Osama Was Here

To show the value of pundits in the Terror Era, our columnist tells the CIA where bin Laden's been, President Bush where to go

But Bhappu could take me no farther on the trail of bin Laden.

Police have long relied on geologists to help track fugitives. By taking dried mud samples from the bottom side of a '73 Cavalier, say, forensic geologists can determine where the car has been. Though an acre of land in rural Alabama may have mineral notes and chords in common with Oakland, the cacophony is never the same. Get mud on your chassis near Jack London Square, and you've inadvertently collected a unique microcosm of East Bay geology.

The border of Pakistan and Afghanistan is the realm of Kevin Pogue, geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Pogue has spent 15 years conducting field expeditions to western Pakistan, mapping rock formations leading up to the Afghanistan border. I called Pogue and asked if any forensic deduction could be made from the photographs depicting bin Laden's desert press conference. Though not a fugitive-hunter by profession, Pogue found the photos tantalizing.

"I was watching on TV, and I yelled at my wife, "Hey, there's rocks behind him.' That day I talked to my class about it, even though it wasn't the subject matter we were going to cover," Pogue said. "I immediately thought that this rules out 10 places. If they haven't thought of that, we need a new CIA."

I e-mailed Pogue the stills and asked for his opinion. He kindly posted printouts -- along with the title "Where Is Osama?" -- on the geology department bulletin board. I waited two days, then called back.

"The consensus is that it's a carbonate, like a marble or a limestone," Pogue said. "Most people agreed that it wasn't a cave, but some sort of man-made excavation. If it's an interior space, it's a mine or a quarry, where a room was blasted. I think it could be an old mine -- you know there are a lot of gemstones in Afghanistan. In one of the photos there was a close-up with bin Laden and the Egyptian guy, and there was a fracture pattern radiating from his head. That's like you see in a blast hole when you're dynamiting.

"If I were a betting man, I would bet that's a mine in a carbonate rock. But who knows?"

Next I spoke with Larry Snee, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver who has studied Central Asian rock formations. He analyzed the video stills and offered his opinion.

"There's planar structure that makes the rocks look like sedimentary or metamorphic rocks. I could conclude that they're relatively soft rocks; they're interlayered rocks like shales or schists," Snee said, referring to the sort of layered, ocean-bed rock such as one sees on Nob Hill. "The issue in Afghanistan is, Afghanistan's geology is highly complex. Afghanistan is a collage, much like it is with respect to culture and tribal affinities. There are many different packages of rocks that form the landscape and geology of Afghanistan. Those were juxtaposed one against the other in the Himalayan collision 50 million years ago.

"If we go back to the video, if those rocks behind bin Laden are, say, limestone -- for the sake of argument -- it would be possible to find those kinds of rocks in many places in Afghanistan. From that videotape you can draw some broad speculations. But to do it right, more info would be needed."

I asked him which portions of Afghanistan might be ruled out, given the rocks in the photo.

"That's a very interesting question," he said, before proceeding to change the subject.

Which to me sounded typical of those federal government guys; they're always keeping the juicy information for themselves. So I called in my ringer, my ace, my bin Laden-finder extraordinaire.

Dr. Joseph DiPietro, professor of geology at the University of Southern Indiana, is, as his employer's name implies, an Indiana Jones sort of scientist; he's the kind often found in exotic foreign lands negotiating with tribal warlords so he can conduct research. For the past decade and a half DiPietro has been nudging the border of bin Laden country, mapping the 100-kilometer-wide, jumbled-rock "suture zone" that runs through the area where the Indian and Asian subcontinents meet, intersecting the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On research expeditions DiPietro hires armed bodyguards, because there's no real government in this section of the world. Someday he hopes to prove that the two former continents collided 80 million years ago, rather than the commonly assumed 50.2 million years B.C.

"Above bin Laden's head there's a hole in the rock; that makes me think the rock is pretty soft. It's metamorphic rock, perhaps talc-carbonate schist, or ... hmmm ... my first impression was that it's a greenstone. Those two rocks occur together, and they're both pretty much exclusive," DiPietro says after studying the photos awhile. I allow him to continue musing. "They're both pretty common in the suture zone, which makes me think it's around Jalalabad -- Jalalabad or Kabul. My initial guess would be near Jalalabad."

So, putting the expert testimony together, here you have it, CIA analysts: Osama bin Laden recently filmed a propaganda video in an abandoned gemstone mine in the Jalalabad Basin, in the province of Nangarhar, east of Kabul, near Jalalabad. He may have run from the gem quarry immediately after filming was done. He might be tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away by now. But sometime recently, he was there, and surely even the 21st century's Desert Fox sweats while on camera. All you need to do is find the mine; your hound dogs will pick up the scent and know how to track him from there.

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