A picture made available 27 November 2014 shows Iraqi soldiers supported by volunteers from a Shiite militia taking up a position outside a barracks, near Amerli, north of Iraq, 26 November 2014. According to local reports the Iraqi army backed by Shiite militias and airstrikes carried out by the international anti-Islamic State coalition have made significant gains, the Iraqi Government reporting that the Bajji oil refinery and nearby towns have succesfully been recaptured from the armed group calling themselves Islamic State (IS) and the army is now engaged in operations aimed at recapturing towns around Tikrit. EPA/ALI MOHAMMED
Iraqi soldiers supported by volunteers from a Shiite militia taking up a position outside a barracks, near Amerli, north of Iraq, on Nov. 26. (EPA/Ali Mohammed)

The following is a guest post from political scientists Neil Mitchell (University College of London) and Sabine Carey (Mannheim University).

The New York Times recently had a report about a civilian vigilante group in northern Nigeria. This Civilian Joint Task Force (J.T.F) says that it is responsible for fighting Boko Haram because of the weak response by the Nigerian military. This group is just one example where civilians take their security into their own hands when regular forces fail to fully protect them. We have seen similar informal groups fighting the Shining Path insurgency in Peru or Maoist guerrillas in Nepal, and now Shia militias in Iraq are taking on Islamic State. Such informal armed groups may seem the answer to insurgencies in states with ill-equipped and underpaid security forces. But governments can easily lose or – side-stepping accountability – even refuse control of these groups. Either way, it usually leads to more violence against civilians.

What we know of the Nigerian Civilian J.T.F. suggests that relying on informal groups is a risky approach. As the strength of this group has grown, so have people’s fears of being intimidated and abused by its members. Amnesty International alleges that Civilian J.T.F. members cut the throats of detainees and dumped them in mass graves. Elsewhere a recent report by Human Rights Watch described the killing of 34 Sunni men and women in Iraq. They were praying at mid-day in a village mosque in Diyala province. Men wearing the insignia of the Asaib Ahl al Haq (League of the Righteous) shot them, undeterred by police and army checkpoints within 200 meters. Seen as effective counterinsurgency forces in Iraq, groups such as the Badr Brigade or Asaib Ahl al Haq take the opportunity presented by the threat of Islamic State to pursue their own sectarian goals. Human Rights Watch has alerted us to the threat posed by the Gangs of Iraq sporting U.S. military equipment. Amnesty International has just released a report, titled “Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq,” detailing unlawful killings by Shia militias in Baghdad, Samara, Kirkuk and across the country. In Samara, since June 2014 dozens of young Sunnis have been abducted and killed. A young taxi driver was taken from his bed and shot twice in the head and once in the chest by men who had arrived in “Hummers.” In Kirkuk, a nurse in his 20s was abducted, shot in the head and left on a rubbish dump.

The tendency for informal armed groups to exploit the freedom they are granted by governments for their own ends is disturbingly familiar. Recent research shows it is not just Iraqi governments or failed states that host these groups. Indeed, relying on “unsavory allies,” as the Economist labels them, is nothing new for those facing insurgencies in this part of the world. Coalition forces used militias after the Iraq invasion in 2003, and 80 years earlier Britain arrived at a similar fix during the local rebellion against British rule. Secretary of War Winston Churchill, with the blessing of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), recruited militias, or “levies,” as a way to avoid using British troops. They, too, committed massacres, and in familiar locations. In May 1924, the Assyrian militiamen killed 50 to 100 Muslims in Kirkuk. An adviser to the British high commissioner in Iraq, Gertrude Bell, described this event in a letter home: “There never would have been any incident if British or Indian troops had been there.”

Worldwide, all kinds of governments, even those with effective regular forces, give security work to informal forces and run the risk that they commit atrocities against civilians. So why do governments go down that route? We have highlighted the advantages of Russia using “satellite forces” in Ukraine elsewhere. But there is a particular temptation to turn to irregulars when the regular forces are struggling to meet the threat, as we see in Nigeria. With militias, governments can quickly and cheaply increase their forces, buy off enemies and address the need for local intelligence in suppressing insurgencies, which is particularly valuable in unfamiliar geographical and cultural terrain. But while Lawrence of Arabia adds romance to irregulars, using them has risks. They may turn their guns on the government that supplied them, or on the civilian population. Governments, in delegating security tasks to militias, face a principal-agent problem.

A well-established theory called “principal-agent theory” developed by economists, public policy scholars and the insurance industry helps us understand the difficulties of controlling those we get to carry out tasks for us. And these difficulties become greater the more autonomy the agents have. Whether it is a government relying on a militia or you relying on a taxi driver, we can’t be entirely sure that those we entrust to carry out a job for us won’t use their superior information to their own, rather than to our, advantage. The agent you select for a task may have goals that differ from yours and may act on them when the opportunity arises. Militias, perhaps well-equipped with new-model M-16s and Hummers, are likely to exercise less restraint when in action. International humanitarian law applies to pro-government militias, but they bring their own “righteousness” or agendas to the conflict. Their members, probably lacking discipline, may have a private desire for revenge, extortion or violence. As the Amnesty report notes: “Some militiamen are thieves as well as killers and try to get money from their victims’ families, before killing them. Those who are kidnapped by these have little chance of survival, no matter how much their families pay. And then there are militiamen who kidnap only to make money, and they can target everyone, Christians, Kurds, and even Shi’a.”

So at what price, and for whose security are these militias operating? Whether in Chechnya, Syria or Indonesia, where militia members have become movie stars, they present a threat to civilians. A recent study links the rise of militias to increasing contestation in democratizing countries in Africa, where elites use informal armed groups in their competition for power. Another global study shows that where you find these groups there is likely to be more torture and killings. Hence, the respect for basic rights might not improve unless governments are held accountable for informal as well as for more formal agents of atrocity.