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In this article, Darja Schildknecht, doctoral researcher at the University of Basel, sheds light on the involvement of the private security industry within the ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ (P/CVE) agenda. The author concludes by underlying the necessity for greater attention on the implications the shift to softer measures in the counter-terrorism has on the private security sector, with a particular focus on public-private partnerships in the activities of intelligence gathering and training.

The increasing privatisation of security within the past two decades has marked a crucial change in global politics. Particularly in conflict, post-conflict and fragile contexts, the role of the private security industry in the proliferation of security has been thoroughly scrutinised by scholars and practitioners alike. A lot of attention has been given to the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its hard security measures relying heavily on private security contractors, with the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s as cases where numbers of private contractors toppled the ones of foreign military personnel [1]. Human rights abuses such as the 2007 Nisour Square massacre by Blackwater [2] further elevated the close examination of companies such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Erinys, and catapulted the topic of the privatisation of security on top of the list of the most controversial subjects within international politics [3].

Yet, the development in the recent years of a new content thread within the GWOT which connects the concept of ‘terrorism’ to the process of ‘radicalisation’ – namely the agenda ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ (P/CVE) – has put the role of private security actors again in the background. P/CVE considers the “conditions conducive to violent extremism and the structural context from which it emerges” [4] to address the threats with ‘effective measures’. A whole-of-society-approach is supposed to tackle the social, cultural, political and economic marginalisation – “the conditions conducive to violent extremism” – and includes a rights-based approach; therefore, P/CVE is often times defined under the umbrella of development work, with UNDP on the international level as patron and main driver of the agenda. In comparison to the more traditional, hard-security oriented counter-terrorism agenda, this approach can be called a soft response to ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’. With the evolving agenda of P/CVE, taking increasingly space and resources within the counter-terrorism regime, a relevant question materialises: Where are the private security actors within this agenda? Up to date, there is almost no literature on how this new content thread within the GWOT has affected the work with the private security industry: How is the industry involved within P/CVE? What private security actors are we talking about? Are there problems and risks we should be aware of?

This blog entry intends to answer some of these questions and points to possible gaps within research and policy practice regarding P/CVE and private security. The analysis presented here is based on interviews with private security actors in the context of Kenya in the timeframe of January to July 2022 as part of a research project on P/CVE. This post engages in a variety of politically charged terms, such as ‘terrorism’, ‘violent extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’. While it is not the intention to discuss the definitional praxis of these terms within this piece, it must be acknowledged that they are not neutral; the terms are therefore written in quotation marks.

P/CVE and soft approaches: A window of opportunity for the private security industry

The shift of the GWOT to incorporate softer approaches which are more development-oriented has presented a window of opportunity for the private security sector in two regards:

  1. The re-orientation and strengthened focus towards prevention;
  2. A programmed inclusion of private security actors through the idea of a whole-of-society approach.

P/CVE as an agenda within the counter-terrorism regime undoubtedly has a strong focus on the prevention aspect. How prevention is understood and implemented in programming is however depending on the actors engaging with P/CVE. While development actors such as the UNDP, local and international NGOs as well as local and international CSOs focus on structural drivers leading to ‘radicalisation’, as presented in the UN’s Plan of Action in 2015, national security agencies such as the police, intelligence service and the military delineate prevention with classical policing prevention work. This approach to prevention engages with inhibiting a possible attack from an already ‘radicalised’ person, thus pre-emption rather than prevention, through methods such as information gathering and sharing, protective security assessments as well as de-radicalisation. The point of divergence between the different interpretations of prevention creates space for the private security industry to position themselves newly in the field of counter-terrorism, refocusing on this traditional, state-centered understanding of prevention work.

Furthermore, the idea to factor in all actors within prevention work, the whole-of-society approach presents a prominent opportunity to the private security industry to play a crucial part in P/CVE. Particularly in post-colonial states where there is a presence of international personnel as well as a certain wealth divide, private security companies often take over the role of providing security to people and infrastructure – in most cases to the best-paying and wealthiest.

P/CVE therefore presents a window of opportunity for the private security industry to re-focus on classical prevention work, shifting away from the hard security services provided during the past two decades. Moreover, the framework offers a rationale for the private security industry to be necessarily included in these softer interventions, through the narrative of a whole-of-society approach.

Private security and P/CVE: The two assets of intelligence and training

The strengthened focus on prevention – and pre-emption for that matter – has changed the rules of the game of counter-terrorism, giving the private security sector an opportunity to capitalise on two particular activities within this field: 1) intelligence gathering and 2) training. While these activities are not new for the private security industry, they have regained strength through the logic of P/CVE and allowed the private security industry to expand massively within recent years. Drawing from the case of Kenya, I distinguish between guarding companies, risk management companies, and private community policing networks. There is a lot of complexity when it comes to these actors and the activities they conduct within the realm of counter-terrorism and P/CVE, predominantly as there is the principal distinction between national and international security companies. The following presents thus a brief and simplified overview of some of the activities of the private security industry in Kenya within P/CVE.

