Where’s bin Laden? Science may hold the answer

By | February 19, 2009

blisdeadFugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding out in a walled compound in a Pakistani border town, according to a satellite-aided geographic analysis released today.

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.

This is a "distance decay theory" map suggesting the likelihood that Osama bin Laden is located in a given region. The center is Tora Bora, Afghanistan, where bin Laden was last seen in public. The theory is that elusive species, and people, hide closer to their last known locale.<BR><BR>Geographers drew circles 6.1 miles apart, a day's walking distance, over a mosaic of satellite images. They contend that the farther away from Tora Bora, the less likely it is that bin Laden is there. In addition to the map, the analysis factors in local town information, patterns of nighttime electrical use and bin Laden's known characteristics.“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.” … – usatoday

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