Tracking Bin Laden: UCLA Students Were on the Case

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Bin Laden Toy

Flickr: Steve Isaacs

What does our money go when we fund California's public universities? Potentially we're training the next generation of global sleuths... the kind who could track down a wanted Al Qaeda leader.

In 2009 UCLA Geography professors Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew assigned their students the job of answering the question: Where is Osama bin Laden? The students and their profs made use of some technical biogeographic theories and publicly available satellite images to figure out where bin Laden might have holed up after slipping out of the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001.

An item on the website of the magazine Science noted yesterday:

According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed....

The students focused especially on the city of Parachinar, closer to the Afghan border. But they did predict that he was more likely to be living in a walled house with electricity than in a cave, and that he was probably in a city, rather than a village.

Gillespie and Agnew were so pleased with the students' work that they wrote up the findings and published the paper in the journal MIT International Review.

At the time, Gillespie described the theoretical models the group employed:

Inspired by distance-decay theory, the seven-member team started by drawing concentric circles around Tora Bora on a satellite map of the area at a distance of 10 kilometers — or 6.1 miles — apart.
 
"The farther bin Laden moves from his last reported location into the more secular parts of Pakistan or into India, the greater the probability that he will be in an area with a different cultural composition, thereby increasing the probability of his being captured or eliminated," Gillespie said.
 
Then, informed by island biogeographic theory, the researchers scoured the rings for "city islands" — or distinctly separate settlements of considerable size.
 
"Island biology theory predicts that he would find his way to the largest but least isolated city of that area," said Gillespie, an authority on measuring and modeling biodiversity on Earth from space. "If you get stuck on an island, you would want it to be Hawaii rather than one with a single palm tree. It's a matter of resources."

Typically Thomas Gillespie uses those geographical theories to study plants and animals in biodiversity hotspots around the globe, or as he told Science, "I'm far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list."

So if Gillespie's students don't follow fellow Californian Leon Panetta into the CIA, perhaps they'll put their geography skills to work protecting ecosystems.

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