Terrorist groups almost always try to leave a calling card at the scene of their crimes. If that’s not convenient, they’ll place a post-event phone call, or post an announcement on-line to stake their claim, because for terrorists, paramilitary action is as much about branding as tactical or strategic success.
You might think their adversaries, the legitimate states or international organizations targeted by terrorists, would be as anxious to let the public know of their actions to cripple of kill terrorist groups — brand warfare to match the literal bloodshed of counter-terrorism.
But you’d be wrong.
In part because counter-insurgency can be messy, with lots of collateral as well as targeted damage, and in part because they don’t want their successes to be held against them by the terrorists’ functional or emotional supporters, states often hide their brands, by giving off-the-books assignments to their own “non-state actors,” PMSCs, Private Military and Security Contractors, to do the actual fighting.
There is also a second kind of state sponsorship making this a continuing golden age for the PMSCs. Those are the contracts being handed out by lesser states, who lack large arsenals and well-trained troops of their own and resort to private contractors to make up for, or hide the in-capabilities of their national military or security services.
Where Great Powers and International Organizations may lack the will to hold their private contractors to account for violations of the rules of war, these Third World customers lack the power to do so.
No wonder a recent study of the use of PMSC forces in Nigeria worried that, even with an insecure population which welcomed outside help in restraining terrorist attacks, the image of mercenary forces running out of control could legitimize the claims of Boko Haram to be the legitimate Nigerian force fighting off interfering outsiders hired by the Government.
The now former President Goodluck Jonathan’s solution: to hide and deny any connection between his government and PMSCs. But what you disclaim, you can hardly control. His successor President Mohamedou Buhari says he has a better solution – fire the PMSCs and upgrade the national military. Reports indicate he may have accomplished the first step, but done less well with the second, leaving many frightened Nigerian citizens alienated from their own state.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.