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Science

UCLA Undergrads Were 80 Percent Sure Where Osama Bin Laden Was Hiding in 2009

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Thu, May 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM

click to enlarge Boink! Bin Laden. - MIT INTERNATIONAL REVIEW
  • MIT International Review
  • Boink! Bin Laden.
Updated after the jump: Professor Gillespie tells us more about his prediction system, which can be used on everyone from a Mexican drug lord to the rare Yangtze River dolphin. Sweet.

No joke: A class of undergraduate students at UCLA predicted way back in 2009 that Osama bin Laden, America's most-wanted terrorist for the last decade, was hiding in a non-cave on the border of Pakistan [Science Insider].

With the help of geography professor Thomas Gillespie, the students used "information from satellites and other remote sensing systems, and reports on his movements since his last known location" to come up with an 80.9 percent probability that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.

Navy SEALS and Wikileaks be damned -- why didn't we just sic a pack of Alexandra Wallaces on the Laden-ator from the beginning?

The strangest part is that Gillespie's prediction system -- which more or less allowed the class to do in months what took the U.S. government 10 years (granted, students didn't have the added pressure of attack strategy) -- was originally designed to calculate the ideal habitats of endangered birds.

"It's not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff," the professor tells the Science Insider. "But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this."

Awww. A February 2009 article in USA Today detailed the UCLA findings:

Essentially, the study generates hiding-place location probabilities. It starts with "distance decay theory," which holds that the odds are greater that the person will be found close to where he or she was last seen. ...

click to enlarge Regional analysis of city islands in Pakistan's [federally administrated tribal areas] using nightlight imagery" - MIT INTERNATIONAL REVIEW
  • MIT International Review
  • Regional analysis of city islands in Pakistan's [federally administrated tribal areas] using nightlight imagery"
"Of course, it all depends on the accuracy of the information on most recent whereabouts," Gillespie says. "I assume that the military has more recent information that would change the hiding place probabilities."

We recommend having your way with the entire 2009 report, published by the MIT International Review. Fascinating stuff, really.

Ironically, the exact location students predicted as Bin Laden's hiding spot -- a compound in the Pakistani border town of Parachinar -- may have been a better choice for the terror king, and perhaps would have prevented him from being discovered (and, well, obliterated) last weekend.

"An inconspicuous house would have suited him better," Gillespie told the Insider today.

Damn. When will we learn to listen to our geography professors?

Update: Science Insider has corrected its original post to say that the city of Abbottabad actually lay within the 88.9 percent-chance ring of the predictive map.

click to enlarge Gillespie, far from Abbottabad - UCLA
  • UCLA
  • Gillespie, far from Abbottabad
Many naysayers (read: holier-than-thou commenters) have suggested that the study was a pile of bologne, and that any numbskull could have guessed that Bin Laden was within 300 km of Tora Bora, where he was last heard from. One dude even made a map to show how far-off Professor Gillespie was. Now that's dedication!

But Gillespie says the biggest misunderstanding is in how the probability was calculated. He and his students located the most ideal hideout for somewhat of Bin Laden's description -- including his stature and his daily needs, down to the surrounding townspeople's degree of radicalism -- within any town in that border area of Pakistan.

In fact, the most ideal town they could find, Parachinar, would probably have been safer for a terrorist of his caliber.

And within Parachinar, the geography class pointed to a compound almost identical to the one where Osama was hiding in Abbottabad.

"The 88.9 percent was just from the global-scale analysis," says Gillespie. "There was a very fine local-scale analysis. We just sat down and tried to figure out, what does this person need? More than three rooms, walls at least three meters tall..."

Plus, he says, the satellite imagery available to him and the general public -- which only has "six-inch spectral resolution" -- is nothing compared to what the government has to work with: "bald spots, temperature, face recognition," etc. Add that to intel, and you've got yourself a well-oiled Osama-finding machine.

Earlier today, we spoke with former U.S. Army sergeant Mike Bruggink, who took his own private expedition to the Middle East in search of Bin Laden in April. (Don't worry, he'll get his own blog post later this afternoon. You won't believe this shit. Update: Here it is.) Bruggink said he was highly impressed with Gillespie's work, and says that, no matter how people speculate now, no one really had any clue where Bin Laden was before the government tracked down his courier.

"I really do think it's amazing," he says of the study.

So how can this endangered-species technology be used to catch more criminals?

The UCLA professor says finding smaller, local suspects would be hard, because there are privacy issues and too much arbitration, but he thinks Mexican drug lords -- likely dwelling in somewhat rural estates -- might be a good place to start.

Either that, or your car keys. Or, in the case of Gillespie's current students, the Yangtze River dolphin.

"It's no different than looking for someone on the Most Wanted list -- we figure out where we would most likely find the animal, or the plant," he says.

In any case, the Osama plant is now extinct. Time to move on to Enedina?

Originally posted May 2 at 6:40 p.m.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]

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