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This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End

Can the science of biogeography find Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden, the FBI's most wanted terrorist, has proved an extremely elusive quarry. Could biology and geography help crack the case—and net the man with a $25-million bounty on his head for plotting numerous terrorist strikes?

Two geography professors and five of their undergraduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.), recently published an analysis (pdf) in MIT International Review proposing that biogeographic theories, in conjunction with readily available mapping data, could help pinpoint the al-Qaeda leader's whereabouts, assuming he's still alive. Their "musing" over this possibility, the researchers wrote, led them to three buildings in Parachinar in Pakistan, where they believe bin Laden may be holed up.

They fingered the spots based on two theories on the distribution of biological species. One of them, the so-called distance-decay theory, states that the similarity and correlation between species at two locations decreases as the distance between them increases. As such, the geographers figure bin Laden can't have gone far—he is believed to have fled Afghanistan's Tora Bora region at the end of 2001—if he wished to remain on similar terrain in a familiar cultural environment.

Island biogeography, the other tool in the team's theoretical analysis, posits that large, closely spaced pockets of life (islands) support more species and are less ravaged by extinction than small, isolated islands. With cities standing in for islands, the researchers speculate that bin Laden would most likely hide out in a large town with minimal isolation, because even though there's more risk of being spotted he would also have access to resources needed to stay alive as well as under cover.

These theories, they say, point to Parachinar in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Within the town, whose relative populousness was determined by its nighttime glow, the U.C.L.A. group identified three structures that best fit a list of characteristics that might be necessary for bin Laden, based on his height (believed to be 6'4" to 6'6"), his requirements for security and privacy, and his possible need for dialysis (to filter waste from blood, a process normally done by kidneys, but bin Laden's are rumored to be damaged), which would require electrification. At the very least, the study's authors write, U.S. intelligence agencies should closely monitor Parachinar and the three suspect buildings to disprove their hypotheses, perhaps refining the predictions in the process.

A geographic information systems (GIS) scientist we contacted, who asked to remain anonymous at the request of his employer, says that in theory, "spatial models of some sort could be used with the latest technology to predict" bin Laden's whereabouts. But he added quickly that "whether or not the predictions of such models are valid is another matter."

Distance-decay and island biogeography theories, the GIS scientist adds, "were developed for purposes of understanding the distribution of species, not the movements of individuals." Another problem with the U.C.L.A. team's approach is that it is untested, he says: "Why didn't the authors use historical information on bin Laden's whereabouts to both train and test the models?"

In a rebuttal to the U.C.L.A. paper published on the MIT International Review Web site, Murtaza Haider, a retail management professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the authors omitted several key details from their analysis, most notably pertinent political or historical context.

"Since I am from the Northwest Frontier Province," Haider wrote, "I find it a little odd that Osama may be hiding in the only Shiite majority town in the entire tribal region of Pakistan"—al-Qaeda is an extremist Sunni group.

The study's authors "may have used spatial analysis to determine the probable hideout of Osama," he said, but "they certainly overlooked history and anthropology, which would have explained the gory sectarian rivalries between the Shiites of Parachinar and the Sunni supporters of Osama bin Laden."

By the way, if bin Laden was hiding out in any of those places, chances are he isn't anymore: the researchers put out a press release on their findings for all—including bin Laden's Web-savvy supporters—to read. The researchers did share their paper with the FBI before submitting it for publication, and an FBI spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that the information had been passed on to people working the case.

Photo of Afghanistan/Pakistan border by talkradionews on Flickr

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