Drawing a Bull's-Eye on Bin Laden's Lair

Times Staff Writer

Somewhere deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in a cave. Intelligence operatives, military commandos, bounty hunters and journalists hunt him.

On the brow of a hill surrounded by strip malls, John F. Shroder Jr. is holed up in a cramped office at the University of Nebraska. The FBI, the Pentagon, mercenaries and CNN want him. He, too, is trying to keep the world at bay.

Earlier this fall, Shroder--a distinguished but obscure academic with unparalleled knowledge of Afghanistan's geography--became an internationally sought-after expert. With firsthand knowledge of Afghan caves and mountains, this harried college professor may be capable of pinpointing the lair of the world's most notorious terrorist.

He is not sure his life will ever be the same.

He points to a red light on the beige phone on his desk. The light is on and has been for weeks. "I had to turn down Peter Jennings last night," Shroder said, sighing and sinking into a chair. "I just don't have time anymore."

Since American military action began in Afghanistan, Shroder has been deluged. The affable scientist spent two decades in Afghanistan, barely escaping after he was accused of being a spy. His trove of precise and detailed maps--of interest only to scholars before the September terrorist attacks--are now the coin of the realm in one of the most remote, least-mapped countries in the world. The satellite photos and detailed locations of bridges, tunnels and oil pipelines are considered so sensitive that the FBI told Shroder to take all such images off the university's Web site.

"They told me, 'You guys have made yourselves a little too vulnerable,' " he said. Now, the nondescript room Shroder and his team use to assemble and analyze maps of Afghanistan has been secured: digital locks and 24-hour audio and video surveillance. "I'm now a worldwide target."

He's already hit the bull's-eye targeting Bin Laden. When the Arab television news network Al Jazeera taped Bin Laden making his first post-Sept. 11 statement, the best anyone could say of Bin Laden's whereabouts was that he was somewhere in Afghanistan.

Shroder, watching the news at home, turned to his wife and said, "I know where he is."

At least he had an idea. Visible in the limestone wall behind Bin Laden was a gouged-out depression dug by a burrowing animal or a gem hunter. That gave Shroder a hint of the region.

Later CNN gave Shroder an enhanced copy of the complete tape. It revealed that the camera operator did not turn off the camera while he removed it from the tripod. As he tilted the camera up, the outline of the top of the ravine was caught on two frames.

Armed with this new information, Shroder was able to place Bin Laden in a province in the south.

The scientist later worked with U.S. officials and identified the location of a military bunker based on photographs of the terrain above it. He is familiar with the location of underground irrigation tunnels, called karez, in which a person could easily hide.

Despite the obscurity of his specialty, it didn't take long for the world to find Shroder. Soon, the 62-year-old professor was all over television, on the radio and in newspapers around the world. Various government agencies either want Shroder to help or warn him to keep quiet. Reporters clamor for interviews. People from around the world e-mailed him, asking where Bin Laden is or sending photographs of caves and tunnels they say will aid in his capture.

Ron Abler, executive director of the American Assn. of Geographers, has known Shroder for 20 years and said his risky work in Afghanistan is legendary among his peers.

"I think it's a great accomplishment," Abler said. "Particularly given the isolation of the place. Mapping Afghanistan is challenging both for its ruggedness and the local conditions. So his maps are very valuable. And excellent."

It's one thing to be known in the world of geography and geology. It's another to be suddenly known by the world. The attention has been double-edged.

His recent celebrity has engendered good-natured ribbing from colleagues. The outside of Shroder's office door resembles the front of most American refrigerators with its blizzard of cartoons, funny photos and yellowed clippings. There, too, is a mock-up of the magazine Soldier of Fortune, displaying a prominent photograph of Shroder making an off-color remark regarding Bin Laden.

The demands on his time are tearing at Shroder. He regretfully dispatches a graduate student to teach a class and says he's neglecting his research and his consulting business. His wife is scared to death, he says, and weary of answering the 50 calls a day to their home.

Stress is exacting a physical toll. Shroder needs medication to sleep. The images of the Afghan war bring back terrifying memories of the end of his stay in Afghanistan, when he was accused of being a spy, kept under house arrest in Kabul and interrogated for three months.

In those last frenzied days, Shroder saved his maps and photographs by loading his fieldwork onto his cook's back and his cook onto a bicycle. Then he directed the bewildered man to pedal as fast as he could to the American Embassy.

Tall and lean with a trim mustache, the Vermonter has been steeped in all things Afghan since 1972, when a colleague talked him into applying for grants to map the then uncharted country.

"He knew my proclivities for tramping all over the world," said Shroder, who came to Omaha after two years working in Africa. "He told me Afghanistan was a 'wild, wild place.' That did it for me.

"He said: 'There aren't any scientists, you'd go nuts there.' He was right. Every time I looked out the window I had a new scientific paper. It was a scientific gold mine."

And a political morass. When Shroder arrived in 1973 he had free run and was embraced in small villages where there was little enmity toward Americans.

"We'd walk into a village and the translator would say, 'I have a big official from the West. He would like to speak to the village elders, if possible.' They'd take me to their best building, feed me, then the elders would come and see what I was up to. They regarded maps as spy tools."

As did the invading Soviets, who also wanted Shroder's extensive photographs of pipelines, bridges and industrial complexes, which they considered military secrets. War has historically rendered even the most innocuous maps militarily sensitive.

"Risk has always been part of the field geographer's work," said Abler, of the American Assn. of Geographers. "Jack is kind of a throwback. He's of a breed that does his work in the field and not in the laboratory. There are limits to technology. You do need muddy boots."

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