015. Available at: [Last consulted: 14/04/2023]

(63) - Cfr. Ferraresi, F. & Castagna, cit. pp. 137-138.

(64) - Ibidem, pp. 133.

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