Where's bin Laden? Science may hold the answer
A research team led by geographer Thomas Gillespie of the University of California-Los Angeles used geographic analytical tools that have been successful in locating urban criminals and endangered species.
Basing their conclusion on nighttime satellite images and other techniques, the scientists suggest bin Laden may well be in one of three compounds in Parachinar, a town 12 miles from the Pakistan border. The research incorporates public reports of bin Laden's habits and whereabouts since his flight from the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in 2001.
The results, reported in the MIT International Review, are being greeted with polite but skeptical interest among people involved in the hunt for bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader behind 9/11. Bin Laden's whereabouts are considered "one of the most important political questions of our time," the study notes.
"I've never really believed the sitting-in-a-cave theory. That's the last place you would want to be bottled up," Gillespie says. The study's real value, he says, is in combining satellite records of geographic locations, patterns of nighttime electricity use and population-detection methods to produce a technique for locating fugitives.
Essentially, the study generates hiding-place location probabilities. It starts with "distance decay theory," which holds that the odds are greater that the person will be found close to where he or she was last seen.
Then the researchers add the "island biographic theory," which maintains that locales with more resources — palm trees for tropical birds and electricity for wealthy fugitives — are likelier to draw creatures of interest.
"Island biographic theory suggests bin Laden would end up in the biggest and least isolated city of the region," Gillespie says, one among about 26 towns within a 20-mile distance of Tora Bora.
"To really improve the model, you would need to include intelligence data from 2001 to 2006," Gillespie says. "It has been eight years. Honestly, I think it is time to be more open. This is a very important issue for the public."
The study also makes assumptions that bin Laden might need:
• Medical treatment, requiring electricity in an urban setting.
• Security combining few bodyguards and isolation that requires a walled compound.
• Tree cover to shield outdoor activities from aircraft.
"Of course, it all depends on the accuracy of the information on most recent whereabouts," Gillespie says. "I assume that the military has more recent information that would change the hiding place probabilities."
Says geographic-profiling expert Kim Rossmo of Texas State University in San Marcos, who has worked with the military on adapting police procedures for finding criminals to counterterrorism: "It's important to think outside the box, and this is an innovative idea worth more pursuit. However, the authors are much too certain of their conclusions.
"The idea of identifying three buildings in a city of half a million — especially one in a country the authors have likely never visited — is somewhat overconfident."
The researchers contacted the FBI with their findings, and USA TODAY asked Defense Department officials for reaction, before publication of the study.
"The combination of physical terrain, socio-cultural gravitational factors and the physical characteristic of structures are all important factors in developing an area limitation for terror suspects," say John Goolgasian of the federal National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Bethesda, Md. His spy satellite agency "looks forward to reviewing the article once it is published."
Gillespie is an expert on finding endangered species on remote islands, typically birds. A co-author, UCLA's John Agnew, is an expert on satellite-based population estimates. The study grew out of an undergraduate seminar on applying geographic profiling to real-world problems.
"We are all wondering where bin Laden is hiding," Gillespie says. "We just wanted to offer the techniques we have to help."