The Militia Challenge in Cities

By Antônio Sampaio

January 19, 2021

Militias are a widespread phenomenon across the developing world, from medium-income countries in Latin America and Africa to war-torn ones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Groups widely referred to as militias also famously became a prominent topic of conversation in the lead-up to the last presidential election in the United States, when the FBI announced it had foiled a plot by one such group to kidnap the governor of the state of Michigan. Although the term ‘militia’ is often used loosely to encompass a bewildering range of armed groups, research has recently shed light on a core role of contemporary militias as non-state providers of local security that retain some form of linkage to politics – either ties to governments, politicians or political ambitions of their own.[i] This is an important distinction from older and more traditional studies of militias guided almost exclusively by their different affiliations to the state (pro-government, semi-official, government-allied etc.).[ii] This new understanding of militias as groups connected both to politics and local security has important implications for cities, as geographies with intense competition in both areas – political influence and security provision.

One geographical context seems particularly prone to violent militia activity: cities located within or near areas of armed conflict. This was spectacularly displayed during the infamous 1993 ‘Black Hawk down’ incident that resulted in a 15-hour battle between a Somali warlord militia and US forces. It is not hard to find other examples: Libyan cities, particularly Tripoli and Benghazi, have been hives of militia activity; Iraqi militias loyal to a Shia cleric inflicted immense pain on US and government forces in Baghdad in the 2000s; more recently in the same country, the Popular Mobilisation Forces raised to fight the Islamic State have resisted efforts to integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces and reverted to militia activity in several cities, intimidating displaced Sunnis and carving ‘zones of dominance’ even within Baghdad.[iii]             

A long shot of an abandoned Mogadishu Street known as the “Green Line”, 19 January 1993. The street was the dividing line between North and South Mogadishu, and the warring clans. Members of the clans (not shown) tore down the roadblocks along the line in a show of unity. Credit: R. Oriez through Wikimedia Commons

Whereas several typologies and definitions have been offered for militias outside contexts of civil war, most groups I cite below combine Raleigh’s concept of ‘private armies for political elites’ with David Francis’s definition of civil militias (which he sees as a necessary adaptation to ‘the changed conflict […] environment of the post-Cold War period’). These armed groups emerge ‘to provide public goods by defending and protecting a certain community, but are often ‘privatised to serve particular vested interests’ and thus retain the linkage to politics cited earlier in this piece.[viii]    

Fatal attraction    

One important aspect of militia activity that has an immediate connection to the current patterns of urbanisation in the developing world is their role as local protectors. In fact, one core aspect distinguishing militias from insurgents and guerrilla groups is their inherently local identity – for instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa militias often use ‘violence or the threat of violence to influence an immediate political process’ – at subnational level and ‘often in a localised area’.[ix] They are also linked to localities affected both by absence of state-provided security and the presence of potential or actual violent threats from political rivals, competing ethnic groups, criminal gangs or even the state itself through predatory practices such as abusive policing or repression of ethnic minorities or slum dwellers (a very present issue in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, for instance).[x]

However, there is an additional common trait of militias that makes them particularly tuned to conflict-affected urban areas: their connection to political patrons or powerful individuals for the promotion of ‘parochial’ goals – for instance short-term electoral advantages or competition between ethnic groups.[xi] This places particular – though not exclusive – value on urban areas, which tend to concentrate the political elites themselves as well as votes (thanks to higher population density) and political symbolism.  

None of these local challenges driving militias and their role as ‘local protectors’ is exclusive to cities. Armed violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has featured dozens of non-state armed groups, many of which are characterised as ethnic militias and affecting rural areas and towns.[xii] However, rapid urban growth coupled with weak state capacity in the developing world, and particularly in fragile and conflict-affected settings, present a convergence of three attractive forces for militias in cities: uneven state-provided security, social tensions, and contentious electoral politics.

