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Twitter and Reporting on UBL Death

May 2, 2011

Twitter user unknowingly reported bin Laden attack

(CNN) — As U.S. forces in Pakistan swooped in on Osama bin Laden on Sunday, at least one Twitter user was unknowingly reporting details of the raid.

Some of the first public accounts of the military operation that killed the terrorist leader came in the form of tweets from Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was found.

But the significance of Athar’s posts wouldn’t be clear until hours later when users of the social-networking site — and the rest of the world — learned of President Barack Obama’s plans for a rare, late-night address to announce that bin Laden had been killed.

The first clue from Athar came after 4 p.m. ET Sunday (after midnight in Pakistan).

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” he wrote.

His first reaction? Annoyance at the noise.

“Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/,” he wrote.

But soon, it was clear that more was going on than a random flyover. He reported seeing an airplane fly overhead. And he worried, as most anyone would, that terrorism might be involved.

“A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S,” Athar wrote.

He posted an incorrect local media report that a helicopter had crashed, or been shot down (perhaps jokingly, calling it a UFO) and gave details of military cordoning off areas of the city.

Then, about eight hours after his first tweet, Athar acknowledged that he’d heard what happened.

“I guess I should unsubscribe from the #abbottabad search on twitter before it kills my machine,” he wrote. “Leave Abbottabad alone, Osama and Obama… .”

According to what appears to be Athar’s Facebook profile (it also lists him as a consultant and links to a personal website with the same name as his Twitter profile), he graduated from the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2001.

He also earned an MBA from Preston University, an online school headquartered in the United States, it says. His public profile page lists his religious views as “Myopic” and political views as “Anarchistic.”

By early Monday in the United States, the online deluge for the man who also runs a small coffee shop was just beginning. As his tweets were discovered, the online messages and media requests began.

“Uh oh,” Athar wrote. “(N)ow I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

According to the Twitter statistics tool TwitterCounter, Athar had 751 followers on Saturday. By Monday morning, he had more than 32,000.

CNN and other media outlets reached out to him for interviews. But, by Monday morning U.S. time, he seemed to only want sleep.

“I am sorry but I am overwhelmed with emails/phones/chat requests at the moment — I will definitely try to answer your questions, probably as a blog post — as soon as I can,” he wrote in an e-mail response to a CNN interview request. “I had been working all night and didn’t anticipate that I’d need to stay awake till noon too, so it is hard to talk over phone/voice chat.”

And a final tweet Monday morning:

“Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.”

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