Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

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Richard Borowski

Private Military and Security Companies in Somalia – Jethro Norman

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Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in Somalia since the End of the Cold War: Historical and Theoretical Implications[1]

Jethro Norman

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 109-118]

This article provides an overview of the structure and content of a recent Masters by Research dissertation, summarising the data which underlaid what is perhaps the most comprehensive single account of PMSC activity in Somalia. In the shadows of large-scale PMSC deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the more subtle insertion of PMSCs into Somalia has been an underexplored area. This study traces out how the industry can be seen as a response to changing conditions in global politics, namely the ascendency of neoliberalism, whilst recognising that at the same time PMSCs share significant continuities with the historical actors of imperialist intervention. It addresses the shortcomings within mainstream International Relations (IR) in analyses of private violence, moving away from state-centrism and instead reconciling the apparent contradictions between neoliberalism and neo-imperialism as explanations for PMSC activity. It achieves this through detailed historical analysis and by using the Bourdieuian concepts of field, capital and habitus to most effectively interrogate the relationship between a neo-imperial sub-text and neoliberal ideology in the activities of PMSCs in Somalia.

Mainstream IR’s accounts of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are severely limited primarily due to the discipline’s fixation on a state-centric, Westphalian image of the world and its associated, dogmatic adherence to Weberian ideals on the use of force. This study has addressed this problematic by re-orientating analysis away from state-centrism. It has instead looked at how PMSCs insertion into Somalia can be explained by both the global ascension of neoliberal ideology and as a dimension of contemporary imperialism. In order to bridge most effectively the theoretical gap between neoliberalism and modern imperialism it applies the Bourdieuian concepts of field, capital and habitus.

The dissertation is comprised of five chapters. In terms of structure, it moves from the general to the specific, outlining the problems at the heart of Weberian scholarship, applying this critique to Somalia and the use of private force in general, and then honing in on PMSCs’ insertion into Somalia and assessing the historical and theoretical implications of this process.

The first chapter outlines mainstream IR’s fixation with the Westphalian image of the world and its associated Weberian understanding of force, showing how this has led to problematic analyses of ‘private’ or non-state violent actors. It highlights IR’s neglect of the imperial dimension and of the consistent ebbing and flowing of irregular ‘non-state’ force in its constructions of world history. Many of these problems are seen as consequences of rigid and ahistorical understandings of the categories of ‘public’ and ‘private’ force. The limitations in the literature on contemporary PMSCs are shown to stem from this dogmatic adherence to the Westphalian image and assumption of Weberian ideals. The chapter concludes by outlining the relevance of theories of imperialism and the ascendency of neoliberalism as explanatory factors for the insertion of PMSCs into Somalia.

Chapter Two engages with Somalia’s history from a global perspective, emphasising the role of external intervention and linking the historical legacy of imperialism to the current instability that characterises Somalia. Reflection upon historiographical perspectives reveals a cleavage between those who tend towards emphasising endogenous factors in explanations of Somalia’s historical and current context, and those who have looked more broadly at the global factors at play.[2] In the contemporary era, analyses that emphasise Somalia’s internal conditions typically revolve around primordialist assumptions of the clan system as the root of Somalia’s numerous internationally designated security threats.[3] These threats, such as ‘terrorism’, ‘piracy,’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are also frequently subsumed under the rubric of ‘state failure’.  Accordingly, Somalia is presented as a threat to global stability, requiring of international mediation, intervention and governance. Finally, this construction is shown to share an imperial genealogy.

Chapter Three gives the fullest account to date of the PMSC industry in post-Cold War Somalia. It evaluates the (qualitative) interview data, and uses a timeline to display the quantitative data, detailing the scale, chronology and geographic spread of PMSC activity. The data reveals how the PMSC industry has grown in conjunction with increasing international intervention and interest in Somalia over this period. It identifies four phases of PMSC involvement that have coincided with these processes of intervention and reconstruction, showing how the industry has evolved to meet both global and local needs.

