What Role Will Militias Play in the “Coming Unpleasantness”? – Forward Observer Shop

What Role Will Militias Play in the “Coming Unpleasantness”?

For a while now, I’ve been writing quite a bit about intelligence and community security for natural disasters because that’s a really good starting point. If we can begin building an intelligence capacity for navigating the next hurricane or riot, then we’ll be in a good position for the “Coming Unpleasantness,” which in all likelihood is some sort of domestic conflict.

Another reason why I’ve been focusing on community security is because if we can’t secure our communities, then we don’t stand a chance at securing our counties, states, and regions, either. And by “securing,” I mean a) clearing and holding areas from opposing forces and b) deterring or preventing violence against us in any kind where we live and sleep. Support Zones are crucial for teams in any conflict and building out an intelligence network now is going to pay large dividends tomorrow when more Americans realize that they do need zones of support, bed down locations, safe houses, and the other things that facilitate security for us.

Several years ago (in 2014, to be exact), I published a post at my old blog, Guerrillamerica, about the role that militias might play in a future domestic conflict. I’ve reprised, revised, and updated that blog post.

In the Fall 2014 issue of now out-of-print Forward Observer Magazine, I had the great opportunity to interview Matthew Bracken, a former Navy SEAL and prolific author about the future of conflict in America.  A potential scenario he talked about was the “dirty civil war”, where a group Americans on any side of the political spectrum creates a chain reaction, starting with indiscriminately killing law enforcement officers or other officials, for instance, which results in an uncontrollable series of reprisals and copy cat murders. Things get really dirty, really fast, and our nation descends into chaos; one side too uncoordinated and unskilled to make any appreciable security gains, and the other too brutal in their pursuit, resulting in a lot of collateral damage and an overall failure to control the situation… thus the inability by both sides to end the conflict which rages on uncontrollably and unpredictably.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this scenario, and one thing that really concerns me is providing stability in our own communities during the potential protracted conflict described above. I started looking through my library and found a Naval Post-Graduate School paper entitled, Rethinking Militias: Recognizing the Potential Role of Militia Groups in Nation-Building. (A highly recommended read; published in 2007.) This paper was written by two Army Majors, and they begin by saying that the negative view by the media of militias is misguided. In my experience, although there are still plenty of gross amateurs out there, the number and quality of semi-professional militias and defense groups has grown.  Realistically, in a “dirty civil war” scenario, we’ll need to participate in these types of local militias in order to bring some security and safety for our neighborhoods and families.

The authors provide some parameters for the word ‘militia’, and I’m a fan of these two following descriptions:

A militia is capable of using violence as a means of influence and, at its core, serves to fill a void in governance not filled by a central authority. Unlike an insurgent group, the “militia” is not driven to remove the host nation government as much as it seeks to protect and secure its own interests or autonomy…

Unlike a gang, a militia possesses a greater degree of legitimacy in the territory in which it operates, and it is not primarily a predator or parasite on the state. Instead, a militia is viewed as a competing, legitimate representative of a segment of the populace based on religious, tribal, ethnic, ideological, and/or territorial grounds.

Rethinking Militias pg. 8

Here’s this paper’s definition of militia, and I’m also a fan of it:

Militia: recognizable armed groups possessing some level of regional legitimacy granted by a segment of the population. Militias might be permanent or ad hoc in nature and maintain their legitimacy through the ability to offer security and/or social services to members (based on ethnic, tribal, geographic, ideological affiliation).

Although this paper is written from the perspective of U.S. planners building, training, and utilizing indigenous militias to bring about stability to the host-nation, it’s entirely applicable to a post-SHTF environment as well. It may also give us some insight as to how the U.S. military or the federal apparatchiks respond in this type of scenario, including a martial law event. Here are my top five Lessons Learned from thinking about this paper and its logical conclusions.


Lesson # 1: Local militias provide geographical and cultural expertise

The learning curve is steep for incoming, out-of-area security forces. In a martial law or “dirty civil war” type of scenario, smart practitioners of SHTF Intelligence are going to liaise and rely on the expertise of the local security forces. This is a two-way street, as intelligence collection often is. Military, federal police, or civilian authorities should, in theory, depend on the expertise of their local affiliates, who in theory will be collecting intelligence about local players in the conflict. The ability for these out-of-area security forces to leverage local expertise will increase their situational awareness and planning, potentially leading to an increased operational tempo and shortened targeting cycle. This local expertise is most readily available with existing law enforcement officers, however, there may be those willing to act as local guides and advisers. Identifying these people should be a top priority for both sides. Should these security forces be more interested in domination and tyranny than enforcing the Rule of Law and fostering Liberty (which they most assuredly will be), then it’s incumbent on us to provide opposition. One way we do that is to work against an invader, inside and out. This goes back to winning Hearts and Minds of our neighborhoods and communities, if and where possible. The more we have working for us, the fewer we have working against us.  Simple math.


