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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Geologist on bin Laden Whereabouts

Air Date: Week of

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With the right expertise, a forensic geologist can identify any spot on earth. Jack Shroder from the University of Nebraska at Omaha tells host Steve Curwood what he could see from watching Osama bin Laden's videotaped statement.


CURWOOD: When most of us saw Osama Bin Laden's videotaped statement on TV a few weeks ago, we probably didn't notice the sandy colored terrain in the background. But Jack Shroder did. He's a professor of geology and geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who spent time in Afghanistan mapping the topography there. Jack Shroder, what did you think when you saw this tape?

SHRODER: Well, I looked at it and, of course, like everybody else, I was just watching Osama. And then I realized as they panned around, I said, "My goodness. I think I know where that is." Because every place in the world has a somewhat unique signature of vegetation, land forms, rock structure, rock attitude, lithology, and so on. Then you can pin it down. It can only be a few places.

CURWOOD: So, what were the criteria that told you pretty much where this is?

SHRODER: Well, you realize, I've been asked by Washington not to be too explicit. The video showed Osama sitting down in front of some rocks. Those rocks have been sheered and faulted. They're soft, which means they've been weathered. The video also shows some sky. Underneath the sky are some rounded rocks, and those particular rocks are very ancient and they have quartz veins, and they're weathered in a particular shape-- it's called spheroidal. Putting all those things together and knowing that he couldn't be in other parts of the country that somewhat resemble what I've just said, I figure that he was in a rather small area when that picture was taken. But, of course, he's known to move all the time.

CURWOOD: So, where was Bin Laden when he was filmed?

SHRODER: Well, he was southwest of Jalalabad, southeast of Kabul, northeast of Khowst, and northwest of Gardez, if you know where any of those places are.

CURWOOD: Gee, I'm weak on my Afghani geography. But you figure you placed him within, what, 10, 20 miles away?

SHRODER: Oh, probably within 20 miles.

CURWOOD: From what you know about the geology of this area in Afghanistan, how difficult is it to smoke out someone like an Osama Bin Laden, who's got strong financial resources and, presumably, people who know the locality very well?

SHRODER: Finding Bin Laden is going to be a very, very difficult job, because he's not in that locality anymore. The bigger story is the other places he could have gone. The Afghans dig holes to find water, called karesh. There are literally thousands upon thousands of these holes in the ground. Plus, the fact that Bin Laden's an engineer, and is known to have constructed holes in the various kinds of rocks there anyway. So, to get Bin Laden out from one of these holes is going to be the real problem. We haven't even talked about the natural caves in Afghanistan, which is also littered with limestone, and limestone makes excellent caves in its own right, naturally.

CURWOOD: Jack Shroder is a professor of geology and geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us, Dr. Shroder.

SHRODER: You're quite welcome. It was a pleasure.




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