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Scouting Out Al Queda: Researcher Develops New Methods of Counter-Terrorism

Helpless in the face of terrorism - that's not a phrase that University of Cincinnati geography researcher Richard Beck wants applied to him.

Date: 10/30/2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: 556-1826
Helpless in the face of terrorism - that's not a phrase that University of Cincinnati geography researcher Richard Beck wants applied to him. Instead, Beck is using expertise in satellite imagery and remote sensing to help the U.S. government win the war against Osama bin Laden and his conspirators.

Beck doesn't know for sure, but judging from the results of the war in Afghanistan, he may indeed be having an impact. The adjunct research assistant professor of geography in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences will make a presentation on this topic at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver on Wednesday, Oct. 30. He will explain how he used his talents and technology to identify a possible bin Laden stronghold in Afghanistan, based on a group of rocks and other geological features he viewed in video footage showing the Al-Queda leader.

While many U.S. academics have a reputation as "liberal" and "anti-war," Beck says that when he saw the Al-Quaeda video last fall, he decided to do something to get the "bad guys."

"I think academics are supported largely by U.S. tax dollars, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to help with counter terrorism measures. I would say most of my colleagues, certainly at UC, are of the same opinion," he says.

Beck's dissertation as a PhD student focused on geological maps of the Afghan-Pakistan border. After seeing the bin Laden video released just after the first U.S. bombs fell on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, Beck learned on Oct. 19, that a colleague, John Shroder, of the University of Nebraska at Omaha had deduced that the geological formations shown in the video were consistent with the geology of the Paktia and Paktika provinces of eastern Afghanistan. Beck agreed with Shroder and learned from a BBC report that this theory was also corroborated by an unidentified British geologist.

The question remained, however, as to the precise spot. That's when Beck went to work. He suggested one area of many possible locations that specifically placed the terrorist in a sequence of green shale, minor sandstone, limestone, dark chert and altered volcanic rocks of the Kurram Group. The Kurram Group rocks are named after a river in eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.

Beck worked to narrow the possible sites down to three, using remote sensing, satellite imagery, a sophisticated computerized mapping technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and his own field experience on the ground in northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan during the 1990s. During his time in the area, Beck learned a lot about the region's cultural geography and its military history.

To zero in on possible targets, Beck downloaded still images taken from the video from the Internet and compared them to photographs he had taken in eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. He then identified the "spectral signatures" of the similar looking rocks in northwest Pakistan that he already had in hand from previous work with satellite images of the area. With additional high-resolution and hyper-spectral satellite images he was supplied by the U.S. government, Beck quickly created and tested a spectral map of eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and overlaid a map showing suspected terrorist training camps. From this analysis, Beck identified Zhawar Kili and two other nearby locations in eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan as the most likely locations shown in the footage. Beck forwarded his list of targets with their geographic coordinates to U.S. government officials in late October 2001. In November, he learned by monitoring war coverage on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC and other Internet sites that the United States did bomb Zhawar Kili in November 2001.

"I have no idea for sure if there was any cause and effect between my list and what happened. It could be total coincidence. But I learned in November that the U.S. had targeted Zhawar Kili, and I was positively thrilled that they were able to find good targets. I can only say they hit the sites I suggested, not necessarily because I suggested them."

Beck said he also warned the U.S. government that because of Zhawar Kili's topography, culture and transportation networks, the Al-Quaeda would likely seek refuge in that region again after Tora Bora, despite the earlier attack. He was convinced that greater Zhawar Kili, with its proximity to Miram Shah in Pakistan, would be a likely staging area for the Al Qaeda and the Taliban because of its much easier logistics compared to Tora Bora.

In January, February and April 2002, Beck learned from news reports that U.S. forces revisited the area in search of terrorists and, with the help of Afghan forces, eliminated more suspected terrorists at the site.

Beck says the only feedback he has received from the U.S. government is that officials want him to continue developing his methods.

"All we've done is taken public, or for the most part public, information sources and used academic knowledge to create new counter-terrorism tools," says the co-founder of Ohioview, a coalition that works to make low-cost satellite images available to individual educators and researchers via the Web.

"I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to at least try to help. It was mostly through serendipity, because I had been to these areas and worked on maps for the region."

"I knew the right people to contact and volunteered. I have no idea if I was any help whatsoever. All I know is there were some awfully good coincidences." Beck does point out the United States had already attacked Zhawar Kili in 1998, using cruise missiles in retaliation for the Al-Qaeda bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

A longer account of Beck's work will be published in a future issue of Professional Geographer. His work was supported by grants from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.


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