Meet Sohaib Athar, Accidental Witness of Osama Bin Laden Raid
The 34-year-old IT consultant from Lahore, Pakistan, liveblogged the attack on Bin Laden's compound without knowing it
Hours before Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff, tweeted that he had received confirmation from a reliable source that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid about 60km outside of Islamabad, Pakistan, one man near the scene of the action was an accidental witness. "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)," Sohaib Athar tweeted, before letting his few hundred followers know he wanted it gone. "Go away helicopter - before I take out my giant swatter :-/"
When it became clear that Athar was tweeting from his home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, hours before anybody outside of the Obama Administration knew what had happened, @ReallyVirtual, his Twitter handle, has added thousands of followers. (As of this writing, Athar has more than 50,000.) News organizations and bloggers were quick to publish brief profiles of Athar before he had spoken to anybody -- "For the people who are trying to email me to reach me, I simply can't filter out the notifications from the emails :-(." But, in all of the excitement, they got some of the details confused.
According to his Twitter, Athar spent some time this morning speaking with Mosharraf Zaidi and Omar Waraich, reporters covering Pakistan, and somebody from Reuters because they got to him before he could go to sleep. We can anticipate more detailed information soon. Until then, this is what we know:
Sohaib Athar is a 34-year-old IT consultant born in Lahore, Pakistan. According to his Twitter biography, he's living in Abbottabad while "taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops." He moved there two years ago from Lahore, where he seems to have spent his entire life. A 1996 graduate of Forman Christian College in Lahore, Athar earned his BSc in Pure and Applied Mathematics and Physics before going on to complete Masters-level studies in Computer Science at the University of the Punjab.
Athar maintains a blog at ReallyVirtual.com. In the past, Athar has used this space to write about programming-related topics, document the deaths of protestors and even to complain about the state. Last July, when Athar's wife and son were in an accident he described as "near-fatal" with a police van, he took to ReallyVirtual. "Most of us Pakistani IT professionals spend our lived shielded from the 'system,'" Athar wrote. "Yes, we sometimes come out of our shells and protest against whatever we believe we have to demonstrate against -- and yes, we do write blog posts and opine and criticize and debate, and sometimes we attend the feel-good TEDx talks to 'spread ideas' -- but living in front of our computers, we rarely get a first-hand experience of the system that we loathe (but one that we have to live in)." Athar went on to conclude that he was shocked and disgusted by the "state of our legal and health system."
Before this morning, though, it had been nearly a year since Athar updated ReallyVirtual.com. "The Guy Who Liveblogged the Osama Raid Without Knowing It" was the title of his most recent blog entry, filed under "Etc." The post: "...is what I am for the next few hours on twitter," he wrote, explaining the headline. "I am too tired and sleepy to blog or talk about it though, but I guess it is finally time to revive this abandoned blog. Maybe tomorrow..."
He knew interest was mounting. After tweeting about the helicopter hovering over Abbottabad, Athar continued to update his feed, essentially liveblogging the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound without knowing the details. "A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S," he wrote. At this point, Athar started exchanging Twitter messages with others in Pakistan. To Mohcin Shah in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, he wrote: "all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 km away too... the helicopter is gone too." Staying on top of the story, Athar predicted the event was part of "a complicated situation" as the Taliban "(probably) don't have helicopters."
Athar continued tweeting, with dozens of updates before the story spread across the United States. And then his profile exploded, with new followers coming in from every corner of the globe. Athar downplayed his role in the event: "I am JUST a tweeter, awake at the time of the crash," he wrote. "Not many twitter users in Abbottabad, these guys are more into facebook. That's all." Just another case of being in the right place at the right time -- or the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now, after a long night, he rests. "Bin Laden is dead," Athar tweeted three hours ago. "I didn't kill him. Please let me sleep now."