UCLA class project: Find Bin Laden

UCLA geographers think they have a good idea where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been hiding.

Using standard geographical tools routinely employed to locate endangered species and fugitive criminals, the group said there is a high probability that Bin Laden has been hiding in one of three buildings in the northwestern Pakistani city of Parachinar, a longtime hide-out for mujahedin fighters.

“He may be sitting there right now,” said UCLA biogeographer Thomas W. Gillespie, who led the study published online Tuesday in the MIT International Review, an interdisciplinary journal of international affairs.

Gillespie said he and his students contacted the FBI’s local field office -- walking distance from the Westwood campus -- before publishing their paper, but they haven’t heard back.


Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Los Angeles bureau, said the information was forwarded to two people working on the case, but “because it is an active investigation, it would not be appropriate” to comment on the information’s fate.

The study relies on two geographic principles used to predict the distribution of wildlife. The first, known as distance-decay theory, holds that as an animal -- or person -- moves farther away from its preferred habitat, the probability of finding a compatible environment decreases exponentially.

The second principle, called island biogeographic theory, holds that the animal or person is most likely to move into the largest, closest area that can fulfill all its needs.

Gillespie and his students started with a satellite map centered on Bin Laden’s last known location, in Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. The group eliminated areas in Afghanistan because they were under the control of U.S. forces at the time of Bin Laden’s disappearance. Then the group evaluated the cities and towns in the remaining territory and calculated the likelihood that Bin Laden would have relocated to them.

They concluded that he must have trekked nearly 2 miles over mountainous terrain to the Pakistani tribal area of Kurram and settled in Parachinar, the largest city in the region, with a population of half a million.

The class zeroed in further by searching satellite images for buildings with walls at least 10 feet high (for safety), at least three rooms (to house Bin Laden’s bodyguards) and electricity (to power his kidney dialysis machine), among other features.

The sleuths settled on two compounds that are thought to be residences, and a third, with crenelated towers on the corners, that may be a prison or an army officers club.

“You develop a testable hypothesis that can be accepted or rejected just like in any other type of science,” Gillespie said. In this case, the testing would require checking the buildings to see who is there. Getting that ground truth “is the hardest part,” he said.

Such geographic profiling techniques have been used to capture lesser criminals, including Raymond Lopez, who committed 139 burglaries in Orange County between 2003 and 2005, said Kim Rossmo, director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation at Texas State University.

The approach might also help identify general regions where investigators should search for America’s most-wanted terrorist, though not necessarily the specific buildings pinpointed in the study.

“This is a paper that should be paid attention to by the military and intelligence agencies for some of the ideas,” Rossmo said. “But it’s not going to be a case of, ‘X marks the spot, there’s Osama bin Laden.’ ”

One conclusion the group is fairly confident about is that Bin Laden is not living in a cave. A cave would have to have a sealed entrance, be heated and ventilated, and have supplies trucked in regularly. Those physical manifestations could be easily detected from space, they said.