Using GIS to Pinpoint Osama bin Laden

Caitlin Dempsey


So, was this paper from 2009 right in pinpointing the location of Osama bin Laden?  The paper predicted that Osama bin Laden could be found in “one of three buildings in the northwest Pakistan town of Parachinar.”  The predicted location was ultimately located 500 km (~310 miles) from the actual location of  where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottābad, Pakistan.

Chris Barth of Forbes does a great job breaking down and explaining the individual parts of the analyses done to narrow down a predicted location for Osama bin Laden (unlike this misleading article: Geographers Had Calculated 89% Chance That Osama Was in Abbottabad).

Update:  Mashable has map screen shots and imagery of Osama bin Laden’s Compound.  The NY Times also posted their own map of where  Osama bin Laden was killed.  Oogle Earth also has a post about “Finding Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad mansion with Google Earth“.

Original post from February 17, 2009:

Can principles of biogeography lead to the location of Osama bin Laden?  Two professors of geography at UCLA (one of whom was my office mate during graduate school) along with some undergraduates believe so.  In a paper published in MIT’s International Review entitled “Finding bin Laden“, Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew lay out using the theories of distance-decay theory, island biogeography theory, and life history characteristics along with remote sensing to pinpoint the probable location of Osama bin Laden.

From UCLA’s press release:

We believe our work represents the first scientific approach to establishing bin Laden’s current location,” said John A. Agnew, study co-author and UCLA geography professor. “The methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained by the U.S. intelligence community.”

The theories of distance-decay and island biogeography were used to isolate the general area where bin Laden could be island.  Then information about his height, medical requirements and personal needs was used to filter out thousands of buidings to identify probable buildings where he could be hiding.

The locational information used in the study is dated and only pinpoints the probable location of Osama bin Laden at the end of 2001.

Read more:

Finding bin Laden (PDF) – MIT International Review
UCLA geographers urge U.S. to search 3 structures in Pakistan for bin Laden – UCLA Press Release
Structure Locations of Possible Hiding Spots of Osama Bin Laden, Parachinar, Pakistan, 2009 – GeoCommons


Osama bin Laden Compound Mapping and Imagery

The sudden news of Osama bin Laden’s death in a firefight at his custom built compound in Abbottābad, Pakistan led to a rush of neogeographers to pinpoint and map out the exact location of the compound on Google Maps.  

Osha Gray Davidson of Forbes has a timeline of the trial and error efforts on Google Maps and Google Earth to correctly identify the compound’s exact location:  Mapping Osama Bin Laden.  Part of the issue complicating the efforts to tag the location was the age of the imagery available in the area.  Until today, the imagery in use for the area dated back to 2001 and the compound hadn’t been built yet.  

ZDNet also has a slideshow of the mapping confusion: Where on Google Earth was Osama bin Laden? (screenshots)

The final mapping effort can be viewed here.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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2 thoughts on “Using GIS to Pinpoint Osama bin Laden”

  1. Oh this would be AMAZING to find out! Its amazing what GIS can do ….side note I had Prof. Agnew 🙂

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