Security beyond and below the state

The first attractive force, uneven security provision by the state, is an ironic reality for urban dwellers since states, even fragile ones like Somalia or Afghanistan, have relatively robust military and sometimes police forces in capital cities like Mogadishu and Kabul. Furthermore, many displaced people flee armed conflicts in rural areas to the comparatively safer cities. However, it is precisely this larger population – and the conflicts over urban land and other resources amid rapidly-growing cities – that creates opportunities for ‘non-state security providers’, not only militias but also informal vigilante groups, formal private security companies and religious police, among many other types.[xiii]

Flows of displaced population seeking the apparent safety of large cities can disturb the frail balance of power and borders between these providers, exacerbating violence. For instance, displaced people (mostly Pashtun) from areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border were consistently drawn to the megacity of Karachi in search of jobs, contributing to a 130% expansion of its population between 1988 and 2018.[xiv] This has also tipped the balance of political power between parties that represent different ethnic groups increasingly using violence (through militias and sometimes gangs) to acquire control over votes and illicit economies.[xv] The presence of several different types of security providers in Mogadishu, including government, international forces and remnants of clan militias, contributes to a ‘high variation in security and insecurity by district and neighbourhood’, in what Ken Menkhaus has described as a ‘mediated state’ that negotiates its way around ‘non-state authorities’.[xvi] Uneven security provision by the state, therefore, does not mean absence of security but a multiplication of ‘providers’, especially in dense urban settings affected by the other two attractive forces.

Tension among neighbours

Social tensions comprise yet another ironic aspect of urban life. After all, cities are essentially diverse places, where productivity is often based precisely on the concentration of diverse people in one place. However, broader tensions between ethnic groups, clans, tribes and religions can and indeed have manifested strongly in cities. As Scott Bollens has eloquently expressed, several urban features such as ‘intergroup proximity, social interaction, symbolic centrality, and economic interdependency characteristic of cities can bend or distort the relationship between broader ideological disputes and the manifestations of local ethnic conflict’.[xvii] Jerusalem is perhaps the most indisputable and long-term example of how inter-group rivalries are not always diminished by urban co-habitation but can sometimes be exacerbated when disputes revolve around ownership, status or hegemony over the urban space itself. Escalation in inter-group rivalries such as ethnic conflicts can accelerate militia mobilisation.[xviii] 

Recent evidence shows several such examples from cities near areas of armed conflict. Inter-clan rivalries have traditionally been a major driver of armed violence in Mogadishu. Clan militias have fought with each other with particular intensity during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as President Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime was collapsing. Indeed, the 1993 battle depicted in the book (and later film) ’Black Hawk Down’, which resulted in the deaths of 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis and the downing of two helicopters, started when US Rangers surrounded a house in Mogadishu to arrest leaders of Aidid’s Habar Gidir clan. The legacy of these social tensions lingers in Somalia: with the government security forces (both the Somali National Army and the local police) lacking cohesion and training, recruits hail from officially demobilised militias but remain loyal to clan leaders.[xix] As one local expert in Mogadishu told me during field research there in October 2019, there still has not been ‘genuine reconciliation’ between clans: ‘Because of the memory of the former dictator Siad Barre, the population and the clans are not sure about giving up their weapons and regretting it’.[xx] A national government official reported that, in Mogadishu, ‘some of the militias are in their homes with weapons, so they are potential clan militias and they can start anytime’.[xxi]

A “technical” in Mogadishu at the time of the UNOSOM mission (1992 or 1993). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Karachi is another example of how inter-group rivalries contribute to armed militia activities. Like in Mogadishu, violence involved armed groups playing on social, spatial and political divisions.[xxii] Ethnic tensions were exacerbated by the rapid inflow of ethnic Pashtuns from areas of active conflict and the resulting disturbance of the balance of electoral politics between political parties linked to ethnic identities.[xxiii] Karachi, being one of the world’s largest megacities, also illustrates a uniquely urban manifestation of inter-group rivalries: the separation of urban dwellers in ‘enclaves’ located close to each other but guarded by rival ethnic or political armed groups.[xxiv] This is a worrying case in which the inherent social diversity of cities morphs into the very seeds of militia activity, especially when stoked by political actors.

