Supercrunching Geographers Predicted in 2008 that there was a 88.9% chance that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan

May 3rd, 2011

Science Magazine reports:

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.”