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Credit: MIT International Review

Did undergraduate students pinpoint Bin Laden in 2009? A paper published in the MIT International Review indicates that they might have.

This story may well be a classic in the history of the war against terrorism and it is a compelling example of how students learning in the classroom can contribute to important, real-world problems involving human rights.

From ScienceInsider:

The bin Laden tracking idea began as a project in an undergraduate class on remote sensing that Gillespie {UCLA geographer}, 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.

And….

In the end, they zeroed in on a Pakistani border town called Parachinar which has, among other things, access to medical care. Then they predicted the exact building he would be in by making assumptions as to the characteristics of the building itself, such as high enough ceilings to accommodate bin Laden’s 6’4″ frame, a fence, privacy, and electricity.

The undergraduates did such a nice job on the project, Gillespie says, that he wrote the results up as a paper and submitted it to a small journal, MIT International Review. The next day, he was shocked to find his inbox full of requests for interviews from everyone from USA Today to Sean Hannity. (He declined the latter.)

The paper’s precise predictions were treated with some skepticism by other researchers, who said the authors were overconfident in predicting the terrorist’s hidey hole down to specific buildings. Gillespie says that one of its weaknesses was a lack of hard data on bin Laden’s location, last known in 2001. As to intelligence agencies’ taking interest in his work, “I didn’t hear from them, didn’t expect to. But they obviously did a pretty good job,” he says.

Gillespie says he was surprised to hear bin Laden ended up being only 268 km away from his last known location, but not surprised that he was in a town. “Caves are cold, and you can’t see people walking up to them,” he says.

Still, the late Al Qaeda leader made a bad choice of real estate, in Gillespie’s opinion. “An inconspicuous house would have suited him better.”

Finding bin Laden’s deputies–the terrorist mastermind is said to be only one of 40 “high-value” targets the Pentagon seeks–is not on Gillespie’s to-do list. “Right now, I’m working on the dry forests of Hawaii where 45% of the trees are on the endangered species list,” says Gillespie. “I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list.”

Comments

  1. #1 Karen
    May 4, 2011

    …and it is a compelling example of how highly privileged students, who’ve always had all the resources they needed to develop in their lives, learning in a very well funded classroom like this one, with all the best resources and tools they could possibly ask for because they were given them mostly for previously possessing a high level of privilege, can contribute to important, real-world problems involving human rights.

    Fixed that for ya.

  2. #2 James
    May 4, 2011

    Oooh, saucer of milk for Karen at table 3!

  3. #3 Sven DiMilo
    May 4, 2011

    “I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list.”

    more power to Gillespie

    Karen: How much do you know about UCLA?

    James: lol, really.

  4. #4 Mark Hamm
    May 12, 2011

    They detected a location 166 miles away from where OBL was found. Had the President sent in Seal Team 6 based on this ‘analysis’, he would’ve been out of office faster than James Earl Carter, Jr.