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Rethinking Capacity Building in Somalia

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in times of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives .

George Kennan, 1948.

With the resurgence of hype surrounding political warfare, a pertinent question for Defence is how to occupy the space that exists between peace and war to ensure that we are not out-manoeuvred by our adversaries. In an attempt to address this question this article focuses on missions of Military Support to Capacity Building (MSCB). 1 It highlights these missions as one tool that the Army note]Commander Field Army (CFA) notes that beyond the defence of the nation, the Army is a tool for projecting our influence and that we have a role in the delivery of ‘stability to parts of the world [and to] develop the…security architecture and the defence capability of nations that need our support (Lt Gen Jones 2019)[/note] and UK Special Forces already use to engage in political warfare throughout the spectrum of conflict but questions whether our efforts are always effectively targeted. Specifically, this article suggests that a more effective military contribution to political warfare could be achieved through increased cooperation with non-state forces to create hybrid security solutions.2 Increasing the recognition of the role that non-state actors provide in maintaining equilibrium of conflict could, in some contexts, achieve more gains than the creation, partnering or development of state-aligned formal forces. By challenging the status quo of the state-centric approach to MSCB we could be rewarded with an increased diffusion of UK influence, amplified global stability and also improve our means of intelligence collection by operating in accordance with local norms of security provision. 

To help achieve this the British Army could adapt its MSCB strategy in two ways: Firstly by placing an increased emphasis on recognising the importance of local legitimacy in MSCB planning. Secondly, the inclusion of conflict governance mapping (CGM) 3 as a MSCB task.

Non-State Actors and Hybrid Security

General John Burgoyne’s British and Native American forces attacking Fort Shuyler 1850. Image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.com

The concept of hybrid security is not new or radical4 and was seen through the incorporation of informal actors in colonial and post-colonial state security architectures. Johnson5 explains that in 18th century north America, allied tribal chieftains helping to form colonial militias were crucial to the British Army efforts against the French. The theme of state authority recognition and use of irregular forces continued into 19th century colonial India where the Punjab Irregular Force was created as a means to exploit local tactics that had delivered proven success on the western frontier.6The use of tribes was also used by the British in Southern Arabia with forces such as the Aden Protectorate Levies and Hadrami Bedouin Legion being raised as a means to influence hinterland region 7. Although in Aden the effectiveness of this was mixed, the impact of employing the firqat8 in the Omani conflict was integral to the success of the central government in defeating the insurgency.9 Major General Jeapes explained that it was ‘only by ensuring that local, tribal interests were met could there be any chance of operational success.’ Of note, the firqat 10 remained formally aligned to and paid by the central Omani government until 1990 and offers an interesting example of how non-state actors can be formally connected to a central government and remain loyal.11 A contemporary example of an alignment with non-state forces can be seen in the alliance that the West has forged with Kurdish elements through parts of the Middle East.

Challenging the Status Quo

Within the global security nexus, the West has tended to use MSCB as a tool of shaping security sectors that are linked to a centralised state and should act in accordance with Westphalian and Weberian ideas.12 A dilemma emerges, however, when it is considered that ‘upwards of 80 percent of security and justice provision in states that are the beneficiaries of security sector reform (SSR) is provided by non-state actors.13 Given the gravitas of state fragility for global security further analysis is required to understand the consideration that non-state elements receive as part of British MSCB efforts.

When this concept is viewed from the perspective of an adversary, the effective use of a range of actors can be seen to diffuse influences that counter British values. With some adversaries clearly holding an ‘asymmetric advantage’ over us in this sphere, a revision of our MSCB strategy could significantly enhance Britain’s political warfare capacity. As Paterson argues, this is not the time for liberal democracies to view political warfare as a strategy pursued only by amoral states. The threat is real and if we do not react, we risk being outmanoeuvred. Remembering the words of George Kennan, we must use all of the means available to us.  

The challenge for our approach to MSCB lies in a policy-to-practice gap as non-state actors are rarely considered 14 as a means of providing sustainable security; a fact neatly exemplified by the aftermath of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan where state security forces remain fragile. If the UK is serious about investing in the diffusion of influence and increasing international stability, we must realise that orders of security exist within the countries where we operate that challenge the Westphalian state construct and its associated security institutions. What the UK considers to be branches of illicit, non-state security provision are often completely normal for countries where we are operating.15 An opportunity therefore exists for the UK to consider MSCB activities as opportunities to integrate with the providers of security that actually hold legitimacy. By default, we would reach the actors that will persevere throughout the spectrum of conflict as they are the localised norm.