The “information game”, as some of the interviewees have called it, has become crucial in detecting threats and particularly risk management companies such as GardaWorld, Saladin and Constellis have made a deliberate effort in expanding their service, offering daily, weekly, or monthly security briefings tailored to the clients’ needs. This expansion of the services necessarily came with a growth of companies in size and personnel, hiring analysts to attend to the workload generated by this stream of prevention. Gathering intelligence is also a crucial part for guarding companies to play within the framework of P/CVE. In the event of an attack, security guards – unarmed in the context of Kenya – are the first in line to react; their role is to inform the police immediately (there is a panic button usually at each guarding post) and not to engage in the use of force. Moreover, standing at the gates of malls, office buildings, embassies, schools or private houses, the guards are supposed to observe their environment and report suspicious behaviour. With this frontline position, the security guards acquire information about people going in and out of the buildings, which is valuable to public security agencies as well as bigger risk management companies within the space of pre-emption. Thus, prevention through intelligence gathering offers the private security companies power within the governance of security, but more importantly, leaves the companies in a suitable position to react to a possible ‘terrorist’ attack.

In the case of Kenya, many risk management companies are commissioned to retrieve people from a hostile environment (e.g. during a terror attack) and/or are tasked with hostage recovery. Furthermore, various private community policing networks operate very similarly to the companies described above: They obtain information and react as first responders when an attack happens. Most of the times, these interventions by the different private security actors are not in consultation nor agreement with the national security authorities. Lastly, guarding companies but also other private security companies have a close relationship with the national police, going as far as having police officers – unofficially as this would be considered corruption – on their payroll for certain activities.

The second activity for private security companies within the realm of P/CVE is training. In a changing environment, my interviewees suggested a clear shift towards training as an activity to increase profits. The supply of trainings is a subject that needs much more attention, as it leaves a lot of unclarity on clients and content provided. Within the logic of prevention, trainings usually evolve around the following:

  1. Training to companies and private individuals on how to survive a possible scenario of a ‘terrorist’ attack. This involves Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) or active shooter awareness and response training and is usually an activity offered by risk management companies.
  2. In-house training to staff of guarding companies. This consists of a basic training after the hire and an additional refresher course once a year. Part of the training consists of establishing clear reporting lines and the collaboration with the public security agencies such as the police in case of an attack. However, there is a change within the training towards the language of P/CVE, which covers the role of private security guards in collecting information, reporting suspicious behaviour and how to recognise a ‘terrorist’. Here, the training sometimes includes the concepts of ‘radicalisation’ and the religion and beliefs associated with this process, contributing to the problem of racial profiling and the conflation between ‘terrorism’ and religion. Very often, marginalised communities are considered suspicious and end up being monitored and reported. One security guard of a tier 3 company explained in an informal conversation that you can recognise a ‘terrorist’ by the funny way they behave and walk and added “you can see it in their eyes”.
  3. Training to national security agencies. This category of training is the most protected and least known for obvious reasons. Particularly international risk management companies but also private foreign individuals, mostly former military personnel, are frequently involved in providing training to national security forces, often focusing on the special units. Particularly the British system of security, which is associated with prevention or as one interviewee termed it “a less-aggressive approach to security with the goal to avoid the problem in the first place”, gets a lot of attention in the case of Kenya which leaves British ex-military personnel in a beneficial position to deliver trainings to government units.

Both services, gathering intelligence and conducting trainings, have provided the private security industry with an opportunity to expand and shift the attention away from the “Blackwater curse” towards the re-building of a reputational image when it comes to the provision of security.

A call for more scrutiny

The private security industry’s role in the GWOT has been explored to a great extent. However, with the introduction of P/CVE and the inclusion of softer approaches, the private security industry has been able to fall under the radar in terms of their role within the new logic of prevention. Most importantly, the rebranding of the GWOT through P/CVE has given governments and private security actors alike the possibility to shift away from the – often highly criticised – counter-terrorism regime towards a narrative associated with right-based and development approaches; yet, without actually using these exact logics within their understanding of prevention.

Therefore, I call for greater attention on the implications the shift to softer measures in the counter-terrorism has on the private security industry, with a particular focus on public-private partnerships in the activities of intelligence gathering and training. What training content is conveyed? By whom? What are the dependencies and hierarchies between host governments and international private security companies or foreign private security individuals? How is information and intelligence obtained? Where is the data stored? Lastly, it is important to contextualise this move towards incorporating softer approaches and consider the broader implications for the private security sector, raising the question of whether this could lead to a redefinition of activities that currently operate in a legal grey area.



[1] Eichler, M. (2013). Gender and the privatization of security: neoliberal transformation of the militarized gender order. Critical Studies on Security, 1(3), 311-325. DOI: 10.1080/21624887.2013.848107

[2] Scahill, J. (2007). Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Nation Books.

[3] Abrahamsen, R. and Williams, C. (2009). Security Beyond the State: Global Security Assemblages in International Politics. International Political Sociology (3), 1-17.

[4] UN General Assembly. (2015). Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. 70th session (A/70/674). United Nations, p. 7.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).