Lesson #2: Stability depends on local militias upholding the Law, not devolving into organized crime

History is plagued with stories of “mission creep” and seemingly well-meaning good guys who later turn out to be really bad dudes. John Ainsworth once told me, “You don’t get morality from immorality.” I certainly think that’s true. “I was just doing my job,” was not a defense at the Nuremberg Trials, and it shouldn’t be a defense during the Recovery phase of SHTF. A militia that can’t keep the trust of the populace is a militia that’s soon going to find itself without support. The populace will eventually turn to a group that can provide it security. Why do gated communities have their own security? Because the regular police are either unable to provide security, or the residents lack the trust in the police to do the same job. Let’s look at Iraq for another example. One of the reasons why the Islamic State was able to take power over large swathes of Iraq so quickly was because the Sunnis were disenfranchised by the Maliki government for so long that they turned to the group that was most aligned with their interests.  When militias become the enemy of the People, they begin enabling the real adversary. So we absolutely must police ourselves and ensure the ‘good guys’ remain the good guys. Lastly, the local Constitutional militias will likely be labeled as “terrorists” or “criminals”, so any indiscretion will only serve to support that regime propaganda.


Lesson #3: We are always fighting the ‘parallel war’ – the fight for support from the populace!

… it is possible for an armed group to fit multiple categories and be labeled a number of different ways. A street gang might be viewed as both a criminal organization and legitimate protector of the populace… Rethinking Militias, pg. 7

In the scenario above, if an out-of-area security force came looking for the group that protected the populace, would these residents have any reasons to cooperate? Would these residents give up information leading to the arrest of their protectors? Of course not. The same will be true of any group who provides security for and defends the Rights of the populace, including FreeFor. Hearts & Minds – can’t win ‘em all, but we have to try. The more we have working for us, the fewer we have working against us. 

… a gang might be viewed negatively by a particular neighborhood, but this perspective might change in the event a greater threat intrudes from outside the neighborhood which the gang helps to defend…

An armed group that serves as a societal defense mechanism is likely to be granted legitimacy by those it protects. It is true that this legitimacy might only be temporary, but if it is based on a positive contribution and/or the militia achieves the population’s goals this is surely worth noting.

Just because militias or FreeFor elements aren’t immediately embraced doesn’t mean that segments of the populace won’t come to depend on them later, especially in the face of a greater external threat.  That’s all I’m asking for as a member of FreeFor. And if our key assumption, in many if not most cases, is that regime security will use heavy-handed tactics, then it’s entirely possible that we can gain the support of large portions of the populace if we exploit those regime missteps.

Lesson #4: Militias must be capable of providing security

As the [Host Nation] government weakens and violence increases, people look for ways to protect themselves. If the government cannot provide protection, people may organize into armed militias to provide that essential service. – FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency

From time to time, I have to defend the purpose of the militia. Ultimately, the militia exists to provide security and defend the People. That fact goes all the way back to at least the beginning of the 17th Century at Jamestown. I really don’t consider the militia to be a ‘warfighting’ organization, although they may end up fighting in wars. The principle purpose is simply to provide security and defend the People. In that case, militia training must also be realistic and requirements-based.

Militias are generally viewed as legitimate in the eyes of their members and often provide simple measures of governance that a central authority is not capable of providing. Even ad hoc armed groups, consisting of locals rallying to defend pasture lands from raiders, serve a purpose similar to border security forces in more developed nations. Though untrained and organized dramatically differently than a professional military, militias can respond to a threat and are often able to put aside differences for a collective purpose: usually protection. (pg 12)

A friend was telling me a couple weeks ago, that he’d purchased a lot of radio communications equipment before attending a Grid-Down Comms course. He completed the course, and ended up realizing that all the money he’d spent on the equipment was basically worthless because it didn’t meet his needs and operational requirements. The same will apply to many militia groups who are training for unrealistic scenarios. This isn’t really my realm, except to say that a threat analysis should be completed before training for your Mission Essential Task List (METL). Some militias are training to fight military elements of the regime, and are unlikely to ever encounter regular army or National Guard units. They’d be better suited by training for clandestine urbanized warfare than training to assault bunkers in the woods. Either way, if a militia can’t provide “simple measures of governance that a central authority is not… providing” then the militia, in my opinion, is failing a key responsibility.