Two Suggestions for the UK Approach to MSCB

Emphasising Legitimacy

Without working in accordance with localised norms of legitimacy our efforts will at best never reach their full potential and at worst actually exacerbate conflict. The Government and Army must become comfortable with the fact that locally legitimate actors may not conform to the forms of security that complement our norms. Legitimacy is locally derived and cannot be allocated by powers working in Whitehall or the MoD. It is decided by locals at a local level. If we want to understand legitimacy within nations where we are directing resources, we must invest in educating our officers and soldiers to build significant corporate knowledge of regional sociocultural and socio-political norms. This requires deploying for extended periods to develop holistic understanding. It is also critical that we actively collaborate with other governmental departments, international organisations and academia in an effort to increase our knowledge base and share information.

An indifference to legitimacy will continually result in security systems developing that are exclusive and unrecognisable to populations in the areas in which the British military operate.16 In the post-conflict phase of operations, building a state that is supported by legitimate security institutions will not always resemble the constructs that are synonymous with Westphalian ideals. As Michael Shurkin notes, the question that outsiders need to ask hinges around what motivation troops have to fight against those who challenge the state’s legitimacy. Specifically, who offers the most attractive rival ideologies and narratives of the nation? Only by understanding concepts of nationhood and legitimacy can the architects of British MSCB projects correctly channel their resources. To again quote from Shurkin: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Mali were not always lacking in resources but have seen security sectors overwhelmingly challenged by rival efforts to define what it means to be a patriot. 

Conflict Governance Mapping (CGM)

Without often knowing the dynamics that exist across the entirety of the areas in which we operate, designers of MSCB projects risk not knowing which forces are best to support. It is therefore suggested that CGM could be incorporated as a task within certain MSCB missions.

A revision of the delivery of MSCB strategy could see local forces, in conjunction with UK elements, contribute towards comprehensive CGM projects. This form of coalition could significantly contribute towards understanding local conflict dynamics as opposed to a reliance on anecdotal evidence, academic reports and quantitative data. These aforementioned methods of information and intelligence collection are often ineffective owing to the inability of international organisations, academics and other non-armed groups to operate freely in contexts of contested security. The impact is that an understanding of regional conflict dynamics is often skewed as the collection of raw data is regularly unachievable.

The collection of CGM data is suited to regular units in areas that are more permissible and the use of UKSF in areas that are harder to penetrate. Only by gathering and possessing such information for different localities can we start to answer which groups hold the monopoly of violence at a local level and whether they are conducive to national security and British interests.

The current alignment of the British Army with Regionally Aligned Brigades (RAB) and tools such as the Specialised Infantry Group could play an integral role in furthering our understanding of global security dynamics. As with understanding legitimacy, the Army could also learn from the era of embedding forces and individuals to endure within the peripheral territories of states, or within regions where there is confusion as to which actors provide security. By doing so the Army could gain comprehensive grassroots knowledge and become comfortable placing trust in local processes.  

Whilst emphasising the importance of legitimacy and supporting states through CGM, the Army should seek to take on a role of facilitating local processes vis-à-vis one of external intervention.17 It is time to stop imposing foreign forms of security onto host nations and creating institutions that are destined to fail. If the UK is serious about being competitive in the field of political warfare, spreading UK influence and contributing to stability it is time to understand local processes and support actors that will endure and support us in the pursuit of our aims.

Security in Somalia:  Are State Forces Always the Best Option?

The provision of security in Somalia and the efforts to develop the Somali National Police (SNP) as part of a state building process provides a case study. Analysis of the SNP shows that ‘an order beside the state’ is thriving and in parts of Somalia non-state forces offer localised security options that formal state security forces are unable to provide. This established ‘non-order’ is often inherently more legitimate than the multiple and sometimes contradictory security strategies imposed throughout the country. In extremis the “non-order” undermines security sector reform (SSR) programmes. This presents a conundrum for state building and SSR architects alike as non-state forces can be viewed with a degree of scepticism as opposed to a viable security solution. The struggle to establish the SNP therefore complements the argument to incorporate more non-state forces into the security sector and develop a hybridstate order. The fusion of traditional processes and modern state institutions could offer Somalia a route to increased security by optimising the use of existing legitimate security actors. 

