Like a lot of people, over the many years since Osama bin Laden lammed it from Tora Bora, I'd accepted the premise that he was probably holed up in the Af-Pak hinterlands, spelunking around inside some series of caves. So I'll admit to being taken aback when it was revealed that he was chillaxing in the Pakistani 'burbs in a massive mansion-compound that was constructed in 2005, a brisk walk away from Pakistan's military academy. Heck, according to Bloomberg News, bin Laden's minders were keeping him well-stocked with the finest in suburban creature comforts:
Bin Laden’s protectors “always bought the best brands -- Nestle milk, the good-quality soaps and shampoos,” Qaisar said. “They always paid cash, never asked for credit.” They purchased meat from a butcher nearby who stayed closed today, he said.
The guy was basically the radical terrorist version of a Bobo, for Pete's sake. But should we have suspected as much? Maybe, as it turns out!
Not to make too much of this, but it's interesting to dredge up the transcript of the October 3, 2008 edition of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." On that show, panelist Christiane Amanpour, who was then the chief international correspondent at CNN, alluded to a source who had suggested that bin Laden had stashed himself in a "nice comfortable villa" in Pakistan. Unfortunately, "Real Time" is a freewheeling, rambunctious panel show, so whatever significance the moment had was somewhat lost amid all the crosstalk.
Below is the relevant transcript section from that particular episode, which also featured actors Garry Shandling and Alec Baldwin. Some of the text has been bolded for emphasis.
SHANDLING: So, isn’t Osama bin Laden laughing his ass off? You’ve met him. Does he—he must be—
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] I haven’t met him. I wish I’d met him. I wish I had done an interview—
MAHER: [overlapping] By the way—
SHANDLING: [overlapping] I thought you did an interview.
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] No, I wish.
SHANDLING: [overlapping] Because he’s in a cave somewhere that—
BALDWIN: [overlapping] Somewhere he’s buying stock right now.
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] He’s not. I just talked to somebody very knowledgeable—
SHANDLING: [overlapping] Wait, she knows where Osama bin Laden is?
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] Well, she doesn’t think –- this woman, who is in America --
SHANDLING: [overlapping] Tell me.
MAHER: [overlapping] By the way, Sarah Palin --
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] -- thinks that he’s in a villa, a nice comfortable villa --
MAHER: [overlapping] Cabo?
AMANPOUR: [overlapping] -- in Pakistan. Not a cave. That’s all --
SHANDLING: [overlapping] Okay, because --
MAHER: [overlapping] By the way, Sarah Palin, if you noticed this, could not come up with his name.
SHANDLING: Well --
MAHER: [overlapping] She was trying to say Bin Laden –- "the al Qaeda gentleman” or whatever she said. [laughter] She could not come up with his name.
SHANDLING: She had trouble coming up with who runs al Qaeda.
SHANDLING: Well, you know -– but, you know, it was live television. I can’t come -– I got lucky coming up with it. [laughter]
BALDWIN: [overlapping] But, aren’t you --
SHANDLING: [overlapping] But, isn’t he --
MAHER: Osama bin Laden? [voices overlap]
BALDWIN: [overlapping] But, I want to ask you this question --
SHANDLING: [overlapping] You can’t even --
BALDWIN: [overlapping] -- aren’t you --
SHANDLING: [overlapping] -- how badly -- Alec, I’m sorry -- how badly has Bush -- how bad is -– Woodward said when you asked –- gave him a compliment by saying he’s better than Nixon. We’ve got a president that at this stage of the economy can’t foreclose on Osama bin Laden’s cave, wherever he is? [laughter]
AMANPOUR: It’s not a cave. [she laughs]
SHANDLING: [overlapping] We’re letting him just get away. It’s a villa. You know it’s a villa. [laughter] This is what we need. We need to send a woman over there –- this is how we find him. You know this, Bill. We should send her over, and you should find out who he dated last, because some woman is talking about getting thrown out by Osama bin Laden -- [laughter] -- because all these women are talking to each other about who they’re dating. And we don’t need that intelligence, do we? You know where he is.
SHANDLING: [overlapping] Because he dumped some woman, didn’t he? [laughter]
AMANPOUR: [laughing] It’s always the woman. Follow the woman.
Amanpour and her source weren't the only people who seemed to know something specific -- and specifically different from the conventional wisdom -- about bin Laden's whereabouts. In 2009, "ecosystem geographers" applied a scientific model to the search for the world's best known terrorist, and they have turned out to have been very close to the mark (hat tip: Taegan Goddard):
Could Osama bin Laden have been found faster if the CIA had followed the advice of ecosystem geographers from the University of California, Los Angeles? Probably not, but the predictions of UCLA geographer Thomas Gillespie, 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.
The bin Laden tracking idea began as a project in an undergraduate class on remote sensing that Gillespie, 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.
“The theory was basically that if you’re going to try and survive, you’re going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town,” Gillespie says. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report on him.”
The UCLA researchers eventually posited that bin Laden was holed up in the Pakistani border town of Parachinar. But still, not too shabby.
At any rate, that's the incredibly true story of the brief moment where there was a chance to glean some actionable intelligence from an HBO show. Now let's see if "Game Of Thrones" can do better.
[Many thanks to the email tipster who found the video clip for us.]