Scientists tackle the hunt for Bin Laden

11:05, 19 February 2009
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Researchers at ...

It`s a bit of a fixer-upper, and the neighbourhood can get awfully violent. But on the upside, there`s a $25-million finder`s fee, according to Globe and Mail.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have used a combination of publicly available data and scientific theories to pinpoint Osama bin Laden`s most likely hideout - taking a mystery that has stumped the Western world`s intelligence agencies and narrowing the location down to one of three houses in a northwest Pakistan tribal region.

The idea came to life as the UCLA geographers got talking about whether biogeographic theories they use to predict how plants and animals distribute themselves over space and over time could be used with satellite imagery to make a good guess as to where Mr. bin Laden might be.

"By bringing these methodologies to bear, it is our hope that a long overdue debate might bring bin Laden back to the fore of the public consciousness - and possibly to justice," geography professor and lead author Thomas Gillespie wrote in the study, published this week in the MIT International Review.

While it`s unlikely the researchers have pinpointed the world`s most wanted man, it`s a strong academic effort to tackle what has otherwise been an intelligence and military failure.

The scientists relied on a number of geography-based theories - usually used to predict the habits of animal species - to conduct their analysis. Distance-decay theory, for example, predicts that a subject is most likely to remain close to the point where it was last reported, and in an area with a similar physical composition - or, in the case of a wanted Islamic extremist, an area with a similar religious and cultural composition.

The researchers also employed island biogeographic theory, which predicts that Mr. bin Laden is more likely to end up in a larger town than a smaller one, where the extinction rate is higher.

Scientists used the location of Mr. bin Laden`s last known radio transmission - the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan - as the epicentre for a distance-decay map, and overlaid that map on known "city islands" to establish possible locations for the terrorist mastermind. Within those city islands, the researchers used Mr. bin Laden`s known characteristics to rule out improbable structures.

For example, at six feet, four inches tall, Mr. bin Laden requires high ceilings, the scientists reasoned. And if reports about his kidney damage are true, he needs electricity to keep his dialysis machine running.

Parachinar, a Pakistani city about 300 kilometres west of Islamabad, emerged as the most likely host. The city is located within the federally administered tribal areas, which are largely outside Pakistani government control, and has a history of hosting mujahedeen fighters. Using satellite imagery, the UCLA researchers identified three compounds that appear to closely match Mr. bin Laden`s requirements.

While it`s more a theoretical exercise than a terrorist-hunter`s map, the researchers` work may spur an influx of visitors to Parachinar, given that there is a $25-million reward for information leading to Mr. bin Laden`s capture.

While the bin Laden research is considered to be the first of its kind, the academic and intelligence worlds have a long history of collaboration. Security expert Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, pointed to a number of instances where U.S. intelligence agencies have turned to academics - ranging from LSD tests in the 1960s, which included Canadian researchers, to the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, when agents turned to mathematicians in hopes of developing a mathematical model that could screen legitimate information from the deluge of tips.

But when it comes to hunting someone down, intelligence agencies are much more likely to rely on techniques such as human sources and electronic surveillance, Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said.

"A lot of academics will fail because their analysis is rarely focused on the future, which is the raison d`être of the intelligence world," he said. "We want to focus on what will happen or what is about to happen."


Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?

Resesarchers in the geography department at UCLA applied biogeographic theories normally used to predict how plants and animals distribute themselves over space and over time to predict where Osama bin Laden is now.


Biogeographic theories used to predict Mr. bin Laden`s movements

Distance-decay theory

Predicts that he is closest to the point where he was last reported (within a region with similar religious and political beliefs). Different cultural surroundings would increase the probability of his being captured or eliminated.

Island theory, which roughly states that more species survive on bigger islands, predicts Mr. bin Laden is in a larger town rather than a smaller and more isolated town where the "extinction rate" would be higher.

Tora Bora

Mr. bin Laden was last heard from in a transmission Nov. 28, 2001


Largest city within likely range. Also has strongest "light footprint" at night, indicating prevalence of electricity


Two of the three buildings that, based on his history and characteristics, match Mr. bin Laden`s requirements

Tall building Mr. bin Laden is 6-foot-4. Many of the city`s structures would be too small

Electricity His dialysis machine requires a grid hookup or generator

Protection Walls over three metres high

Privacy Demonstrated desire for personal privacy requires space between structures

Body guards Retinue requires a building with more than three rooms

Cover Trees needed for protection from aerial view


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