The Ground Truth 

As a country often held up as the embodiment of state failure, Somalia has received repeated waves of SSR which have tended to focus on building a security sector that compliments a Western perspective of the political-security nexus. This perspective has consistently overlooked the basic structure of Somali society and specifically which groups provide security. As a result, increased security is yet to materialise and south central (S/C) Somalia remains critically unstable. The ineffectiveness of SSR was acknowledged by the former Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission who referred to the security situation in Somalia as ‘dire’ and comprised of weak and fragmented institutions. Empirical data supports this opinion and shows that SSR has been protracted and often competed with the intricacies of clanship and wider societal provisions of security. 

The absence of security in large swathes of the country makes attempts to measure the effectiveness of SSR in Somalia problematic. One therefore has to look at the security actors assessed as being active to measure its effectiveness. By adopting this methodology it becomes clear that the Somali government has had no ‘choice but to forge relationships with a range of self-declared regional authorities [and]…powerful armed intermediaries [who] control relations between an aspiring state authority and its citizens’. Using Wulf’s assertion that the ‘decisive factor…within hybrid political orders is that traditional non-state and modern state actors are integrated’ it becomes apparent that a hybrid political order is already assisting security provision.   

The Somali National Police

Sometimes my village was under the control of Al-Shabaab, sometimes the Federal Government of Somalia. The federal police were telling me that I was Al-Shabaab, questioning me, saying that people were informing on me. So, I thought that I might as well become Al-Shabaab

Mohamed, Sablale, Lower Shabelle, Somalia.

The 2017-2019 Somali National Development Plan explains that one of the goals of the SNP is to ‘spread the influence of [the] Central Government through recovered territories.’ This has been shown to have had a degree of success in urban centres where forces are locally recruited but has struggled in peripheral regions. In S/C Somali peripheries, the recently developed State Police Forces have found themselves operating in conjunction with, or even against, localised forms of security that have steadily risen from the 1990’s. The localised and private forms of security that flourished in response to state failure have become deeply embedded and difficult to replace. As a result, imposing the insufficiently resourced and unreliable state police forces is not an attractive option for communities. Furthermore, businesses are simply unable to rely on weak state provisions of security and will therefore continue to support privatised or familiar solutions. Developing the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and Federal Member State (FMS) Police Forces as an alternative form of local security in this environment therefore introduces yet another actor into an already congested security sector. Ultimately, the State Police have been found to be just ‘one policing provider amongst many.’  

Hills’ exploration of the Mogadishu Police Force explains that Western notions of security provision are often insufficiently flexible. Specifically, she explains that ‘Westphalian and Weberian ideals bear little resemblance to the circumstances found in much of sub-Saharan Africa…where states and regimes are typically unable or unwilling to deliver policy goals such as security.’ The current lack of Weberian ideals in Somalia supports this hypothesis as neither the FGS or FMS can currently be said to hold the monopoly of violence. Empirical evidence from the Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention (OCVP) compliments the notion that Westernised models of “how to police” should be designed with the consideration that ‘Somali policing structures are, like Somali social structures, best understood as projects of changing social and political processes.’ Hills explains that the web of policing providers ‘includes militias, groups loyal to factional leaders, businessmen and Shari’a courts’ that are all operating in a confused space of contradictory donor ambitions, FGS’ counterinsurgency demands and personal ambitions. In an environment where ethnographic research is scarce the OCVP provides a useful insight to who the local providers of security are and how the SNP are perceived. Their data shows that poor physical infrastructure, combined with sociocultural norms has inhibited effective FMS police functioning.

The findings discussed above support the views of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) that there are vast regional variations in security but that some non-state security forces remain popular vis-à-vis state police. In Abudwak District, for example, there was a significant preference stated for clan elders and religious figures to settle conflicts as opposed to the police. Furthermore, inter-clan divisions had infiltrated the state policing sector in the Waberi subdivision to the degree that it rendered a police post non-functional. These findings are supported by data which shows that 61% of survey respondents in Abudwak were unaware of a state police presence and just 4% of the respondent’s revealed that they would report serious crimes to the Police. The clear favourites for who serious crimes would be reported to were traditional elders (77%) and religious leaders (13%) and therefore supports a hypothesis, in Abudwak at least, that ‘existing customs are stronger than the government.’

Interestingly, the opinion regarding who should be providing local security appears to be consistent across generations and suggests that “non-order” is deeply ingrained into societal norms. Focus group findings report that the ‘lack of [a] Central Government [has] caused so many disorders’ that younger generations are unfamiliar with central governance and state security and so view elders as the providers of security. Abudwak may represent an extreme case but it exemplifies that modes of state security are struggling to earn legitimacy and gain traction against the embedded and recognised forms of non-state security. 


