September 07, 2011

Mapping the world of Bin Laden

The paper, titled "Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting Large-Scale Human Behavior Using Global News Media Tone in Time and Space," uses the tone and location of news coverage from across the world to forecast country stability (including retroactively predicting the recent Arab Spring), estimate Osama Bin Laden's final location as a 200-kilometer radius around Abbottabad, and uncover the six world civilizations of the media. The research also demonstrates that the news is indeed becoming more negative and even visualizes global human societal conflict and cooperation over the last quarter century.

Mapping the world of Bin Laden

Narrowing the focus from the entire world to that of a particular actor, could global news have given us insights into the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden? The topic has attracted a fair bit of attention over the past decade, including a 2009 study that combined satellite imagery and biogeographic analysis in an attempt to pinpoint his location to three buildings in Pakistan (Gillespie, et al., 2009). Figure 14 shows all geographic references and their co–occurrence links in coverage mentioning Osama bin Laden in SWB content January 1979 through April 2011 (only “bin laden” was used as the search criteria to avoid the transliteration issues associated with his first name).

From his rise in the global media in the late 1990s to the month prior to his capture, Bin Laden has been most commonly associated with Pakistan and in the map below all roads appear to lead to Northern Pakistan. Indeed nearly 49 percent of all articles mentioning Bin Laden included a city in Pakistan and both Islamabad and Peshawar rank in the top five non–Western cities associated with him. The next four most closely associated countries are the United States (38 percent), Iran (33 percent), Afghanistan (28 percent), and the Philippines (20 percent). The city of his capture, Abbottabad, makes only a single appearance in an article on 16 April 2011 regarding the arrest of a terror suspect in the city (Mir, 2011). However, Abbottabad is less than 200 kilometers from both of two most popular cities associated with him, or roughly the radius between Islamabad and Peshawar.

While far from a definitive lock on Bin Laden’s location, global news content would have suggested Northern Pakistan in a 200 km. radius around Islamabad and Peshawar as his most likely location, and that he was nearly twice as likely to be making his residence in Pakistan as Afghanistan.

Figure 14: Global geocoded tone of all Summary of World Broadcasts content January 1979-April 2011 mentioning bin Laden
Figure 14: Global geocoded tone of all Summary of World Broadcasts content, January 1979–April 2011 mentioning “bin Laden”. A full–resolution version of this figure is available at

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