The role of strategic outsourcing in preventing the spread of ISIL

By: Cheng Lai Ki

Source: Wikimedia

Over the last eleven months, Sunni-jihadi extremists known as the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) have been directly involved in multiple crises resulting in the deaths and displacement of civilians in Syria[1], and more recently, in Paris. For ISIL, the battlefield is not constrained to one country but is the world, visible from the bomb placed on the Russian plane and the Paris attacks (i.e. Charlie Hebdo). Their use of unconventional warfare strategies[2] and association to unconventional resource avenues makes their pacification extremely difficult and time consuming for international intelligence and security agencies.

The aim of this article is to briefly demonstrate how a strategic private-government relationship with private military and security companies (PMSCs) can benefit existing operations against extremism and does not aim to criticize existing governmental efforts. PMSCs provide multiple benefits for governments either through force multiplication and contributing valuable skills or networks. To reveal how strategic privatisation of security services (SPSS) can assist operations against ISIL on domestic and foreign fronts, this article will briefly illuminate the benefits of PMSCs in contemporary intelligence and security operations, followed by contextualising operational contributions against various areas of security, intelligence and infrastructure support.

Benefits of PMSCs in contemporary security operations

Since the end of the Cold War, intelligence and security has evolved alongside the development of new communication and information technologies. The rise of the internet, secure packet sharing and the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are hallmarks of how security and intelligence sectors have entered the information era. PMSCs provide a broad range of services, ranging from operational manpower, training, logistical support and analytical assistance. The Research Institute for European and American Studies[3] revealed that 70% of the Untied States (US) intelligence budget authorised by Congress is spend on PMSC contractors. For example, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) allegedly conducted rendition operations and clandestine raids with the assistance of Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) contractors to provide operational manpower between 2004 to 2006 during the height of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq[4]. Another example is the close relationship Military Professionals Resources Incorporated (MPRI), who possess extensive history in training support, and the US military. The utilisation of contractors are also exhibited in the United Kingdom, where British PMSC Minimal Risk was procured to provide security manage and intelligence analysts for operations in the Middle East[5].

Within the contemporary domain PMSCs are becoming increasingly involved in governmental security and intelligence operations. However, unlike governments, PMSCs are not necessarily constrained by political boundaries to assist in security and developmental operations in post-conflict domains. With strategic integration, PMSCs could be highly beneficial towards re-establishing security and critical infrastructures. This is arguably visible from the application of approved private vendors by the United Nations (UN) for humanitarian and security operations[6]. The extensive use of PMSCs by Western governments have made states more effective in developing security, assessing intelligence and developing infrastructures. The follow sections examine how PMSC effectiveness can be translated to operations against ISIL on foreign and domestic domains in security, intelligence and infrastructure.

Translating effectiveness into operations 

When engaging the problem of ISIL, governmental operations have focused on training rebel forces in Syria, directly engaging ISIL forces in the battlefield, developing intelligence for follow-on missions, and strengthening domestic security and warning procedures. When tackling ISIL, privatization can assist governments in three foundational domains of security, intelligence and infrastructure support within counter-extremism operations.

Addressing security domains within counter-extremism, PMSCs can provide effective manpower support and operational training in foreign and domestic theatres. Within domestic theatres, PMSCs can provide additional and improved static security support of private and public locations. In addition, PMSCs can also provide valuable training to local police and security agencies to respond to various threats.

Like other extremist organisations, ISIL possesses operational characteristics that have come under analysis by governmental agencies, academics and private entities. PMSC staff are often ex-governmental employees with extensive academic or practical experiences in various security domains. Domestically, the knowledge of PMSCs can provide valuable training and manpower support, as is with the MPRI-US relationship. In foreign domains, PMSCs can also provide manpower support through directly participating in hostilities. A South-African PMSC, Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Training (STTEP), a reminiscent of a former PSMC, Executive Outcomes (EO), has been successful in combating Islamic extremism in Africa through directly engaging hostile forces[7].

Some critics might argue against the incorporation of contractors into security infrastructures based on grounds of unaccountability and legitimacy. However, as corporate entities, PMSCs rely on providing effective and quality support to secure future bids. In addition, although not necessarily legal institutions, the Montreux Document and International Code of Conduct are two guidelines outlining the legal and practice recommendations to PMSCs[8]. Contrary to popular belief, PMSCs do not operate in a legal vacuum but are also privy to being indicted under international humanitarian law. In addition, weaker or post-conflict states might possess operational and security capability gaps in comparison to their stronger counterparts (i.e. US) that can be supplemented by PMSC services.

Efficient security

Efficient security relies on effective “intelligence” provision. The privatisation of western intelligence communities (IC) arguably started from the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the globalised information era, giving rise to multiple new international threats. Rathmell argues that intelligence privatisation benefits ICs in three main areas of collection, analysis and costs.[9] Since Rathmell wrote in the late 90s, technology has advanced, the world has seen the rise of surveillance drones with strike capabilities, the monitoring of fibre optical traffic by national agencies and the outsourcing of intelligence analysis to private firms (i.e. Control Risks).

