HomeNews & PublicationsFeatured StoriesUsing Gaming to Explore Threats in the Horn of Africa 

April 18, 2012

Using Gaming to Explore Threats in the Horn of Africa


The Horn of Africa—a peninsula in East Africa that includes the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia—is quickly becoming an epicenter of the U.S. war on terrorism. Widespread famine and under-governed parts of the region have given rise to maritime piracy and human trafficking. Insurgent elements—particularly in war-torn Somalia—have aligned with al-Qaeda to conduct suicide operations, plot assassinations, and threaten attacks on the United States.

In January, a National Security Analysis Department (NSAD) team traveled to Italy to run a competitive influence game designed to help U.S. Africa Command and its Army component, U.S. Army Africa, explore these growing threats and craft a strategic response.

APL has cultivated a reputation within the defense and intelligence communities for conducting war games that link strategic, operational, and tactical levels. NSAD has run scores of such games, both in APL's Warfare Analysis Laboratory and across the country. However, this was the first exercise conducted on foreign soil.

"These events are only as good as the people that attend," says team lead Kevin Ryan, "so we've started bringing the events to the combatant commands."

Competitive influence games help players assess threats that defy classic quantitative approaches, requiring more than discussions around a table, says Ryan. "If you invite the right subject-matter experts, break them into teams, give each team a set of objectives to accomplish, and provide software that can easily manage the process, you get a ton of value."

The Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG), which sponsored the exercise, selects an emerging threat to study each year. In 2011, it was the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda cell that has attracted jihadists from around the world. Analysts believe that the unity that has allowed al-Shabaab to gain control over more territory than any other Islamist organization except Hezbollah is actually breaking down amid growing drought and famine. The group's most radical leaders are targeting aid organizations delivering food and supplies, asserting that all Western organizations must be fought. But al-Shabaab members based in rural Somalia, where the hunger crisis has taken the biggest toll, want the food aid to be allowed in.

"Our game explored the consequences of a breakup of the al-Shabaab," Ryan explains. "The game is set in 2013 and assumes the factions still exist, each committed to its own ideology." Participants were divided into four teams: the U.S. military, U.S. diplomatic and aid groups, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda. The U.S. players' goal was to defeat al-Qaeda, isolate al-Shabaab, provide aid to Somalia, and see the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government established as the accepted sovereign government of Somalia.

"The participants left with a great deal of insight and lessons learned," Ryan says. "But the most important lesson for me was the trust and confidence I now feel in the team we bring to run one of these events. I know we can meet sponsor needs here or anywhere else in the world."

Ryan's team has a busy year ahead of it. In March, Ryan teamed up with NSAD's Maegen Nix and John Schloman to teach a class on assessing asymmetric threats at the NATO War College in Rome. This fall, the team will run another large competitive influence game for AWG in Jordan, this time focusing on threats in the Levant region, which comprises most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.