The fourth chapter draws historical comparisons between PMSCs and colonial-era deployment of force, highlighting the imperial continuities in practice and form. It emphasises how PMSCs are favourably embedded within a global system that parallels the position of chartered trading companies and privateers in the early modern period. PMSC hiring practices and organisational structures also reflect the colonial-era reliance on indigenous troops or troops from other colonial regions. Furthermore, the international system that legitimises and empowers PMSCs also simultaneously de-politicises and de-historicises the armed groups they combat; namely ‘pirates’ and ‘terrorists’. This is consistent with the characterisation of ‘pirates’ and ‘barbarians’ under the development of international law during the early modern period. The chapter concludes by acknowledging that although the kernel of imperialism may reside within PMSCs, there are also significant differences relating to the nature of modern imperialism in the era of neoliberal globalisation.

The final chapter is extensive. It highlights the contemporary neo-imperial interests in Somalia, drawing attention to Somalia’s resource potential and strategic location. It acknowledges the centrality of US neo-imperialism, but emphasises the transnational dimensions to neo-imperial interest in Somalia. It then locates Somalia as a primary site of consolidation in the West’s sovereign frontier, and the role of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and development discourses as key narratives that have enabled increasing intervention. Through an exposition of US and UK policy towards Somalia, it reveals a shared ideological basis to these interventions, and an escalating interest in Somalia.

Having established the ideological basis in enabling intervention in Somalia, the study hones in on how this same ideology has underpinned PMSCs insertion into Somalia. Using evidence from the interviews, neoliberal ideology and its associated moral discourses are consistently invoked by the contractors to legitimise and define their activities. Using examples from the data gathered on PMSCs and evidence from the interviews the dissertation highlights the main areas of PMSC involvement, showing how PMSCs compete within a neo-imperial field, but in a manner that is structured through contractors’ shared neoliberal beliefs: their habitus. Finally, the study concludes that the PMSC industry can be seen as a dimension of an evolving modern neoliberal imperialism that has seen expanded cooperation amongst liberal states and non-state actors, coordinated by a shared set of beliefs.

The gathering of the data for this dissertation involved a mix of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, as well as historical analysis. Quantitative data was gathered on PMSCs and their activities, whilst interviews provided the bulk of the qualitative data on contractors’ experiences and motivations. The data indicated a relationship between neoliberalism and neo-imperialism, and is valuable on a number of levels.

Firstly, the data begins to contribute to the development of a comprehensive empirical account of the evolution of the PMSC industry in Somalia. Existing studies have tended to focus on specific aspects of PMSC activity in Somalia, particularly piracy, state building and the violation of international law. [4]  Until now, what has been missing is an account that has looked at the wider historical context to PMSC involvement in Somalia, drawing attention to key elements of continuity and change. This dissertation has filled this gap in the literature. It looks at the industry as a whole, exploring the full range of PMSC activity over a longer time frame and in relation to their much wider historical context. Empirical data on the companies, their constitution, background expertise and capacities has revealed a clear evolution of the industry through four ‘waves’ of contractor activity.

Secondly, the data indicates a certain scale and type of foreign involvement in Somali affairs that seeks to rework Somalia’s economy and society in a manner that can be described as neo-imperial. The evidence suggests that PMSCs operate in the interests of a collection of liberal capitalist states, institutions, and capital more broadly. The data covers the aims and objectives of the US and other liberal capitalist states in Somalia, PMSCs collaboration with local elites and role in liberal “state building” and development initiatives as examples of this foreign involvement. Crucially, many of these elements share consistencies with the numerous ways in which irregular forces were deployed at previous imperial periods, further bolstering the perception of neo-imperialism.

