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Osama Was Here 

To show the value of pundits in the Terror Era, our columnist tells the CIA where bin Laden's been, President Bush where to go

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
As if things weren't bad enough -- what with the war, the economic recession, and the new era of terror -- America's columnists now have to deal with the mess created by Dan Guthrie, Tom Gutting, and their fellow free-speech travelers.

Guthrie, former columnist for the Grants Pass Daily Courier, and Gutting, late of the Texas City Sun, were fired last month for criticizing President Bush. As surely as dew follows sunrise, dozens of newspaper columnists around the country wrote pieces denouncing the firings: "Democracy, blah, blah ...," "Freedom, blah, blah ...," "First Amendment, blah, blah ...," was the essence of their prose.

Which raises a question: Are these people completely out of their minds? Even before the terrorist attacks, autumn 2001 wasn't exactly the glory days of newspaper writing. Magazines had been closing all summer long. Newspapers were paring staff. Airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, and America pretty much completely lost its desire for eclectic, caustic opinions. Editorialists are in danger of extinction, and these people are carping about the First Amendment? Has the world gone mad?

To get a better handle on what he could possibly have been thinking when he criticized the president, I called Guthrie's home, but couldn't inspire him to respond. So I called my grandma, who lives around 15 miles south of the erstwhile columnist, and told her they'd fired the Daily Courier's opinion writer after he criticized the president.

"Good for them," Grandma said.

"But Grandma, I'm a columnist. What if they fired me?" I pleaded.

"Are you a patriot, Matthew?" she replied.


"Are you a patriot?"

"Um, well that word can have a lot of different meanings, Grandma ...," I said. And as I continued waffling and evading and equivocating with my dear grandmother, I realized that the greatest threat to editorialists in American history had emerged, and not a single person seemed willing to do a productive thing about it.

I'd have to go this one alone, I realized. I'd have to prove the value of opinion columnists to America.

I'd have to personally hunt down Osama bin Laden.

On Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel played a piece of videotape, culled from Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, that leapt from the television screen. A fatigues-clad Osama bin Laden spoke into a microphone in front of a light-colored, sedimentary rock wall that appeared to be part of a mining excavation of some kind. Flanked by several lieutenants, bin Laden had an automatic rifle at his side and a smallish cave, apparently burrowed by humans, behind the left side of his head. Fissures in the rock wall seemed to emanate from the cave. "God has cursed the United States," network translators quoted bin Laden as saying.

"The curse," I thought to myself, "shall be yours."

I jumped into action, searching out video stills from the bin Laden tape, downloading them, and then storing the images as e-mail attachments. I sent out dozens of messages to geologists specializing in Central Asia, and to mineral experts versed in the gemstones of Afghanistan. I made phone calls to authors of geological texts, to seismologists, and to emerald wholesalers. Recognizing the troubles that all editorialists now faced, experts immediately jumped to my aid. They pointed to a particular, forbidding part of a forbidding country.

Along the craggy mountains west of Peshawar, Pakistan, through the rough limestone valley of the Jalalabad Basin, is Planet Earth's disaster zone. This is where the Indian and Asian continents collided more than 50 million years ago, shearing and chopping an ancient ocean bed into a giant, jumbled, rocky mélange. Even in the relatively flat valleys of this basin, moving any distance at all requires walking precipitously upward, or precipitously downward. The mountains here are astonishingly steep, a melodramatic version of the Northern Cascades, only with all the vegetation stripped off. There's no water, so travelers must carry canisters on their backs, and large ones, if the trip is to last more than a day. And the streams that do exist are unwelcome: Over eons they have incised canyons through the soft rock, canyons so deep and narrow they're all but impassible.

Dr. Roshan Bhappu, president of Mountain State R&D International of Vail, Ariz., is a mineralogist who has consulted for the U.N. and spoken at conferences on Afghan gems. He is familiar with this world. He plumbed his contacts at the U.S. Geological Survey and in the Pakistani academic community. He wracked his memory for clues as to the location of Osama's rock wall.

"That's a quartz and clay type excavation -- that's where emeralds occur. They've obviously excavated there. The host rock is brownish rocklike material, and the white part -- do you see that heavy whiteness with the gentleman on the left?" Bhappu explained. "Emeralds occur in that kind of formation."

A Pakistani by birth, Bhappu has made numerous trips into Afghanistan with the aim of helping local tribes gain a living from the marketing of gemstones. "The reason why they do find them [emeralds] is that they are in the softer material. That's metamorphic rock. You can see there are some pockets they've made. It could be an old mine. Emeralds would occur in this whitish and quartz veins you see there. When they see this whitishness, that's when they start. That hole, that's what we call gophering. That's what they do to find the emeralds. That kind of formation goes from Chitral in northern Pakistan to Afghanistan, very close to the Afghan border."

But Bhappu could take me no farther on the trail of bin Laden.

Police have long relied on geologists to help track fugitives. By taking dried mud samples from the bottom side of a '73 Cavalier, say, forensic geologists can determine where the car has been. Though an acre of land in rural Alabama may have mineral notes and chords in common with Oakland, the cacophony is never the same. Get mud on your chassis near Jack London Square, and you've inadvertently collected a unique microcosm of East Bay geology.

The border of Pakistan and Afghanistan is the realm of Kevin Pogue, geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Pogue has spent 15 years conducting field expeditions to western Pakistan, mapping rock formations leading up to the Afghanistan border. I called Pogue and asked if any forensic deduction could be made from the photographs depicting bin Laden's desert press conference. Though not a fugitive-hunter by profession, Pogue found the photos tantalizing.

"I was watching on TV, and I yelled at my wife, "Hey, there's rocks behind him.' That day I talked to my class about it, even though it wasn't the subject matter we were going to cover," Pogue said. "I immediately thought that this rules out 10 places. If they haven't thought of that, we need a new CIA."

I e-mailed Pogue the stills and asked for his opinion. He kindly posted printouts -- along with the title "Where Is Osama?" -- on the geology department bulletin board. I waited two days, then called back.

"The consensus is that it's a carbonate, like a marble or a limestone," Pogue said. "Most people agreed that it wasn't a cave, but some sort of man-made excavation. If it's an interior space, it's a mine or a quarry, where a room was blasted. I think it could be an old mine -- you know there are a lot of gemstones in Afghanistan. In one of the photos there was a close-up with bin Laden and the Egyptian guy, and there was a fracture pattern radiating from his head. That's like you see in a blast hole when you're dynamiting.

"If I were a betting man, I would bet that's a mine in a carbonate rock. But who knows?"

Next I spoke with Larry Snee, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver who has studied Central Asian rock formations. He analyzed the video stills and offered his opinion.

"There's planar structure that makes the rocks look like sedimentary or metamorphic rocks. I could conclude that they're relatively soft rocks; they're interlayered rocks like shales or schists," Snee said, referring to the sort of layered, ocean-bed rock such as one sees on Nob Hill. "The issue in Afghanistan is, Afghanistan's geology is highly complex. Afghanistan is a collage, much like it is with respect to culture and tribal affinities. There are many different packages of rocks that form the landscape and geology of Afghanistan. Those were juxtaposed one against the other in the Himalayan collision 50 million years ago.

"If we go back to the video, if those rocks behind bin Laden are, say, limestone -- for the sake of argument -- it would be possible to find those kinds of rocks in many places in Afghanistan. From that videotape you can draw some broad speculations. But to do it right, more info would be needed."

I asked him which portions of Afghanistan might be ruled out, given the rocks in the photo.

"That's a very interesting question," he said, before proceeding to change the subject.

Which to me sounded typical of those federal government guys; they're always keeping the juicy information for themselves. So I called in my ringer, my ace, my bin Laden-finder extraordinaire.

Dr. Joseph DiPietro, professor of geology at the University of Southern Indiana, is, as his employer's name implies, an Indiana Jones sort of scientist; he's the kind often found in exotic foreign lands negotiating with tribal warlords so he can conduct research. For the past decade and a half DiPietro has been nudging the border of bin Laden country, mapping the 100-kilometer-wide, jumbled-rock "suture zone" that runs through the area where the Indian and Asian subcontinents meet, intersecting the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On research expeditions DiPietro hires armed bodyguards, because there's no real government in this section of the world. Someday he hopes to prove that the two former continents collided 80 million years ago, rather than the commonly assumed 50.2 million years B.C.

"Above bin Laden's head there's a hole in the rock; that makes me think the rock is pretty soft. It's metamorphic rock, perhaps talc-carbonate schist, or ... hmmm ... my first impression was that it's a greenstone. Those two rocks occur together, and they're both pretty much exclusive," DiPietro says after studying the photos awhile. I allow him to continue musing. "They're both pretty common in the suture zone, which makes me think it's around Jalalabad -- Jalalabad or Kabul. My initial guess would be near Jalalabad."

So, putting the expert testimony together, here you have it, CIA analysts: Osama bin Laden recently filmed a propaganda video in an abandoned gemstone mine in the Jalalabad Basin, in the province of Nangarhar, east of Kabul, near Jalalabad. He may have run from the gem quarry immediately after filming was done. He might be tens or hundreds or thousands of miles away by now. But sometime recently, he was there, and surely even the 21st century's Desert Fox sweats while on camera. All you need to do is find the mine; your hound dogs will pick up the scent and know how to track him from there.

Now that I've saved my job and made the world safe for political columns by finding the Evil One, I beseech you, pundits: Go back to voicing opinions without fear of reprisal. We're patriots, once again.

For my part, I'll say that Gutting and Guthrie were right: George Bush is a coward, and there was something peculiar Sept. 11 about seeing America under siege with no president in sight. He's a liar, too; even if he's snoozed through every briefing the State Department's offered on Muslim outrage over our policy on Israel, the bombing of Iraq, and the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, George Bush couldn't be simple-minded enough to believe his own assertion that Muslim extremists' primary complaint with America involves our conception of "liberty." George Bush is a craven savage: He's bombing a dirt-poor country with no convincing rationale. He's despotic: His anti-terrorism, anti-civil-liberties laws read like a redneck sheriff's manifesto. George Bush is a hypocrite: He's doing what he can to fight terrorism, as long as it doesn't endanger money-laundering bankers or Texas oilmen, both up to their necks in Middle East intrigue. Worst of all, Dubya's a fraud: Can there be a greater insult to idealism than an election-stealer presuming to defend the Free World?

I could go on, but I'll leave what's left of the low-hanging fruit for my editorialist colleagues. Now that the world's safe for punditry, they need work, too. In the words of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, "The best way to defeat terrorism is to get back to work serving our people."

I only hope I've done my part.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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