The outsourcing of core intelligence functions can facilitate agencies to focus on high value targets and more immanent threats against national security. In addition to privatising various analytical components, intelligence organisations have also procured PMSCs for manpower purposes – previously indicated from the CIA procurement of Academi for rendition operations. With regards to ISIL, privatisation not only can provide governmental agencies support from other experienced intelligence analysts, usually employed by PMSCs after leaving governmental service, but such privatisation can also incorporate skills and networks that analysts would have obtained from working on other intelligence operations in other geographical or target domains.

This can be done while still acknowledging the risks and difficulties instigated by the politicisation of intelligence, alongside the “consumer-producer” dilemma[10] within ICs. However, the argument could be made that the plausible deniability of PMSC services could not only repair the once secret nature of ICs (arguably lost since the dawn of the information age and intelligence crises such as WikiLeaks and the actions of Edward Snowden), but also benefit intelligence operations in politically and legally conflicted areas.

When security and intelligence domains are reinforced, PMSCs can provide effective logistical assistance for “infrastructure support.” As a private entity, PMSCs can also be contracted by other PMSCs or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are not providing security or intelligence but logistical support. Again, the benefits are similar to being employed by governments in the provision of direct security and consultation services.

A tripartite relationship between governmental agencies, NGOs and PMSCs would highly benefit existing operations against ISIL. For instance, domestically, NGOs can provide logistical support to hospitals or community outreach programs can benefit from governmental subsidisation and also the consultation knowledge from PMSC analysts. When engaging extremist organisations, community cohesion is just as vital as intelligence and direct action as outlined by the counter-terrorism, or CONTEST, strategy in the UK. On foreign soil, NGOs, charity organisation and the UN have been known to cooperate with select PMSCs to provide risk consultation, security and intelligence for operations in post-conflict regions with unstable civil infrastructures or governments[11].

Through cooperative efforts with the ICoC Association, NGOs, PMSCs and Governmental Agencies alongside some strategic planning and cooperation, states can quickly re-establish control over regions affect by ISIL attacks by providing secure healthcare and refugee support. The integration of PMSCs in developmental infrastructures would both improve ties between nations – though on a corporate level – but also potentially improve the quality of infrastructure management, training and operation for future expansion. It must be emphasized that his component of PMSC support focuses more on infrastructure redevelopment to prevent follow-on attacks by ISIL in the future.

Moving forward

The supplementary roles of PMSCs in the three domains of security, intelligence and infrastructure support within counter-extremism operations have been briefly illuminated above. ISIL in particular, like other extremist organisations, rely on underground networks and sympathetic communities to operate beyond borders. When confronting ISIL, international authorities need to establish effective communicative, warning and investigative channels. PMSCs, being private companies, are not necessarily bound by as many political ‘red-tape’ as some organisations when providing security and intelligence services. The corporate ties and networks between companies would inadvertently benefit the governments procuring their services. However, there are grey areas of legitimacy, accountability and power distribution when assigning privatised firms too much authority and jurisdiction over inherently governmental operations.

In conclusion, security and intelligence provisions of PMSCs can inform better governmental decisions alongside assisting in logistical support capabilities to re-establish control and provide care for those affected. To prevent further spread of ISIL, the world needs to unite through application of hard and soft power strategies in public and private domains.

Formerly an Officer in the Singapore Armed Forces, Cheng holds a Bachelor’s Honors degree in Criminology. He is currently undertaking his MA in Intelligence and International Security at King’s where his academic interests revolve around private military and security companies and their roles as security by proxy in the contemporary security theatre, and more broadly in international security and intelligence sectors. Cheng is currently a Series Editor with Strife.


[1] Global Overview 2015: People internally displaced by conflict and violence, International Displacement Monitoring Centre: Norweigian Refugee Council, (6th May, 2015), Accessed November 16th, 2015,

[2] Counter-Unconventional Warfare, White Paper, United States Army Special Operations Command, (28th September 2014), Accessed November 16th, 2015,

[3] Liaropoulos, A. & Konstantopoulos, I. ‘Privatization of Intelligence: Turning National Security into Business?’, RIEAS Research Institute for European and American Studies, Accessed November 14, 2015;

[4] Mazzetti M. & Risen, J. ‘Blackwater Guards Tied to CIA Raids”, The New York Times, (December 10, 2009), Accessed January 12, 2015;

[5] 2012 FCO spend on hiring private military and security companies’, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Freedom of Information Release, Accessed December 15, 2015;

[6] Cheng, L.K., Private Contractors, Governments and Security by Proxy: An analysis of contemporary challenges, governmental developments and international impacts of private military and security companies (2015), BA Dissertation, University of Leicester.

[7] Freeman, C. “How to defeat a Caliphate: Private military contractors have a bad name, but a great record against the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria”, The Spectator, (May 30th, 2015), Accessed November 18, 2015;

[8] Cheng, Private Contractors, (2012).

[9] Rathmell, A. “Privatising Intelligence”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 11:2, (1998), 199-211, DOI: 10.1080/09557579808400199

[10] Herman, M, Intelligence Power in Peace and War, Cambridge: Royal Institute of International Affairs.

[11] “List of UN Secretariat Registered Vendors: Level 1 and 2”, United Nations, (March 23, 2015), Accessed April 2, 2015;




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