Finally, the data indicates that neoliberal ideology and its associated moral and ideological globalist discourses, such as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the linking of development to security, are shared beliefs that inform and shape the PMSC industry in Somalia within a neo-imperial structure. The Bourdieuian approach allows us to see these as subjective and constructed ‘security threats’.[5] Furthermore, these modern presentations are related to deeper beliefs about the primordial nature of Somali society and African societies more broadly, and Eurocentric mythologies of sovereignty and territoriality. Using Bourdieu was therefore crucial in revealing the role of neoliberal ideology in shaping the neo-imperial practices of contractors, through their relationship to wider political and economic structures.

In 2001 Bourdieu spoke of a ‘new planetary vulgate’, the language of the neoliberal era that he saw as the consequence of a new type of imperialism.[6] This language served to ‘dress up’ the imperialism of neoliberalism, which sought to refashion the world according to the American image, but presented neoliberal beliefs as rational and scientific.[7] Neoliberal ideology therefore forms a substantial part of the collective ‘habitus’ that works on an institutional, collective and individual level to shape the activities of companies and individual contractors from a variety of different backgrounds in Somalia. In this way, PMSCs are incorporated into a structural framework of neo-imperialism; a field, that can be seen to benefit no singular neo-imperial state power but a collective array of neo-imperialistic actors also embedded within this structure.


The PMSC Industry

The research shows that PMSC activity in Somalia has ebbed and flowed, responding to changes in the global political and economic context. After being used in a solely logistical capacity as part of the US withdrawal from Somalia in 1993, there was only limited activity in the form of land-based anti-piracy and maritime PMSCs involved in the training of the Puntland, Somaliland and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) coastguard forces up until the mid 2000s. However, following Somalia’s designation as a key site in the GWOT and increasing US involvement from around 2003 that culminated in the US-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006, the number of PMSCs began to grow. In 2007 the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was mandated and deployed to Somalia, and a number of PMSCs have been involved in supporting the force, most notably Bancroft. Since then, concurrent with growing western interest in the region, international PMSCs proliferated in the Somali territories, becoming involved in an increasing array of activities, from state-building and development to commercial enterprises. The data indicates four discernable phases, or ‘waves’, in the evolution of contractor involvement. The contractors deployed as part of the humanitarian mission in 1992-5; the steady, yet small, activity of a number of anti-piracy PMSCs between 2000-2007; the growth of the industry from 2007-2011 alongside AMISOM’s creation, expanding US commitments through AFRICOM and the international community’s renewed attempts to combat piracy; and from 2011 to the present day, where there has been a substantial escalation of involvement, particularly into the commercial and oil and gas sectors. There are clear indications that this activity could expand further in the future.[8]

The general view within the existing literature on PMSCs is that they moved from strictly ‘military’ companies such as Executive Outcomes (EO) to more legitimate ‘security’ companies such as G4S. As this dissertation shows, the reality in Somalia is more complex. The first contractors were logistical, and whilst more ‘security’ companies have emerged in recent years, there have also been companies very much on the ‘military’ side of operations, such as Saracen and SMS.

In geographic terms, PMSCs have been present to varying degrees across the Somali territories, active in Puntland, Somaliland, Galmudug and South-Central Somalia. Mogadishu is clearly the epicentre for PMSC growth, with the majority of the major companies holding offices there. Since AMISOM forces took control of the southern city of Kismayo in 2012, there has also been a growth of PMSC activity in that region.

The vast majority of companies are registered in Western countries, predominantly the UK and US. There have also been a number of South African, Scandinavian, Australian and even Canadian companies. Whilst an increasing number are registered in regional states such as the UAE and Kenya, they remain largely staffed by Western ex-military personnel.[9] The majority of the core staff are US, UK or South African (SA) ex-military, often with a Special Forces background. There is a high degree of differentiation in the constitution of these companies. Some will only recruit within their respective national military pool (and sometimes only within a specific branch of the military, such as Special Forces), yet many other companies have a more multinational constitution. For example, the owner of one PMSC told me he would only have core staff with a US Special Forces background whilst Bancroft boasts over 20 different nationalities.[10] Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is those countries and personnel that have most strongly embraced neoliberalism that dominate the industry, the US, UK and SA.

It is often extremely difficult to pin down individual PMSCs in terms of their operational capacities. Generally though, the companies fit into five broad groups: maritime, commercial, state-building, counter-terrorism and aid and development. However, many companies frequently intersect with or float in the grey areas in-between these categories, often with multiple contracts in different areas. Effective categorization is complex because the operational capacities of the PMSCs are notoriously difficult to determine. For example, although Bancroft maintains that its support for AMISOM is limited to a purely training and advisory role, there have been reports of its personnel accompanying troops into the field. Due to the environment and lack of oversight, it is extremely difficult to determine the true nature of the activities of many of these companies. Furthermore, PMSCs are liable to fade in and out of existence, rebranding and changing their names when circumstances change, making tracking their activities much more difficult.[11]

Expanding PMSC activity broadly correlates with increasing US interest. The US government is a major source of funding, with one contractor acknowledging that ‘I feel as long as there is money to be made in Somalia, contractors will be there but this all depends with the USA Government as it is the one making that money available.’[12]

The designation of Somalia as a site in the GWOT has seen the number of PMSCs involved in ‘counter-terrorism’ and supporting the AMISOM force grow, particularly since the creation of AFRICOM in 2007. In fact, the US has played a far greater role in controlling and utilising the PMSC industry in Somalia than many realise.

However, there has also been funding from a number of other states. For example, the UK government has outsourced the guarding of its embassies to British firms, whilst PMSCs for anti-piracy purposes have received considerable funding from the UAE. Halliday Finch’s training of the Somali Coastguard was substantially funded by Kuwait, and Saracen/SCS also received the majority of their funding from the Emirates.[13] Erik Prince’s FSG, now operating out of Puntland, is listed on the HKSE and has links to the Chinese state-owned Citic group. Since 2006 the Norwegian government has funded a small PMSC, Nordic Crisis Management (NCM), to train a coastguard force and develop security at Berbera port.[14]  There have also been a number of internationally-connected Somali PMSCs. The head of one such company, Ilaalo security, stated that the majority of his staff were Somali ex-military, with the majority of their contracts in guarding foreign embassies or aiding foreign companies.[15]  The UN also provides significant funding, providing for example, significant funding to Bancroft to provide security for its de-mining activities, a relationship that has not been without controversy.[16] Although there have been clear attempts by the UN to regulate the industry, it has been suggested that the UN actually relies on armed security more than other aid agencies.[17]

Although western governments have been important sources of funding, PMSCs have also been funded by private companies (particularly oil and gas and commercial shipping companies), aid agencies, local elites, and increasingly through their own commercial endeavours, such as investing in Somali real estate and selling fishing licenses. The latest wave of commercial expansion occurred after 2011, when the PMSC-backed AMISOM force had managed to oust al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and the surrounding areas, and significantly curb piracy. In this way the amorphous nature of the industry is revealed, how it reacts to a changing situation, profiting from both intervention and reconstruction.

The study therefore demonstrates that PMSC activity in Somalia goes beyond war-profiteering, and in fact represents a colonial encounter. The industry is involved in supporting a range of global and local interests that together promote external control over the governance of the Somali territory. In Somalia, this dissertation tracked the historical processes of imperialism, from the early colonial beachheads made by chartered companies through to the post-Cold War insertion of PMSCs, acknowledging that facets of imperialism continue to reside in contemporary justifications for intervention. The practices of PMSCs are shown to have clear historical parallels to other, earlier public-private forms of imperial expansion, particularly the chartered trading companies. However, whilst an imperial essence is detectable, the differences within and amorphous nature of the industry are also neoliberal specificities that make it difficult at first to reconcile the PMSC industry as a whole within a singular imperial framework.

