Could Osama bin Laden have been found faster if the CIA had followed the advice of ecosystem geographers from the University of California, Los
Angeles? Probably not, but the predictions of UCLA geographer Thomas Gillespie, who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates,
authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. 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 last night.
The bin Laden tracking idea began as a project in an undergraduate class on remote sensing that Gillespie, whose expertise is using remote sensing data
from satellites to study ecosystems, taught in 2009. Based on information from satellites and other remote sensing systems, and reports on his
movements since his last known location, the students created a probabilistic model of where he was likely to be. Their prediction of a town was based
on a geographical theory called “island biogeography”: basically, that a species on a large island is much less likely to go extinct
following a catastrophic event than a species on a small one.
“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.”
“It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff,” he says. “But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can
be used to do this.”
In the end, they zeroed in on a Pakistani border town called Parachinar which has, among other things, access to medical care. Then they predicted the
exact building he would be in by making assumptions as to the characteristics of the building itself, such as high enough ceilings to accommodate bin
Laden’s 6’4” frame, a fence, privacy, and electricity.
The undergraduates did such a nice job on the project, Gillespie says, that he wrote the results up as a paper and submitted it to a small journal, MIT International Review. He was shocked to see the media attention the paper garnered from outlets
ranging from USA Today to Sean Hannity. (He declined the latter.)
The paper’s precise predictions were treated with some skepticism by other researchers, who said the authors were overconfident in predicting the
terrorist’s hidey hole down to specific buildings. Gillespie says that one of its weaknesses was a lack of hard data on bin Laden’s
location, last known in 2001. As to intelligence agencies’ taking interest in his work, “I didn’t hear from them, didn’t expect
to. But they obviously did a pretty good job,” he says.
Gillespie says he was surprised to hear bin Laden ended up being only 268 km away from his last known location, but not surprised that he was in a
town. “Caves are cold, and you can’t see people walking up to them,” he says.
Still, the late Al Qaeda leader made a bad choice of real estate, in Gillespie’s opinion. “An inconspicuous house would have suited him
Finding bin Laden’s deputies—the terrorist mastermind is said to be only one of 40 “high-value” targets the Pentagon seeks—is
not on Gillespie’s to-do list. “Right now, I’m working on the dry forests of Hawaii where 45% of the trees are on the endangered
species list,” says Gillespie. “I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list.”
*This item has been corrected. The figure initially reported was incorrect; the model predicted a 88.9% probability given the distance. Also, the model only predicts the probability of his being within a geographic radius of his last known location, not a specific city. The article has been corrected to reflect this fact.
The story also implied that USA Today had contacted Gillespie
after the article published; the paper had interviewed him a year before.