Politics by means of militia

As the Karachi example makes abundantly clear, contentious electoral politics can and often does assume a violent urban format through the splintering of city space along armed proxies of competing political actors. This third attractive force of militia activity carries a particularly dangerous aspect in the current global context of polarised politics. Militias, unlike insurgent and other rebel groups, have ‘narrow’ and local political aims. Despite this – and sometimes because of this – they have been valuable contractors for political actors willing ‘to privatise their coercive strategies’[xxv] or use ‘informal repression’.[xxvi]

This is particularly the case of Sub-Saharan African countries that faced strong international pressure to ‘undertake a nominal democratic transition’ despite lingering zero-sum politics, particularly in politically symbolic and dense urban centres.[xxvii] One prominent stage and battleground of political violence around national elections in Kenya is the capital, Nairobi, where Emma Elfversson and Kristine Höglund identify distinctively urban features facilitating political violence, including population density, inhabitants’ connectivity to each other, the city’s symbolic value and the proximity of opposition groups to the seat of national power.[xxviii] In such ‘donor-induced democratisation’ processes, the propensity of urban areas to concentrate political protests have made the use of militias even more appealing to autocratic leaders.[xxix] 

Contentious politics at the local level can also be amplified when militias and their patrons ‘politicise ethnicity’ by linking their activity to attempts to strengthen their positions or to exclude rival groups from power.[xxx] The vicious cycle has been described in chilling detail by Haris Gazdar (referring to violence in Karachi): the targeted assassination of a party functionary can lead to ‘a strike call by the aggrieved group which is enforced by its armed supporters often resulting in the killing of random individuals belonging to the ethnic support base of the rival party’, not to mention abduction and torture of people suspected of belonging to rival political parties or ethnic groups.[xxxi] 

Concluding thoughts

The dynamics described above are not exclusive to cities, but they tend to coincide and be significantly more prominent problems in large cities. This is particularly the case in urban centres within countries affected by recent armed conflict, when inter-group tensions, accelerated urban growth (often driven by displacement) and armed mobilisation form an explosive combination. Even the termination of conflict has often proven to be an ineffective medicine, as tensions and political incentives in cities remain powerful attractive forces for militias’ protection and ‘informal repression’ services.[xxxii]

These attractive forces – uneven security provision, social tensions and contentious electoral politics – result from uniquely urban drivers of conflict as well as broader problems of institutional fragility. The highly unequal provision of security by states even within capital cities forms powerful incentives for militias to engage in protection rackets, especially in environments where inter-group rivalries and crime co-exist in close proximity. Rivals and criminals can, after all, help to justify the existence of and support for militias (alongside financial support requested by militiamen). Social tensions can also morph into bitter struggles for control of economic or politically valuable urban space. Finally, conflict over political supremacy can also empower militias and explode into violence – for instance, when cities’ political symbolism or potential for votes encourage politicians to use armed proxies or when diverse political views and ethnicities bring out leaders’ repressive tendencies amid embryonic democratic institutions. Militias’ message of local protection finds resonance with urban populations amid these security, social and political tensions. This piece has been an attempt to highlight a need for greater scholarly attention to the urban drivers of militia activity. One particular trend of concern is the continued pace of rapid urbanisation in fragile and developing countries, and the potential for this demographic shift in acutely underprepared municipalities to exacerbate social and political tensions.

Antônio Sampaio is a Senior Analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. He examines urban armed violence, non-state armed groups and their impact on governance and security. His research has been focused on cities in Latin America (particularly Brazil and Colombia), as well as Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), more recently as Research Fellow, focused on political violence in cities. Prior to that, Antônio worked as a journalist at Globo News TV in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow him on Twitter @antoniosamp


[i] David J. Francis, ‘Introduction’, in: David J. Francis (ed.), Civil Militia: Africa’s Intractable Security Menace?, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), p. 4. 

[ii] For a discussion on traditional vs new definitions of militia groups, see: Huseyn Aliyev, ‘Strong militias, weak states and armed violence: Towards a theory of ‘state-parallel’ paramilitaries’, Security Dialogue, Vol. 47, Issue 6, 2016, p. 3.

[iii] Michael Knights, ‘Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups’, CTC Sentinel, Vol. 12, Issue 7, August 2019, pp. 1-6.

[iv] For more on the trend in growing militia activity during the 1990s see: Augustine Ikelegbe and Wafula Okumu, ‘Introduction: towards conceptualisation and understanding of the threats of armed non-state groups to human security and the state in Africa’, in: Wafula Okumu and Augustine Ikelegbe (eds), Militias, Rebels and Islamist Militants: Human Insecurity and State Crises in Africa, Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2010, p. 2.

[v] Antônio Sampaio, ‘Urban drivers of political violence: declining state authority and armed groups in Mogadishu, Nairobi, Kabul and Karachi’, International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2020. 

