Tag Archives: Bin Laden

Using Data to Find Bin Laden

Map picture

Where they thought he was and where he was.

Great piece — Geographers Had Predicted Osama’s Possible Whereabouts – ScienceInsider (thanks Daily Kos- Geographers predict Osama’s location) which tells the story of Thomas Gillespie, a UCLA geographer

who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates, authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night.

Here’s their original paper: web.mit.edu-mitir-2009-online-finding-bin-laden.pdf. It’s not as if these guys identified the town correctly (and the Science article has had to backtrack on some of its original assertions and the comments aren’t kind), but they got a lot of things right: They figured out he was much likely to be in a house than a cave, and in a relatively large town rather than a village, and that he was in Pakistan rather than somewhere else. They also predicted the kind of building he would be living in. In the end they were less than 300 km off.

Not bad, when you look at what the CIA was saying about him before (of course, they may have been trying to put people off the scent, but we know that it was only earlier this year that they had an idea he might be in the house:

Osama bin Laden’s Death on Twitter

(Updated timeline to include subsequent accounts)

There was, by all accounts, no Internet or phone access to Bin Laden’s compound. Had there been, might he have known about the attack in advance from social media?

This depends on what was being said on twitter, and when. Although lots of people in Pakistan are on Facebook, twitter would have been more useful. There’s no clear timeline yet about when the US launched its attack on the compound. But had Osama’s people been monitoring the keyword ‘abbottabad’ (or people who had previously mentioned the word), which would have been smart, they would have known that something was afoot:

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notice that ReallyVirtual’s tweets are half an hour before the first news reports of the crash. His first is at 00:58 am local time:

twitter guy

his second seven minutes later:

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But would that have been sufficient warning?

Almost certainly not. By then the operation was already over, I believe. Here’s the timeline as best as I can figure (all times are Pakistan time, i.e. GMT +5, tweets come from ReallyVirtual unless stated):

00:00 (just past) Seal helicopter take off from Islamabad?
In Pakistan, it was just past midnight on Monday morning, and the Americans were counting on the element of surprise. As the first of the helicopters swooped in at low altitudes, neighbors heard a loud blast and gunshots (NYT)
00:35 ISL 5/2/11 First helicopters arrive on the scene, according to Pakistan news blog
NYT puts it, logically, a little bit earlier, as it called it a 40 minute raid)
00:32 Obama returns to the Situation Room for additional briefing. (Timeline- The Raid On Osama Bin Laden’s Hideout – NPR)
00:50 Obama first learns that bin Laden was tentatively identified. Shortly after the raid, Pakistani leaders are briefed of the actions. (NPR)
00:58 Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
01:05 Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/
? One of their helicopters stalled and could not take off. Rather than let it fall into the wrong hands, the commandos moved the women and children to a secure area and blew up the malfunctioning helicopter. (NYT)
01:09 A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S
01:10 As they took off at 1:10 a.m. local time, taking a trove of documents and computer hard drives from the house, the Americans left behind the women and children. A Pakistani official said nine children, from 2 to 12 years old, are now in Pakistani custody. (NYT)
01:30 Pakistan News: Helicopter Crashed in Abbottabad, Pakistan (story here, appears about a minute earlier)
   
01:30 No one is picking phone in Abbottabad, not even the landlines. (m0chin)
01:38 Just talked to family in Abbottabad, say they heard three blasts one after another, don’t know what really happened. (m0chin)
01:43 Hello sir, any update on the blasts? What has really happened? (m0chin)
   
01:44 all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too… the helicopter is gone too.
01:45 OMG :S Bomb Blasts in Abbottabad.. I hope everyone is fine :(  (han3yy)

Here’s a timeline courtesy of tiki-toki:

Seems that despite the fact that twitter broke news of the attack, the guys in the compound wouldn’t have been any better of if they’d been following it.