Training Law Enforcement in Fragile States: The Case for a New U.S. Approach


On Jan. 15, 2019, al-Shabaab gunmen flooded into Nairobi’s DusitD2 hotel complex and opened fire, killing 21 people including an American citizen. Investigations uncovered a pattern familiar in Kenya: The militants were linked to the Dadaab refugee camp, a sprawling complex sheltering over 400,000 Somali refugees, long antagonized by the Kenyan government and subject to rampant police abuse.

The pattern is not unique to Kenya; in fact, marginalization from the government and firsthand experience of police abuse are among the most common drivers of extremism. A 2017 survey by the United Nations Development Programme of current and former extremists found that 71 percent of respondents identified action by government security forces as the final trigger that pushed them to join an extremist group, and 83 percent believed the government “only looks after the interest of a few.” 82 percent of respondents described their trust in the police forces as “poor” or “not at all,” making police the least trusted institution of all those considered.

These trends highlight a key weakness in the U.S. government’s approach to extremism and terrorism in the post-9/11 era. Over the past 18 years, the United States has achieved meaningful military victories against terrorist groups – from rolling back al-Shabaab’s gains in Somalia, to the targeted assassination of al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen and Libya, to battlefield victories against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon has also, with the support of Congress, invested massively in efforts to develop the military capacities of its partners in the war on terror. However, over the same period, the U.S. failure to engage with its partners’ policing and law enforcement agencies has left unaddressed one of the key drivers of extremism.

Our work advising the congressionally sponsored Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States has confirmed what much research has already suggested: that civilian security forces, including police, gendarmerie, and detentions agencies, are vital to targeting and halting extremist insurgencies in fragile states that receive U.S. security assistance. Yet U.S. security sector assistance remains overwhelmingly tilted toward military-to-military support. Even when partners themselves ask the United States to shift from military-dominated partnerships toward reform and training of police forces, the U.S. government is often unable to respond.

This imbalance stems from a glaring lack of American capacity to engage civilian security institutions. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement takes the lead in capacity-building programs with partners’ police forces, USAID undertakes reform efforts focusing on partners’ court systems, and the Department of Justice maintains the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program and the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development. However, these agencies’ capacities are fundamentally constrained by narrow statutory authorities, the limited resources upon which they can draw, and – perhaps most importantly – the lack of a unified, coherent mandate. Indeed, despite discrete successes, the U.S. government’s overall approach to law enforcement capacity-building in partner countries has been haphazard, weak, and segmented.

No U.S. government agency has a fully developed capability for engaging partners’ law enforcement agencies and the institutions – often interior ministries – that oversee, finance, and staff them. To effectively tackle the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states, the United States needs a dedicated and unified capacity to lead law enforcement-specific training, institutional capacity-building, and reform efforts.

Countering Extremism by Building Trust in Communities

Despite huge investments in combating terrorism, worldwide terrorist attacks have tripled since 9/11, and terrorist movements have gained footholds in regions from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Across these disparate contexts, we know that corrupt, predatory law enforcement and justice institutions fuel the flames of extremism. In nations like Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, torture, arbitrary detention, and repression of political dissent by internal security forces continues to drive citizens to sympathize with extremist movements. In West African nations like Mali, Nigeria, and Cameroon, predatory police and law enforcement agencies drive marginalized population groups into the hands of extremist insurgencies. However, despite massive investment in military training and capacity-building with these partners, the U.S. government has lacked the tools to engage and help reform these countries’ civilian institutions.

Developing trust between marginalized populations and police forces, gendarmerie units, and other community defense groups is crucial for preempting the emergence of violent, non-state actors. Domestic counter-terrorism experts in the West are familiar with this principle: Aggressive community relations efforts are useful in part because tips thwarting terrorist attempts frequently come directly from minority ethnic communities. Unlike military forces, police and law enforcement agencies operate within communities, making them more likely to receive these valuable tips.



Furthermore, the task force’s work indicates that where this relationship disintegrates, police and civilian security agencies become key contributors to fragility and extremism. As the first — and often only — point of contact between government and citizens, these agencies are uniquely positioned to prey upon civilians through corruption, heavy-handed enforcement, and extrajudicial violence. Abuse and repression at the hands of civilian security agencies is disproportionately damaging to state-society trust. As noted in a CSIS report on police reform in Africa, “a police officer is the symbolic representation of state authority.” We have found that citizen sympathy and support to extremist groups is very frequently, in fact, driven by a sense that the government threatens their safety and well-being.

In Nigeria, for instance, low levels of trust in the police have generated backlash from communities that undermines the government’s ability to effectively tackle Boko Haram at the local level. Nigerian police are frequently accused of human rights abuses and deeply-rooted corruption. The Nigerian Police Forces, an undermanned national gendarmerie force, has a long history of arbitrary detentions, deaths in custody, and clashes with peaceful protestors. Moreover, its insufficient capacity has prompted the Nigerian government to assign law enforcement responsibilities in many areas to military forces, which have perpetrated even more frequent abuses against local communities. Such abuses not only foster the persistent base of sympathy that Boko Haram continues to find among certain marginalized groups in northern Nigeria, but also undermine the effectiveness of police operations. A report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict found “communities have grown to openly fear and distrust security personnel, believing that proactively providing information or collaborating with security forces will put them and their families at greater risk.”

Section 660 and Constraints on U.S. Action

One impediment is a challenge with existing authorities. First enacted in 1975 in response to human rights abuses by U.S.-trained police forces in Latin America, Section 660 of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act forbids U.S. government training of foreign civilian security forces. The legislation was a well-intentioned response to legitimate concerns about U.S. trainees being implicated in grave abuses. However, in practice, the ban has created counterproductive imbalances in U.S. law enforcement assistance. Section 660 includes exceptions to the ban, permitting law enforcement assistance in several niche, tactical areas such as counter-narcotics, maritime security, and customs and sanctions enforcement. In addition conventional police training can be undertaken in some circumstances, but requires waivers. The systematic recourse to waivers and the constraining nature of the exceptions process have naturally constrained the development of bureaucratic expertise around salient partner needs and sharply limited their scope. Programs through USAID and the Justice Department’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program , as well as the State Department’s own initiatives, must operate within tight confines because they are generally bound by this law.

As a result of these legal constraints, U.S. assistance programs for partners’ civilian security institutions have been limited in ambition, timeline, funding, and staffing. Even the well-funded, contracted police training programs in Iraq and Afghanistan lacked effective programmatic oversight, planning, or strategic coherence — likely the result of Section 660’s long-term restrictions. Perhaps most importantly, the ban has limited the bureaucratic appetite for investing in a dedicated cadre of subject-matter experts trained in capacity-building disciplines and in the institutionalization of U.S. capacity to train partners’ police forces. If sufficiently authorized and funded, such a capacity would bring a strong voice to the interagency table: one capable of advocating for assisting partners’ civilian security agencies as a vehicle for improving respect for human rights and effectiveness as counter-terrorism partners.

A New Approach

Congress should repeal Section 660. But it cannot stop there; simply repealing the legislation would risk repeating the incoherent, ill-informed assistance that led to the human rights abuses originally prompting the prohibition. Instead, Congress should establish a focused program, including dedicated programmatic infrastructure and subject-matter experts, for civilian security training and capacity-building capabilities. Congress should also impose coherence on U.S. capacity-building with foreign civilian security forces by disentangling the patchwork of current authorities and programs scattered across the interagency. In the future, the U.S. government needs a central authority to which it turns when the mission calls for improving the capacities of a partner’s police and law enforcement agencies.

The program should be staffed by professionals well-versed in law enforcement training and in best practices for catalyzing institutional reforms that improve respect for human rights and democratic governance. While the development and military toolkits are clearly defined, this new initiative would give U.S. ambassadors in fragile states a dedicated tool for working with a neglected partner: the police and civilian law enforcement agencies on the frontlines of terrorism, corruption, and state collapse.

This new program could be established, like other security sector assistance, under the direction of the State Department, but it must include fully integrated participation by other agencies – the Department of Justice and Homeland Security particularly – on a robust and equitable footing. One option could be to build out the Justice Department’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program to assume this mission. The program already maintains expertise in criminal investigations, basic police services, forensics, and other core policing disciplines. In addition to these competencies, the new program would need to marshal expertise in institutional-level capabilities relevant to interior ministries and law enforcement headquarters operations, in functional areas such as port and border security, and in prosecutions.

This capacity-building should be integrated into broader U.S. security sector assistance: the suite of foreign assistance programs across the U.S. government that are designed to strengthen the ability of U.S. partners and allies to govern their own military and civilian security sectors. The State Department should take the lead in aligning the activities of our proposed program with broader security sector assistance and providing foreign policy guidance to inform this work. However, because of the nature of work, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and the law enforcement agencies they oversee, will have the most relevant subject-matter expertise to contribute. The new program must be built upon a foundation of interagency collaboration, including by maintaining a multi-agency staffing structure that routinizes planning coordination across relevant stakeholders. Poor interagency coordination and cooperation has plagued existing security sector assistance efforts (both military and non-military), and those mistakes cannot be repeated here.

The new program should focus primarily on building accountable, effective, transparent civilian security institutions. Our task force also found that too often, the U.S. government’s approach to military capacity-building focuses on upgrading tactical-level units in ways that can isolate them from existing institutions in their country and exacerbate dysfunction. Institutional reforms – which can significantly improve agencies’ ability to achieve shared security objectives and promote respect for human rights and long-term stability – are neglected. In approaching law enforcement capacity-building, institutions must take priority.

Conclusion: A Step Toward Solving a Deeper Problem

This reform would not solve a deeper problem: a monumental imbalance in the federal budget toward military assistance. The U.S. security assistance budget averages between $16 and $20 billion annually; of this amount, an average of 10 percent is allocated to law enforcement assistance through the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account. Some additional justice sector programming is funded through USAID, but the combined total of these efforts is overwhelmed by military aid.

The impact of this imbalance is felt locally as much as globally. After all, when a U.S. ambassador can access tens of millions for military-to-military assistance and no resources are available for police engagement, he or she is likely to pursue whatever resources are available — even if preliminary security assessments have clearly pointed toward police forces as the weak link in tackling extremism. Empty-handed ambassadors do little to build relations with host country leaders, even if the resources they may have to offer are poorly matched to the country’s challenges. This budgetary imbalance will need Congress’s attention in coming years. But authorizing a dedicated capability to train civilian security forces will begin to solve the problem by giving a voice and seat at the policy table to this neglected arena for partnership.

Reforms to the outdated Section 660 have been advocated in the past, but it is time to look also at simultaneously empowering a dedicated law enforcement training and institutional reform capability. This would provide a powerful new tool to address the spread of extremism and its underlying causes in fragile states. It would also represent a long-term investment in the core principles that U.S. assistance aims to uphold: international security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. It would give us hope, as our task force’s co-chairs said, that U.S. policy will serve “not only to defeat today’s terrorists, but also to alleviate the conditions that spawn tomorrow’s.”



Tommy Ross was a Senior Advisor to the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States and is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation and in senior positions in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Philip McDaniel served as a Policy Advisor on the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. He has previously served at the Pentagon and U.S. Africa Command.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman