Feb 23, 2009

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?

February 19, 2009

Foreign Policy, which is now edited by my friend Susan Glasser, has gussied up its Web site with some smart, newsy blogs—its transparent ambition is to become the Politico of the national-security set. (Full disclosure: When the New America Foundation moves its offices in D.C., next week, Foreign Policy will become our tenants, but I hasten to add, in the spirit of nonprofit-dom, that we are billing them at cost.) Anyway, it is only today that I am catching up with a post from earlier this week on their Passport blog entitled, enticingly, "Osama bin Laden's current location."

The post has some very cool satellite photographs created by a U.C.L.A. geography professor, Thomas Gillespie, who has published a paper in M.I.T. International Review that purports to use "biogeographic data," such as Bin Laden's last known location, cultural background, and other factors, "to create a mathematical model that he claims will show where the terror mastermind is hiding.


Gillespie's dot is likely in the right area, but the particular center of his concentric circles is not very convincing. First, his red dot is in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops and Special Forces hunting teams can operate freely, so that doesn't make much sense. Second, although Kurram is near Tora Bora (which is why the dot is there) the area has been pretty unstable of late; local Shia and Sunni tribes have been shelling one another, and sectarian tensions run high. Not a good place to hunker down.

The Christmas before last, I was given a book, published in Australia, called "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" It's a picture book, in the style of "Where's Waldo?," that hides Osama in dense fields of bearded men in Paris, Sydney, London, etc. If you adhere to scientific method, you have to admit that nobody can say with high confidence where Osama is. He seems to issue his media tapes from along the Pakistan-Afghan border, but that doesn't mean he's really there. Perhaps he's living on the Rive Gauche and DHL-ing his tapes to Pakistan in the greatest deception operation in terrorist history.

More recently, and more seriously, I've tried to develop a sort of parlor-game exercise when talking informally with government officials who have had access to classified information about Osama's whereabouts since 9/11. I ask them a question. Suppose someone came in the room right now and said, "We've found him" or "We've killed him." We tell the informant, "Great, but stop—don't tell us where." Next, put a map of the world up on the wall, perhaps with Pakistan and Afghanistan in greatest relief. Each of us takes a pin and puts it on the map in the place that we think is closest to the location where Osama has been discovered—closest to the true place wins. So I then ask my government acquaintances, "Where would you put your pin?"

A striking number say they would put their pin in Bajaur, the tribal agency located farthest to the north. There have been reports in the past of sightings of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Bajaur. Also, there was a sense, until recently, that among the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies, Bajaur was both well controlled by the Taliban and not much contested by the Pakistan Army. That has changed, however, as the Army recently has recently undertaken a ground-razing counterinsurgency campaign in Bajaur. If Osama was hunkered down there earlier, he may have moved.

I've stuck firmly to my own pin-placing hypothesis: Miran Shah, in North Waziristan. The argument against this guess is that the town and its environs are a relatively busy area with some Pakistan Army presence. The argument for it is that it's hardcore Taliban country controlled by the Haqqanni clan, which provided the territory and protection that Osama used to create Al Qaeda's very first training camps more than twenty years ago. Old friendships die hard in that part of the world.

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