[vi] For a discussion on the categorisation of gangs, vigilantes and militias, see: Moritz Schuberth, ‘The Challenge of Community-Based Armed Groups: Towards a Conceptualization of Militias, Gangs, and Vigilantes’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 36, Issue 2, pp. 296-320.

[vii] Clionadh Raleigh, ‘Pragmatic and Promiscuous: Explaining the Rise of Competitive Political Militias Across Africa’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 60, Issue 2, 2014, p. 2.

[viii] Francis, Introduction, pp. 2-3.

[ix] Ibid., p. 7.

[x] Paul Rexton Kan, ‘The Global Challenge Of Militias And Paramilitary Violence’ (Cham: Springer, 2019), p. 6.

[xi] Schuberth, The Challenge of Community-Based Armed Groups, pp. 296, 305.

[xii] Augustine Ikelegbe and Wafula Okumu, ‘Introduction: towards conceptualisation and understanding of the threats of armed non-state groups to human security and the state in Africa’, in: Wafula Okumu and Augustine Ikelegbe (eds), Militias, Rebels and Islamist Militants: Human Insecurity and State Crises in Africa (Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2010), p. 7.

[xiii] Bruce Baker, ‘Nonstate Providers of Everyday Security in Fragile African States’, in: Louise Andersen, Bjørn Møller, and Finn Stepputat (eds), Fragile States and Insecure People? Violence, Security, and Statehood in the Twenty-First Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 127.

[xiv] Antônio Sampaio, ‘Urban drivers of political violence: declining state authority and armed groups in Mogadishu, Nairobi, Kabul and Karachi’, International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2020, p. 19.

[xv] Sobia Ahmad Kaker, ‘Enclaves, insecurity and violence in Karachi’, South Asian History and Culture, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 2014, p. 94.

[xvi] Ken Menkhaus, ‘Non-State Security Providers and Political Formation in Somalia’, CSG Papers no. 5, April 2016, pp. 7, 33.

[xvii] Scott Bollens, ‘Managing Urban Ethnic Conflict’, in: Robin Hambleton, Hans V. Savitch and Murray Stewart (eds.), Globalism and Local Democracy: Challenges and Change in Europe and North America (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 111.

[xviii] Andrew Thomson, ‘Ethnic Conflict and Militias’, in: Steven Ratuva (ed), The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 563.

[xix] Vanda Felbab-Brown, ‘The Problem with Militias in Somalia: Almost Everyone Wants Them Despite their Dangers’, in: Adam Day (ed), Hybrid Conflict, Hybrid Peace: How Militias and Paramilitary Groups Shape Post-Conflict Transitions, (New York: United Nations University, 2020), p. 119.

[xx] Interview with local expert, Mogadishu, 14 October 2019.

[xxi] Interview with government official, Mogadishu, 15 October 2019.

[xxii] Laurent Gayer, Karachi; Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (London: Hurst, 2014), p.  41.

[xxiii] Sobia Ahmad Kaker, ‘Enclaves, insecurity and violence in Karachi’, South Asian History and Culture, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 2014, p. 94.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 96.

[xxv] Philip G. Roessler, ‘Donor-Induced Democratization and the Privatization of State Violence in Kenya and Rwanda’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 37, Issue 2 (January 2005), p. 207.

[xxvi] Linda Kirschke, Informal Repression, Zero-Sum Politics and Late Third Wave Transitions, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 38, Issue 3, September 2000, p. 384.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 384.

[xxviii] Emma Elfversson and Kristine Höglund, ‘Violence in the city that belongs to no one: urban distinctiveness and interconnected insecurities in Nairobi (Kenya)’, Conflict, Security & Development, Vol. 19, Issue 4, 2019, p. 359.

[xxix] Philip G. Roessler, ‘Donor-Induced Democratization and the Privatization of State Violence in Kenya and Rwanda’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 37, Issue 2 (January 2005), pp. 211, 223.

[xxx] Andrew Thomson, ‘Ethnic Conflict and Militias’, in: Steven Ratuva (ed), The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 571.

[xxxi] Haris Gazdar, ‘Karachi Battles’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 46, Issue 38, 17-23 September 2011, p. 19.

[xxxii] Linda Kirschke, ‘Informal Repression’.


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