Moral Low Ground


U.C.L.A. Undergrads Predicted Bin Laden’s Exact Location in 2009

A class of undergraduate geography students at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) accurately predicted the exact location of the late Osama bin Laden back in 2009, Digital Trends reports. The students, led by professors Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, utilized satellite imagery and scientific geographic theories to create a model which gave an 89.9% probability that the former al-Qaeda chief was hiding out in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan. That was lower than the 98% probability assigned to the city of Parchinar, Pakistan– 300 miles west of Abbottabad, but the students’ prediction is remarkable nonetheless.

The class used the geographic theories of “distance-decay” and “island biogeography,” usually used to track endangered species, to pinpoint where they believed bin Laden was hiding. They explain:

“Distance-decay theory and island biogeography theory are two biogeographic theories associated with the distribution of life and extinction that can be used to identify the location of bin Laden at global and regional spatial scales. Distance-decay theory states that as one goes further away from a precise location, there is an exponential decline in the turnover of species and a lower probability of finding the same composition of species (5-7). The theory of island biogeography states that large and close islands will have higher immigration rates and support more species with lower extinction rates than small isolated islands (8-9).

“These theories can be applied over varying spatial scales to posit bin Laden’s current location based on his last reputed geographic location. Distance-decay theory would predict that he is closest to the point where he was last reported and, by extension, within a region that has a similar physical environment and cultural composition (that is, similar religious and political beliefs).”

The students also used information about bin Laden, such as his towering height, his last known location and data about his past hideouts to draw conclusions. They predicted he would be hiding in a high- walled compound in a large town, for example.

“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 told Science Insider. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report him.”

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