Osama bin Laden Found in 2009? UCLA Geography Class Project Was on Right Track

VIDEO: A numerical breakdown of the life and death of Osama bin Laden.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Osama Bin Laden by the Numbers

It seems Osama bin Laden could have been found earlier if U.S. officials had taken seriously a project conducted by a group of UCLA geographers two years ago.

Using a probabilistic model they'd created to predict how animals distribute themselves, professors Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, along with a class of undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out in 2009 to predict bin Laden's location.

The result: an 88.9 percent probability that bin Laden was living in a city less than 300 kilometers (about 200 miles) from Tora Bora, his last known location in Afghanistan.

Within that area: Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was located and ultimately killed Sunday night.

Using what they called "life history characteristics," the professors and students predicted that he would be located in a large town, not a cave, and that the building would have high ceilings, more than three rooms, cover from trees, a fence and electricity.

Indeed, when Navy SEALs located bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind was not hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. He was living in a huge compound in an upscale Pakistani suburb -- just 35 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and down the street from Pakistan's version of West Point.

"He was more or less living in plain sight [and] relatively high on the hog," a senior intelligence official told ABC News.

"Caves are cold," Gillespie told Science magazine. "You can't see people walking up to them." But he said bin Laden should have chosen a different home -- "An inconspicuous house would have suited him better."

Class Project Turns 'CSI'

The bin Laden tracking idea arose during conversations between Gillespie and Agnew in the UCLA geography department in 2009.

Combining satellite information, biogeographic theories and what they knew of bin Laden's travels since Tora Bora, students created a probabilistic model of where he likely was hiding.

"The [biogeographic] 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 told Science magazine. "We hypothesized he wouldn't be in a small town where people could report on him."

The group eventually put bin Laden in Parachinar, a Pakistani border town, and pinpointed three possible hideouts.

Tracking Terrorists: 'Not My Thing'

Gillespie eventually wrote the students' results in a paper and submitted it to the journal MIT International Review.

Despite requests for interviews from TV shows and newspapers, he said he did not hear from the U.S. intelligence community. He told Science magazine, though, that he was not in the practice of finding terrorists.

"It's not my thing to do this type of stuff," he said. "But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this."

In 2009, former CIA officer John Kiriakou, an ABC News consultant, said the paper was a "really interesting starting point." A CIA official who had not seen the report said only, "Take it with a huge grain of salt, huge."

So what's up next for Gillespie? "Right now I'm workong on the dry forests of Hawaii," he said. "I'm far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list."

ABC News' Maddy Sauer and Science Magazine contributed to this article.