Paramilitarism refers to clandestine, irregular armed organizations that carry out illegitimate acts of violence against clearly defined civilian individuals or groups. It has great importance for understanding the processes of violence that are played out during ethnic conflicts, which often see the formation of paramilitary units that conduct counter-insurgency operations, scorched earth campaigns, and violence against civilians.

Paramilitary units appeared in Serbia and Turkey during the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s. Armed groups such as the Serbian Volunteer Guard (SVG) and the Turkish Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (JITEM) were responsible for widespread violence against unarmed civilians. Preliminary investigation of these paramilitary units revealed two puzzling patterns: they maintained close links with political elites including heads of state, and they were profoundly connected to the social milieu of organized crime.

Beyond these familiar cases, the twentieth century has seen forms of paramilitarism ranging from the Freikorps in Germany early on in the century, to the Sudanese Janjaweed militias a century later, and a myriad of armed groups in between. Although these militias all originated under differing conditions and in different societies, their functions, logic, and dynamic demonstrate compelling similarities and instructive differences. The collusion of crime, war, and state is a conundrum that stands at the center of much research on paramilitaries – including in this project.