OSAMA: IO PROFESSORE DI GEOGRAFIA HO SPIEGATO ALLA CIA DOV’È BIN LADEN
Originally published in Il Venerdì of La Repubblica, 5 October 2007
"Intelligence men came to me and told me to keep quiet, to get rid of some information on my website and to answer their questions as fully as possible." John Shroder seems nothing like the sinister scientist eager to collaborate with the CIA: he is friendly and available. Geographer at the University of Nebraska, nobody took him seriously when he decided to work on Afghan geography in '72. Afghanistan was considered an outside country, and Shroder's decision seemed like one of those typical eccentricities of an inconsequent academic who hadn't ever produced a single applicable fact over his entire career.
After September 11th, 2001, though, the world was forced to change their minds about John Shroder. A month after the attack on the Twin Towers, Al Jazeera broadcast a video in which Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri were praising the undertaking while seated who knows where under a rocky ridge, maybe on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From that moment, Bin Laden became the most wanted man on the planet and Shroder became certain of one thing: sooner or later the CIA would have knocked on his door. Six years after the fact, some of the details can be revealed. And John Shroder revealed them to Venerdi'.
How were you able to recognize the zone where Bin Laden was? There are millions of rocks in the world like those in the video. "First of all we knew that he was in Afghanistan," he explains. "Then the Al Jazeera cameraman filmed a panoramic view of the area where, on the horizon, there were rocky peaks like those in the zone of Spin Ghar. The shot showed a fault like the ones found in the far western part of the area. The camera then showed a high-grade gneiss (rock containing quartz crystals, Ed.), the kind that can be located only in the Safed Koh mountain range."
Shroder, a decided opposer of the Vietnam War, talks about how he ended up in Afghanistan in the early 70's: the territory was worth studying and academic competition was nonexistent. "Nobody was interested in that country during those years." Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, which then became the arena for the two fighting superpowers. "I wanted to help the Afghan mujaheddin," Shroder recalls, "for me, who had been against Vietnam, the Soviet invasion seemed to pose the same pattern of a great power combating a small country. So I had no problems working together with the American government." Did you take orders from them while you were working as a geographer?, we ask. "No. And they probably wanted to get rid of me for that very reason, but they were using me as a friendly source for contacts with the Afghan resistance."
But the more Shroder got to know the population, the more he made up his mind about the Afghan people: sooner or later, the Americans would have had problems with them. "They are extremely hospitable," he says, "and if you are their friend, they are willing to risk their lives for you. But never kill an Afghani with flippancy: they are a people that don't forget easily and revenge is part of their culture in a way that doesn't exist in other parts of the world, except, maybe, with the Italian mafia. They are not a population to be underestimated, as unfortunately many American politicians do."
Shroder didn't have any ethical problems collaborating with Washington in the hunt for Bin Laden: "When a country is attacked," he says, "even those who aren't satisfied with the powerful governments collaborate." Regardless, his role was limited to the analysis of the first video since, after that, Bin Laden didn't commit the same mistake again of having himself filmed with open landscape behind him. What type of documents were you asked to remove from your website? "Lots of maps and detailed reports," he explains, "and my personal information; I have received several death threats."
Geography, underestimated as that of a middle school subject, has in reality always been important for Intelligence. After September 11th, it is even more so. "The CIA and other agencies regularly enlist agents in geography courses," Shroder confirms, as he speaks of some interesting facts about the NGA: the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Unlike the well-known and infamous NSA which intercepts and deciphers the enormous flow of communication, telephone calls and emails that travel around the world, the NGA is almost completely unheard of. What technology did the NGA put into use for the war on terror? "By now remote sensing systems and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) are extremely advanced," he explains, "but, for example, they still aren't able to see a person's face through a brick wall. And it's true that they are able to read various gases released from a cave (to try to understand what's inside), but they still need someone at the site to collect the gas samples."
NSA, NGA, CIA, lethal satellites, drones, cryptography and secret and highly advanced technology. It must be terribly frustrating for a country like the United States – embodiment of military potential based on science and technology – to not be able to get their hands on Bin Laden, a man who goes around with an overcoat and a walking stick, like a shepherd from 2,000 years ago. Do you really believe that the territory in which he's hidden plays such an important role in protecting him? "Yes, absolutely," he replies. "Nobody can enter into the pashtun area and get out alive, if they don't want you to. Bin Laden doesn't use electronics anymore and he stays away from satellites and drones."
What other factor transformed the hunt for the sheik in a sort of mission impossible? "The pashtun dialects are very distinctive: an infiltrated agent would most certainly be discovered. And, also, it is well known how well this population is able to manage arms, as well as their ideological motivations."
Will they ever capture Osama? "No, because the U.S. can't get into the area where he probably is. Neither can Pakistan," concludes Shroder. "The only way to get him for sure is a large-scale invasion in the province of the Northwest Front and of Waziristan, but it would be an incredibly stupid move: a recruitment call to Al Qaeda. Maybe, though, a combination of threats and deals with the pashtun leaders, offered in an intelligent manner adapted to their culture, could work.".