Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series called “Rewind: Where are they now?” It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines – and then faded from view.
With a couple of software projects on the go, Sohaib Athar was making the most of the late-night calm to get some work done.
As his wife and son slept, he heard the whir and chop of rotor blades above the two-story house where they lived. Strange, he thought, for an aircraft to be flying so low over a residential area at this hour. He checked the time: it was well past midnight.
“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” he tweeted.
Athar didn’t know it then, but with that one sentence, he had become the first person to report on a blockbuster news story that would grip the world.
He was the guy who unwittingly live-blogged the Osama bin Laden raid.
Explosion shakes slumbering town
Abbottabad, a former colonial garrison town nestled in the green hills of northern Pakistan, is a small city known for its trees, parks and the country’s top military academy.
Athar and his family moved here in 2009 to get away from the heat, grime and occasional terrorist attacks in Lahore, a traffic-clogged metropolis on the plains of Punjab.
If the helicopter he heard that night in May 2011 made his ears prick up, what came next made him flinch: An explosion sent a shock wave across the slumbering town.
Initially, Athar feared the worst.
“I thought finally the terrorists had made themselves known in Abbottabad,” he told CNN in a recent interview.
Inside the compound
Intrigued and puzzled, he exchanged tweets and instant messages with people in Abbottabad and beyond about the mysterious events. They talked of drones and terrorists, UFOs and spies.
What they didn’t know is that less than two miles across town, U.S. Navy SEALs had stormed bin Laden’s high-walled compound, searching room by room until they located the al Qaeda leader and killed him.
The mission had teetered on the verge of disaster after one of the two Black Hawk helicopters carrying the commandos crashed inside the compound before they could jump out.
All of those aboard emerged unhurt and, after the raid was over, the SEALs destroyed the downed helicopter with explosives, setting off what was probably the blast that rattled Athar’s windows.
News that something unusual was happening in Abbottabad was spreading. Athar’s family in Lahore saw the sketchy reports about the explosion on Pakistani TV and called to check if he was OK.
But no one knew what was really going on.
Athar stayed up until 4 a.m. trading theories about what was happening before snatching a few hours of sleep.
Even after he woke up again, the situation was still unclear and speculation in the town was rife.
“Somebody was saying it was an attack, some people were saying the Taliban got a helicopter,” Athar said. “People were saying the pilot had survived and there was a house-to-house search.”
The truth emerged a little later, first on Twitter and then in a televised address by U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” Obama declared.
For Athar, the news was significant, too, but in a different way. He realized that he had, through a handful of late-night tweets, become part of an international news story of massive proportions.
Journalists scrambling for information about the raid and the place where it went down quickly came across Athar’s Twitter feed and started to draw attention to him.
His quiet life in the hills was suddenly anything but quiet.
Trending, trolling and talking
Athar’s follower count on Twitter was skyrocketing, users were rapidly retweeting his most noteworthy posts and people were bombarding him with questions and comments. Some asked him to snag bin Laden souvenirs, one even wanted him to harvest cannabis plants from the area.
As well as the storm on Twitter, Athar was receiving a deluge of messages from news organizations demanding to talk to him.
Amid the media frenzy, he kept up his blend of serious and humorous tweets about what was going on in Abbottabad. He also couldn’t resist wading into a few arguments.
“There were all sorts of people: I was getting trolled, I was trolling as well,” he said.
But as his newfound celebrity grew – at one point he saw his name trending on Twitter – it threatened to take over his life.
“I was more busy talking to journalists than working,” he said.
Reporters flooded into the coffee shop that Athar and his wife had set up after moving to Abbottabad. They took advantage of the cafe’s free wifi but were often unaware that the owner sitting quietly in the corner was the man many of them were trying to get ahold of.
‘I was getting accused of being CIA agent’
With some journalists becoming aggressive and demanding exclusives, Athar ignored most of the more than 200 interview requests he estimates he received.
“I wasn’t really achieving anything. It wasn’t really helping me out in any way,” he remembered. “At the same time, I did want to help out people if I could, especially because there were a lot of wrong facts about Abbottabad and Pakistan that were being reported.”
He was also wary of drawing too much attention to himself at a sensitive time.
“I didn’t know how the government would take it – whether they’d call me in to investigate,” he said.
He recalled some of the outlandish claims Twitter users made about him at the time.
“I was getting accused of being CIA agent, I was getting accused of being an ISI agent,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. “Some people were emailing me to make sure I actually existed and wasn’t a fictional character invented by the intelligence services.”
Judge tells him to ‘tweet on’
Pakistani authorities did eventually seek him out in connection with the bin Laden raid, but it was nothing sinister.
He was called to Islamabad, the capital, for questioning under oath by a judicial commission set up by the government to investigate the events in Abbottabad.
The judges were interested in whether the timestamps on Athar’s tweets could help pinpoint exactly what happened when.
“Everyone was nice and smiling,” he recalled. “It was more like a discussion than an interrogation.”
Before he left, the head of the commission told him to “tweet on.”
Taking the story to Texas
His posts about the raid also ended up taking him even farther afield.
In March 2012, he traveled to the United States to talk about citizen journalism at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.
The man who had started covering the bin Laden raid before any mainstream media outlets was a stark example of social media’s increasingly important role in the news industry.
For him personally, his time in Texas was the most interesting thing to have come out of the whole bizarre bin Laden business.
“I got to interact with a bunch of journalists – to understand how they work, how they use their words, how they approach news stories and stuff like that,” he said. “That was the real illuminating part of the story as far as I’m concerned.”
Selfies at the site of the raid
Life in Abbottabad soon went back to normal after interest in that side of the bin Laden story died down.
Most of the journalists left, and Athar resumed his regular habits of keeping late hours working on software projects, spending time with his family and tweeting about things like technology and life in Pakistan.
“I am still working with the same people I was working with and I didn’t really let this interfere in my other life, my real life,” he said.
He and his family have since moved to a different house. Bin Laden’s compound, meanwhile, was demolished by authorities in 2012.
“Right now, it’s a flat piece of land,” Athar said. “Kids are playing cricket there.”
A few bin Laden sympathizers still sometimes show up there and pray, he said, and it also draws the odd terrorism tourist.
“Even my own friends and family, when they come here, even if it’s the first time, they do go there just to take selfies to share them on Facebook,” he admitted.
‘It’s not really much of a celebrity status’
A soft-spoken and matter-of-fact guy, Athar plays down his brief brush with America’s war on terror.
“Mine was a very small part of the story,” he said.
His Twitter following has declined to around 55,000 from its high of more than 100,000 in the days after the raid. Some people, many of them journalism students, still seem to come across his account through old stories about the raid.
“It’s not really much of a celebrity status that I have or I had,” he said.
And his “quiet life” in Abbottabad may soon be drawing to a close.
“I’m actually thinking of moving to Islamabad in a few months because it’s getting to be a bit boring,” he said.
Sophia Saifi reported from Abbottabad, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong.