A paramilitary is a force whose function and organization are similar to those of a professional military force, but which are not regarded as having the same status. The term uses the Greek prefix para- ("beside"), also seen in words such as paramedic.
The term paramilitary is subjective, depending on what is considered similar to a military force, and what status a force is considered to have. The nature of paramilitary forces therefore varies greatly according to the speaker and the context. For instance, in Northern Ireland, paramilitary refers to any illegally armed group with a political purpose, but in Colombia, paramilitary refers specifically to illegally armed groups which are considered right-wing (for example AUC), while illegally armed groups considered left-wing, such as FARC, are referred to as guerrillas.
Depending on context, paramilitaries can include:
- Auxiliary services of regular armed forces, such as the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Civil Air Patrol, or the Canadian Rangers.
- Some National Intelligence Services units that are composed of civilian agents tasked with covert action in areas that are difficult or sometimes illegal for Military Forces to operate, such as the Special Activities Division of the US Central Intelligence Agency.
- Some Internal Security, Border Protection and Law Enforcement organizations that are not considered part of the regular Military but are similar in training, equipment and/or organization. Examples include the Internal Troops of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Egyptian Central Security Forces and India's Border Security Force. There is sometimes overlap between these and armed forces auxiliaries. They may be administratively separate from the military, especially in countries where the military is forbidden or restricted in law enforcement, or the unit's role may differ from the military's, or offer a special service. India's National Security Guards is a special counter-terrorism paramilitary force and Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry (now a part of the army) was trained and conditioned to fight at altitudes of 20,000 feet and greater.
- These law enforcement agencies may include police forces organized along military or semi-military lines, sometimes called gendarmeries, such as:
- Insurgent militia, irregular military, armed resistance movements and guerilla forces which consider themselves military but which governments may consider rebel or terrorist, for example Provisional IRA, Ulster Volunteer Force, and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
- Private armies and militias.
- Militarized preexisting government agencies, such as SWAT teams and Black Cats.
- Youth groups and movements that can be considered 'militarized' to various degrees, the Hitler Youth movement being perhaps the most notorious example. Modern examples include military cadet movements such as the British Army Cadet Force, Sea Cadets, Air Training Corps and the Combined Cadet Force. Other nations also have such organisations such as the Australian Defence Force Cadets, the Royal Canadian Army Cadets, the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps and India's National Cadet Corps.