In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pro-Government Militias

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Structural Factors
  • Legacies of War

International Relations Pro-Government Militias
Romain Malejacq
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0213


The term militia has long been used, in both academia and journalistic accounts, to describe a wide range of nonstate armed groups, from warlords’ armies and death squads to vigilantes, private military companies, and paramilitaries fighting on behalf of, against, or parallel to the central state (see Benjamin Beede’s entry in Oxford Bibliographies in Military History for more on “Semi-Military and Paramilitary Organizations”). Yet, used more rigorously, the term is usually restricted to nonstate armed groups that are in fact pro-government. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a militia as “a military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency, freq. as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers” (see Sarah Percy’s entry in Oxford Bibliographies in Military History for more on “Mercenaries”). While governments have long used these military forces, the focus here will be limited to pro-government militias in the post–World War II era, in particular since “civil,” “ethnic,” or “tribal” militias have become a subject of renewed interest, from both scholars and policymakers, with the war in Afghanistan and the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (see Robert R. Mackey’s entry in Oxford Bibliographies in Military History “Militia” for a more historical view on militias). Militias have been correspondingly associated with (post)-conflict areas where the rule of law is absent, or circumvented by the regime: the Afghan Local Police (ALP), the Colombian paramilitaries, the Janjaweed of Sudan, the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria, the Comités de Autodefensas in Peru, the Kamajors of Sierra Leone, or, more recently, the Shabbiha in Syria, are all examples of militias that emerged in weak or failed states.


There is a growing consensus, among political scientists, to adopt a narrow definition and use the term militia restrictively, in the context of civil war (see, for example, Carey and Mitchell 2016). We can, however, distinguish two main definitions among scholars of civil war and the growing literature on militias. The first one (used here) is developed in Carey, et al. 2013, which defines pro-government militias (PGMs) according to four criteria: (1) being “identified as pro-government or sponsored by the government (national or subnational),” (2) being “identified as not being part of the regular security forces,” (3) being “armed,” and (4) having “some level of organization.” While the fluidity, frequent fragmentation, and evolution of armed groups make their categorization particularly tenuous, Carey, et al. 2013 uses this definition to develop a unique database of PGMs. Jentzsch, et al. 2015, however, refutes this definition, which assumes a stable state-militia relationship, and focuses on the “anti-insurgent” dimension of these groups. The authors conceive of militias as “armed groups that operate alongside state security forces or independently of the state, aiming to shield local populations from rebel demands or depredations and seeking to acquire its loyalty or collaboration” (Jentzsch, et al. 2015). Schuberth 2015 adopts a similar approach to develop a typology of “community-based armed groups.”

  • Carey, Sabine C., and Neil J. Mitchell. “Pro-Government Militias and Conflict.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Edited by William R. Thompson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Encyclopedia article that introduces pro-government militias as an important feature of contemporary civil wars and reviews existing research on militias.

  • Carey, Sabine C., Neil J. Mitchell, and Will Lowe. “States, the Security Sector, and the Monopoly of Violence: A New Database on Pro-Government Militias.” Journal of Peace Research 50.2 (2013): 249–258.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343312464881

    Article presenting the Pro-Government Militias Database (PGMD) Project (database available online) and developing the definition of pro-government militias used for the database.

  • Jentzsch, Corinna, Stathis N. Kalyvas, and Livia Isabella Schubiger. “Militias in Civil Wars.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59.5 (2015): 755–769.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002715576753

    Introduction to a special issue on militias in civil wars, compiling diverse theoretical arguments. This introduction develops a new definition of militias as “anti-insurgent” nonstate armed groups as well as a future research agenda.

  • Schuberth, Moritz. “The Challenge of Community-Based Armed Groups: Towards a Conceptualization of Militias, Gangs, and Vigilantes.” Contemporary Security Policy 36.2 (2015): 296–320.

    DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2015.1061756

    Establishes a typology of nonstate armed groups (NSAGs), with a focus on community-based armed groups (CBAGs).

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