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

The million-dollar bin Laden compound is surrounded by 20-foot walls and fortified by two feet of razor-wire fencing. It's in  Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's premier army training center. i

The million-dollar bin Laden compound is surrounded by 20-foot walls and fortified by two feet of razor-wire fencing. It's in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's premier army training center. Sajid Mehmood/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sajid Mehmood/NPR
The million-dollar bin Laden compound is surrounded by 20-foot walls and fortified by two feet of razor-wire fencing. It's in  Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's premier army training center.

The million-dollar bin Laden compound is surrounded by 20-foot walls and fortified by two feet of razor-wire fencing. It's in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's premier army training center.

Sajid Mehmood/NPR

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. And their work signaled there was about a 90 percent chance bin Laden was hiding in a city less than 200 miles from his last known location (the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan).

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 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 inconspicuous house would have suited him better.'

Note: We've got a call out to Professor Gillespie for further details. There's an important update from Science Magazine. The professors' model predicts the probability of the al-Qaida's founder turning up within a geographic radius of his last known location. It doesn't necessarily mean a particular city, although the geographers focused on one.

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