The study therefore emphasises the multiform ways in which imperialism can manifest itself, but recognise that imperialism and capitalism have ‘always acted as a global system, working across or between nation-states’, and are intrinsically violent processes.[18] In the neoliberal era the US has acted as a ‘coordinator’ of a wider constellation of liberal capitalist actors, operating from an increasingly transnational logic. Whilst imperialist competition remains important to this process, neoliberalism has re-structured imperial dynamics resulting in increasing cooperation between liberal-capitalist actors. The fact that the PMSC industry is not connected to any singular neo-imperial state is thus indicative of this. It distances the industry from conventional imperial analysis and also enables limited oversight and accountability which in many cases makes PMSCs much more useful as agents of neoliberal imperialism.

Neoliberalism’s global ascendency is thus fundamental to understanding the form and operation of PMSCs, and the broader interventions they are part of. The ideology not only facilitated the emergence of PMSCs within the international system, but also continues to shape their activities. As one contractor put it, ‘PMSCs can only support what is being pursued and promoted by those in power … they can only be as positive or negative as the intentions of those they support.’[19]


[1] This article is drawn from a Masters by Research dissertation which was passed with distinction and no corrections. Thanks are due to the internal (Dr Shane Doyle) and external (Professor Mark Duffield, Bristol) examiners who provided invaluable feedback through a thoroughly engaging discussion, which has contributed considerably to the student’s decision to continue this strand of research at PhD level. The student would especially like to thank the patience, guidance and support of his supervisors, Dr Nir Arielli and Professor Ray Bush. In particular, their open-minded and enthusiastic approach to the project, wide-reaching knowledge of the topic, and tolerance of his at times erratic approach to organisation made this possible. Furthermore, this research should also be celebrated as a joint affiliation between the History and POLIS departments, and an example of the promise that interdisciplinary collaboration can bring.

[2] I. M. Lewis, Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society (The Red Sea Press, 1994); Said S. Samatar, Minority Rights Group, Somalia : a nation in turmoil (London: Minority Rights Group, 1991); Jonathan Stevenson, Losing Mogadishu: Testing U.S. Policy in Somalia, 1St Edition edition (Annapolis, Md: US Naval Institute Press, 1995; Cf., Ahmed I. Samatar, Socialist Somalia: rhetoric and reality (London: Zed, 1988); Lidwien Kapteijns, ‘I. M. Lewis and Somali Clanship: A Critique’, Northeast African Studies, 11 (2004), 1–23; Ali Jimale Ahmed, The Invention of Somalia (The Red Sea Press, 1995); Martin Doornbos and John Markakis, ‘Society and State in Crisis: What Went Wrong in Somalia?’, Review of African Political Economy, 21 (1994), 82–88 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03056249408704041.

[3] I. M. Lewis, Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History and Society (New York: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2008); I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. 4th edn, Eastern African Studies (Oxford:James Currey,2002); Walter S. Clarke, Learning From Somalia: The Lessons Of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder, Colo: Perseus, 1997); Cf., Ismail I. Ahmed, and Reginald Herbold Green, “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: Local Level Effects, External Interventions and Reconstruction”, Third World Quarterly, Vol 20 (1), 1999, pp.113-127; Lidwien Kapteijns, Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991, Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Branwen Gruffydd-Jones,  ‘The Global Political Economy of Social Crisis: Towards a Critique of the “failed State” Ideology’, Review of International Political Economy, 15 (2008), 180–205 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09692290701869688.

[4]  George Franklin, Stig Jarle Hansen and Christopher Paul Kinsey, ‘The impact of private security companies on Somalia’s governance networks’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22(1) (2009), 147-161; Ivar Grøtta Grav, ‘The Impact of Private Military and Security Companies on Somali Security Sector Institutions’ (Master’s Thesis – Peace and Conflict Studies Department of Political Science University of Oslo, 2012) <https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/34539> [accessed 1 October 2015]; Pedro Barge Cunha, Somalia as a Market for Private Military and Security Companies: Definitions, Agents and Services, 2013 <https://repositorio.iscte-iul.pt/handle/10071/5107> [accessed 1 October 2014]; ‘Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination – Addendum: Mission to Somalia (8 to 14 December 2012)’, ReliefWeb, (2013) <http://reliefweb.int/report/somalia/report-working-group-use-mercenaries-means-violating-human-rights-and-impeding> [accessed 27 September 2015]; Christopher Spearin, ‘A Private Security Solution to Somali Piracy? The U.S. Call for Private Security Engagement and the Implications for Canada’ (2010) <https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/c6f939ef-5695-4ed8-bf0a-14fd1ebe29f6/A-Private-Security-Solution-to-Somali-Piracy–The> [accessed 23 September 2015].

