UCLA Geographers Tried To Calculate Bin Laden's Whereabouts In 2009

May 4, 2011

There's a fascinating story in Science Magazine about two UCLA geographers who tried to predict Osama bin Laden's location in 2009. Professors Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, with the help of undergraduates, published a paper in February, 2009 saying they believed there was an 88.9% chance bin Laden was hiding in a city less than 200 miles from his last known location.

They picked the Pakistani border town of Parachinar. That's because it has medical care and buildings with high ceilings - important to the 6'4" tall bin Laden. Gillespie told Science Magazine he's not surprised the al-Qaida leader avoided caves: 'Caves are cold, and you can't see people walking up to them', he said.

Bin Laden actually turned up much further east, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but many of the geographers' comparisons of his 'Life History Characteristics' with his physical needs hit the mark, such as a tall building, electricity for medical needs, rooms for a small number of body guards and walls for privacy.

Gillespie and Agnew used the theory of 'island biogeography' to make their predictions. 'The theory was basically that if you're going to try and survive, you're going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town," Gillespie says. 'We hypothesized he wouldn't be in a small town where people could report on him.'

The Science report says the geographers were criticized because they were overconfident by picking a building bin Laden could be hiding inside. Gillespie notes his class didn't have access to secret information and did the best with what information they had - and that was pretty good.

Ultimately he says, bin Laden picked a bad house to live in: 'An inconspicious house would have suited him better.' Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.