As Stratfor’s director of current intelligence, Sim Tack draws on a wide range of sources to help build a clear picture of world events and trends at any given moment. He does that with a particular eye toward analyzing military developments around the globe. We sat down with Tack to discuss his role at Stratfor, how he uses satellite imagery to fill intelligence gaps and which conflicts he believes the international community should be watching for next.
What interests you most about the all-source intelligence and analysis you work on here at Stratfor?
"The really interesting thing about Stratfor is the approach we take in our analysis, as we strive to provide empathetic analysis free of any bias by looking under the hood of the dynamics we cover. Going the extra mile to meticulously understand how exactly different "systems" that make up the world function, so that we can understand how certain actions or conditions affect outcomes – that's very exciting. Based on our model of the world, the geopolitical framework, these systems all combine into something we can start to understand, and we can start to see how the wheels turn within and between those systems. We constantly have to feed that model of the world – which is of course by no means complete – with the most recent and detailed available information to make sure that our internal model is running as closely to the real world as possible, and that means we have to get really creative to fill the gaps in our knowledge in some cases."
Over the past year, you’ve helped roll out a series of Focal Point analyses including exclusive satellite imagery. What kind of unique insights can we gain from this kind of imagery?
"The great thing about imagery is that it is unbiased. Almost all information we deal with, whether it originates from human sources or news media, everything that went through human minds has some risk of bias imposed upon it (whether consciously or not). While satellite imagery can often still be open for interpretation, a picture will often quickly be able to confirm whether something actually happened, or what exactly is in place at a certain location. As events occur in remote locations or in the middle of intense conflicts, it can be really difficult to get confirmation from the ground, while there is little that can be completely obscured from the top-down view satellites offer."
What kind of challenges does working with satellite imagery pose, and how do you overcome it?
"The single most challenging task from our perspective is selecting what we want to look at. We don't have unlimited resources or our own satellites with which we can just canvas the globe and look everywhere. Based on information we collect through other types of sources, we will have a short list of potential targets, and then depending on availability of the imagery, or the impact the imagery could have on our analysis or in publishing, we need to make that call. We have a really close relationship with our partners at AllSource Analysis and they support us in really informing those decisions. In the end there is always the risk that you may end up pulling satellite imagery that has nothing really exciting to show, but so far we haven't fallen into that trap."
Is there a particular piece of recent analysis that stands out for you?
"I believe the most notable satellite imagery-related analysis we've produced was definitely the buildup of the Russian intervention in Syria. Over time, while our broader high-level analysis was detailing the dynamics between the world powers and how they converged on Ukraine and Syria, we were able to provide really detailed imagery of the Russian aircraft and supporting logistics that operated from the Syrian air base in Latakia. This kind of coverage is typically well-suited for the use of satellite imagery, despite some Russian attempts to hide aircraft and helicopters from us with camouflage nets. Tracking a single location over time also allows you to build a deeper knowledge of how that facility works, why things are in the places they are and how things change over time. That quickly becomes much more exciting than working on a single shot of some particular location and then moving on to the next."
Much of your work has focused on military analysis and conflict zones. Is there a particular conflict (or brewing conflict) that you feel people should be watching much more closely for developments in the months ahead?
"Perhaps the breaking point will not come in the next few months, but I believe the future will bring very interesting, if not dangerous, times for Somalia. Over the past decade, the government has made a lot of accomplishments, but when it comes to improving the security situation in the country and fighting back against al Shabaab, they are still completely dependent on the African Union peacekeeping forces deployed in the country. The Somali military has been getting better, and over the past few weeks we've seen some interesting raids conducted by them (and U.S. special operations forces in some cases), but they still have a long way to go before being able to carry the burden of Somalia's security challenges. The fact is, however, that the African Union peacekeepers won't be there forever, and from time to time we see concerns emerge from the different troop-contributing countries (such as the EU's decision to cut the budget for the Somalia mission). One of those tiny cracks in the commitment to the operation in Somalia could eventually cause it to fall apart. One would hope it doesn't, but considering the resilience al Shabaab has demonstrated, I think it's fair to say that Somalia is not out of the woods yet."