[5] Peter Jackson, ‘Pierre Bourdieu, the ‘Cultural Turn’ and the practice of international history’, Review of International Studies, 34(1) (2008), 155-181, p. 158.

[6] Bourdieu gives examples of this neoliberal discourse: ʻ“globalization” and “flexibility”, “governance” and “employability”, “underclass” and “exclusion”, “new economy” and “zero tolerance”, “communitarianism” and “multiculturalism”, not to mention their so-called postmodern cousins, “minority”, “ethnicity”, “identity”, “fragmentation”, and so on. The diffusion of this new planetary vulgate – from which the terms “capitalism”, “class”, “exploitation”, “domination” and “inequality” are conspicuous by their absence, having been peremptorily dismissed under the pretext that they are obsolete and non-pertinent – – is the result of a new type of imperialism’. Pierre Bourdieu, and Loïc Wacquant, ‘NewLiberalSpeak’, Radical Philosophy <http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/newliberalspeak> [accessed 6 October 2015] (pp. 1-2); Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, ‘On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason’, Theory, Culture & Society, 16 (1999), 41–58 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/026327699016001003>.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Interview with KB on 20/05/2015. Interview with MB on 29/05/2015. Interview with AW on 13/05/2015.

[9] See, for example, Halliday Finch, Salama Fikira in Kenya and FCS in the UAE.

[10] Interview with RK on 12/05/2015. ‘An Interview with Bancroft Global Development’, WardheerNews <http://www.wardheernews.com/interview-bancroft-global-development/> [accessed 2 October 2015].

[11] This is something explored in later chapters, looking especially at the controversial PMSC Saracen International’s rebranding into a ‘new’ company, Sterling Corporate Services (SCS).

[12] Interview with RS on 7/04/2015.

[13] See the timeline for more details.

[14] For indications that Norway’s strong links to Somaliland are about future oil deals see ‘Somalia Accuses Norwegian Oil Explorer DNO of Destabilising Country’, Reuters, 3 September 2014 <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/03/somalia-oil-idUSL5N0R44HV20140903> [accessed 26 September 2015].

[15] Interview with AH on 18/05/2015.

[16] Interview with RK on 12/05/2015; Interview with JO on 19/05/2015. Others firms contracted by the UN include Saladin and PBi2. Bancroft, UNMAS and Mechem were all implicated in providing genetic material to the FBI.

[17] Åse Gilje Østensen, ‘UN Use of Private Military and Security Companies: Practices and Policies’, DCAF (2011) <http://www.dcaf.ch/Publications/UN-Use-of-Private-Military-and-Security-Companies-Practices-and-Policies> [accessed 27 September 2015], pp. 14-15.

[18] Sarah Bracking and Graham Harrison, ‘Africa, Imperialism & New Forms of Accumulation’, Review of African Political Economy, 30 (2003), 5–10, p. 5. We also addressed the need to ‘maintain a strong sense of historical location’ and ‘understand the contours of political and economic intervention as part of that historical process’. Bracking and Harrison, p. 7.

[19] Interview with MB on 29/05/2015.

Jethro Norman is currently a PhD student in the Schools of History and POLIS at the University of Leeds, where he has received a 110 Anniversary Scholarship for Doctoral Study for his project which examines Somalia and Africa in general as a key market for Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs).

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