What Geographers Can Teach Us About Counterterrorism

Sara Reardon brings us the amazing true tale of the geography professor who predicted Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad:

[T]he 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 80.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night. And they correctly predicted that he would be in a large town, not a cave.

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.”

Not only is that a great story, but it further highlights the problems with the safe haven myth, the idea that it’s crucially important for the United States to exercise physical control over rural Afghanistan to prevent terrorists from gathering there. For one thing, a terrorist in rural Afghanistan is, by definition, not in the United States. It’s also hard to get from rural Afghanistan to the United States. And it’s difficult to communicate with people who aren’t in rural Afghanistan. It’s also, as Gillespie says, relatively likely that people will know what you’re up to. And in the scheme of things, it’s easier to be spotted by spy satellites and the like. As Gillespie says, one of Bin Laden’s big mistakes seems to have been camping out in such a giant compound, “An inconspicuous house would have suited him better.” A guy in an apartment building in a big city is very hard to detect and, indeed, the 9/11 plot was predominantly hatched in Hamburg, Germany not Afghanistan.