South by Southwest Interactive may be bursting at the seams with serious Twitter users, but as far as I know, there’s only one guy here who made history on Twitter — and he came to Austin all the way from Abbottabad, Pakistan. He’s Sohaib Athar, who noticed a helicopter flying ner his home last May and accidentally ended up live-Tweeting the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs on Osama bin Laden’s compound. At a Saturday event, he was interviewed by Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute about his famous act of citizen journalism.
Athar, an IT consultant who tweets as @ReallyVirtual, told the audience that he had moved to Abbottabad from the much larger, terrorism-ridden Lahore in search of peace and quiet. A night owl, he was up working when he heard a copter. Abbottabad has no airport, so that startled him.
“You do not normally hear helicopters in the middle of the night,” he said. “I was working at 1am, in the zone and the helicopter was pretty disrupting.” He tweeted about it. And he kept tweeting when he heard an explosion, which, he later learned, was a U.S. copter crashing.
As Athar tried to figure out what was going on, he continued to tweet, discussing the situation with his Twitter friends. “Most of the people at night are awake and on Twitter chatting with each other,” he explained. “I knew somebody would be reading.”
“We tried to reverse-engineer the facts,” said Athar, who reported some false rumors but also got other points right, such as the fact that Pakistani helicopters were not involved.
“The first report on the traditional media that we heard was probably an hour or so later,” he remembers. The next morning, after the news of the U.S. raid and bin Laden’s death became public, he visited the neighborhood of the compound — about two kilometers from his home — to take photos and talk to residents.
Once the world figured out that Athar had tweeted the raid based on noise he heard while it was in progress, he became a celebrity — a fate he accepted with good humor, although he says that many of the professional journalists who told his story got basic facts wrong, forcing him to publish a FAQ.
Athar told SXSW attendees that he’d been approached about writing a book about his experiences, but declined the inquiries because the tale would really only require one chapter to tell. He also turned down offers of payment for interviews. Still, he’d do it all over again.