Lesson #5: Intelligence Preparation of the Community for the Community Based Militia

A community based militia is one which has influence only over a very limited area, such as a village, or a neighborhood within a larger community. The militia is seen as a legitimate protective entity only by that community, and generally does not seek objectives beyond that community.

Being that local militias may become a central part of the security of a free state, we should be asking ourselves how we build legitimacy in the area. How do we become recognized as a necessary and desired part of the neighborhood? For me, this goes back to Intelligence Preparation of the Community. Tomorrow I’ll post a guide to determining support and opposition in your neighborhood (h/t Aesop), and that begins with intelligence collection and analysis. Almost everything in these scenarios goes back to intelligence.

Understanding our operating environment begins with this intelligence planning process. I highly recommend that every Patriot and Prepper team/organization begins work on Intelligence Preparation of the Community. You have to understand the extent of your sphere of influence; where will you find support in your neighborhood and where will you find opposition? That’s a huge part of understanding the area threats, and it truly does begin with intelligence.


Always Out Front,
Samuel Culper

If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. Happy to nudge a tad (WRSA picking it up was possibly more of a crowbar in that respect).

    There’s nothing wrong with the disaster focus, as it’s non-threatening and completely in line with everything the local authorities want too, when they’re at their best.

    But having personally been through two major earthquakes and two major riots in my lifetime, disasters are always only half the story, and TPTB aren’t going to be there when things get really tough, either because of ideological failings, or simple logistics and capabilities shortcomings.

    And I miss the regular podcasts, but I hope you’re continuing to get the other 57 irons in the fire sorted out even better, which takes the sting out of their lack for the present. Hopefully at some point you can get back to at least weekly ones, but that’s your business.

    Thanks again for what you’re putting out here.
    Hopefully you and a few others doing similar things will continue to draw more wise folks to the gravy train of knowledge you’re putting out.

  2. See Robert A. Heinlein’s *Starship Troopers* [the book, NOT the cheesy movie) for a fair description of such things, and how they may come to lead to a polity in and of themselves. Whether an ad hoc group of military service veterans, likely augmented by former cops unwilling to accept immoral/unconstitutional orders from their political masters, or relatives, neighbors and very close friends of the core formation, they’ll likely be among the first well-organized, trained and experienced such groups to form. If they’ve planned for such things well before they’re needed, so much the better, but if nothing else, they may deny the talents and leadership of those veterans- whether combat arms experienced or not- to other local or area startup or expanding organizations. Heinlein:

    ***With national governments in collapse at the end of the XXth century, something had to fill the vacuum, and in many cases it was the returned veterans. They had lost a war, most of them had no jobs, many were sore as could be over the terms of the Treaty of New Delhi, especially the P.O.W. foul-up — and they knew how to fight. But it wasn’t revolution; it was more like what happened in Russia in 1917 — the system collapsed; somebody else moved in. The first known case, in Aberdeen, Scotland, was typical. Some veterans got together as vigilantes to stop rioting and looting, hanged a few people (including two veterans) and decided not to let anyone but veterans on their committee. Just arbitrary at first — they trusted each other a bit, they didn’t trust anyone else. What started as an emergency measure became constitutional practice in a generation or two. (Pg. 179)***

  3. Where can I get a copy of the Fall 2014 issue of Forward Observer Magazine? I would really love to read the Matt Bracken interview.

  4. Most State Constitutions have a section on the State Militia, typically authorizing the Governor to activate the Unorganized Militia in an emergency. Twenty-Two States have a State Guard or Self Defense Force that acts as a core around which the militia can coalesce. Most are organized along Army lines, follow Army Regulations as appropriate, and wear Army uniforms (provided at their own cost). http://www.sgaus.org has more details.

  5. Twenty-Two of the States have an organized core for their Unorganized Militia. Called the State Guard or Self Defense Force, most are organized along Army structure, wear Army uniforms, conduct monthly drills, follow Army Regulations, and are “cadre” organizations. Many are very active in Disaster Response and Recovery. They have a fraternal organization called the State Guard Association of the US or SGAUS. Their website is http://www.sgaus.org

  6. The prepper-fiction book “299 Days” points out that much of the people we want to protect as a militia will be much more divided and diverse than we can imagine. The militia bugs out to a remote cabin community, and even there, where it’s mostly retirees and conservative country folk, the residents are not homogeneous and some even resist a little. Can you post an article on that aspect, how when SHTF, gaining the favor of the populace in your AO isn’t going to simple be “friendly” and “enemy,” varying degrees of both? Even in the Patriot community you have people that are Democrats and people that love Alex Jones, and in the Black Lives Matter Community there are people who want reparations and others who vote Republican.

    As you mentioned above, gaining favor and legitimacy is massive, but I think too many will see themselves as prisoners rather than constituents.

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