Public Release: 

Scouting out Al Queda: UC researcher develops new methods of counter-terrorism

University of Cincinnati

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 his expertise in satellite imagery and remote sensing to help the United States 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 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 a bin Laden video released in October 2001, Beck learned that a colleague, John Shroder of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, had speculated 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 searched for areas that 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 narrowed possible sites down to three, using remote sensing, satellite imagery, a 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. Beck's time in the region taught him a lot about its cultural geography and war history.

To zero in on possible targets, Beck obtained still images of the video 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. 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 video. Beck forwarded his findings to the U.S. government in late October 2001. In November, he learned by monitoring war coverage on the Internet that the U.S. 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," he said. The researcher also warned the U.S. 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. In January, February and April 2002, Beck learned from news reports that U.S. and Afghan forces revisited the area in search of terrorists and eliminated more suspected terrorists.

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


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

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.