GEOINT trains sights on Africa

Africa is hot these days, and the geospatial intelligence community is eager to get in on the action.

Yes, there is such a community. Known in shorthand as GEOINT (just like human intelligence is HUMINT), these guys have traditionally been the mappers and the analysists who pore over satellite imagery for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or for private firms.

Today, they do much more. Don’t just think in terms of geography and borders. The GEOINT world is also mapping “human geography,” which, according to Penn State University, "focuses on patterns and processes that shape human interaction with the built and natural environments." It also  can help intelligence and defense agencies find warlords like Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army’s Joseph Kony, or Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), or help development groups track poverty and population movements.

“If I want to track Kony, understand human trafficking [or] where AQIM is moving,” then the U.S. needs more GEOINT, said Keith Masback, head of the nonprofit U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF).

“‘Where’ matters,” he said.

Africa is commanding new interest across Washington, thanks to conflicts raging from Mali to the Congo, rising terrorism and narcotics trafficking across North Africa, and the upstart U.S. Africa Command, which is about to get a four-star celebrity general at its command in Army Gen. David Rodriguez.

In response, USGIF’s members are creating their first Africa Working Group, which is expected to meet within the next 60 days. As a member-driven forum, they have no preset agenda, but they want to start a dialogue that they hope will enhance the U.S. government’s Africa expertise, Masback said in an interview.

He also hopes to steer more of AFRICOM’s attention further south on the continent, beyond the conflicts in North Africa that are commanding headlines.

“It's top heavy, in terms of diplomacy and engagement,” Masback said of AFRICOM’s efforts in Africa. “We gotta get smart about that continent if we’re going to operate there.” The working group, he said, will reach out to a variety of government agencies, including the Defense Department, State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as outside development groups, U.S. special operations forces, and AFRICOM.

“The Africanist crew is pretty small to date and pretty tight and they know each other pretty well,” he said, “and that’s the good news.” But they need more help.

“You don’t really understand Nigeria unless you understand who lives where, what their religions and tribal areas are,” to give just one example, he said.

“You start peeling back the proverbial onion on Africa and it doesn’t get simpler.”

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