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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Finding Osama Bin Laden: An Application of Biogeographic Theories and Satellite Imagery


One of the most important political questions of our time is: Where is Osama bin Laden? He is alleged to be responsible for inspiring and financing, if not exactly organizing, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the New York Trade Center and the Pentagon that resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people. We use biogeographic theories associated with the distribution of life and extinction (distance-decay theory, island biogeography theory, and life history characteristics) and remote sensing data (Landsat ETM+, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Defense Meteorological Satellite Program-Operational Linescan System, QuickBird) over three spatial scales (global, regional, local) to identify where bin Laden is most probably currently located. There is a 98% probability that he is in Kurram within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Northwest Pakistan based on distance-decay theory. Island biogeography theory based on “city islands” further predicts that he is in the largest and least isolated city of that area, Parachinar. A systematic search across 1-kilometer grids within Parachinar identified three buildings (N 33.901944° E 70.093746°, N 33.911694° E 70.0959°, N 33.888207° E 70.113308°) that match all six of bin Laden’s life history characteristics (for example, security, privacy, resources, and quality of life needs). We believe that our work involves the first scientific approach to establishing his current location. The methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained from the US intelligence community.

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