A focus on the SNP has highlighted evidence to support non-state providers of security being a solution to providing local security. Non-state groups will not always be the most effective or ethical option but there exists a strong argument to at least consider their use when they are already the existing de facto providers of security. The disbandment of all groups deemed unlawful, combined with ceasing to cooperate with any irregular forces as part of SSR programmes in Somalia is not pragmatic and does not align with Somalia’s societal norms. The Somali state simply does not have the capacity to integrate all non-state forces into a state security architecture whilst reintegrating those armed actors deemed surplus to requirement into society. It therefore makes sense to understand the provision of security, the structure of society and focus on aligning legitimate “non-orders” to compliment the vision of the state building process. 

It is not proposed that a hybrid form of security with non-state forces will always be the most robust option and it is also acknowledged that alignment with certain non-state groups could provide seriously detrimental effects to the UK. Furthermore, this article has not sought to diminish the importance of functioning state institutions. The issue highlighted is the prevailing preoccupation with the central state18 and how this can conflate the provision of security when state forces try to overwrite pre-existing and effectively functioning actors. As a result, this article calls for a shift in mentality in the UK approach to MSCB. This shift sees the Government and Army becoming comfortable with an approach that acknowledges the reality of how security is often provided within fragile or failed states.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the British Army.

Cover image courtesy of AMISOM Public Information Flickr.com

Tristan Burwell

Tristan Burwell joined the Army in 2010 and has served in the UK and overseas. He has an interest and has conducted research in the fields of state building and security sector reform. 


  1. This essay defines capacity building as ‘the comprehensive approach to increasing a host nation’s ability to achieve self-sufficiency, typically through improved governance, security, human capital, development and reconstruction’ (ABCA Security Force Capacity Building Handbook 2011, glossary 2). With regards to improving security this essay refers to activities from Army Field Manual Tactics for Stability Operations Part 5: Military Support to Capacity Building 2018 (pp. 4A1-2) and includes: Defence Engagement, the Full Spectrum Approach, Security Capacity Building, Security Force Assistance (SFA), Security Sector Reform (SSR) and UK Stabilisation Operations.
  2. Hybrid/mediated/blended security is a concept adopted from Ken Menkhaus (2004; 2007;2008) that sees the responsibility of security within a state shared between state and non-state forces. In its absolute form it sees core state functions effectively subcontracted to local civic and traditional authorities to create mediated states (ibid 2008).
  3. Conflict governance mapping (CGM) is a theme taken from the work of Hills (2016) who uses it to describe the detailed mapping of the providers of governance and security in areas of insecurity.
  4. Menkhaus (2008, p.30) explains that the concept of mediated security is ‘rooted in the study of pre-modern and early state formation in Europe, where ambitious monarchs with limited power were forced to manipulate, manoeuvre, and make deals with local rivals.’
  5. Johnson, R, 2017. True to their salt: Indigenous personnel in Western armed forces. Hurst and Company: London
  6. Ibid and Moreman, 1998. ‘The Army in India and the Development of Frontier Warfare, 1849-1947
  7. Johnson, 2017, ibid.
  8. Hughes (2015) explains that the firqat were Mahra tribal militias raised by the British and Omani governments.
  9. Jeapes cited by ibid.
  10. Jeapes cited by ibid, p.315.
  11. Mundy and Musallam 2000, p.168.
  12. In relation to Weber, a core aspect that this article seeks to highlight is the issue of who holds the monopoly of physical force within a given territory and challenge whether this always has to be held solely by a central government
  13. Donais, T., 2017. ‘Engaging non-state security providers: Whither the rule of law?’. Stability, 6(1),pp.1-13.
  14. Donais, T., 2017. ‘Engaging non-state security providers: Whither the rule of law?’. Stability, 6(1),pp.1-13.
  15. A podcast by Annette Idler (2019) provides an interesting insight into security provision and the plethora of actors operating in the border regions of Colombia. With specific reference to borderlands, her research provides a challenge to the application of “stateness” as a universal concept.
  16. The impact of Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) corruption on has ‘been felt far and wide within the country and have been described as tarnishing the reputation and diminishing the legitimacy of the forces, and the Afghan government’ (SIGAR 2017, p.132). Johnson and Goodson (2018) also provide an interesting insight into the importance of legitimacy Afghanistan from a political perspective.
  17. Baker, B., and Scheye, E., 2007. Multi-layered justice and security delivery in post-conflict and fragile states. Conflict, Security & Development, 7(4), 503-528.
  18. Menkhaus, K., 2004. ‘Vicious circles and the security development nexus in Somalia.’ Conflict, Security & Development, 4(2), pp.149-165.

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