Sohaib Athar on Twitter fame after bin Laden raid (Q&A)

CNET interviews Pakistan programmer Sohaib Athar, who became an instant online celebrity after his real-time dispatches recording a rough outline of the raid on Osama bin Laden.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
8 min read

As U.S. special forces assaulted Osama bin Laden's walled compound in Pakistan, a Twitter user was already recording a rough outline of the events to come.

Sohaib Athar, who describes himself as a 33-year-old programmer and consultant "taking a break from the rat race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops," happened to be staying up late at the time. And, from an account called Really Virtual, he live-blogged what he heard.

Sohaib Athar
Sohaib Athar Sohaib Athar

Athar's real-time dispatches and self-effacing follow-ups have transformed him into an instant online celebrity. He's received at least one marriage proposal--through Twitter, of course--as well as requests for bin Laden-related "souvenirs," and he also appears to have become Pakistan's first Twitter user to surpass 100,000 followers.

CNET interviewed Athar this afternoon about his instant fame, the state of affairs in Abbottabad, and his plans for another tech start-up. Some other questions we didn't ask, about whether he knew bin Laden was living there (he didn't), are answered in a FAQ on his Web site. Below is a transcript, lightly edited for space. (See list of related CNET stories.)

Q: You said in your FAQ that nobody has contacted you from any governmental agency. Is that still the case?
Athar: Yes. No contact from the army, intelligence (ISI), police, government, etc. Unless it was undercover.

How many requests for interviews have you had so far? just dozens, or hundreds?
Athar: I haven't really counted them yet, but there are still 120-plus unread requests in my mailbox at the moment from today alone. I have been following CNET for a few years now--Download.com has been helpful too, so prioritized you.

Thanks! The folks at Download.com sit about 10 meters down the hall from me, so I'll pass along your kind words to them...What have been the worst distortions in the media? That Abbottabad is a close-in suburb of Islamabad? There must be something more interesting than that that I've missed...
Athar: Yeah, that was only the initial distortion. There are many small things that are being reported either incorrectly or incompletely--if I only talk about my own experience and how it is being quoted, there are many inconsistencies. So I can only imagine what kind of facts are being reported regarding the actual incident itself.

The "fact" that you watched the operation go down next door rather than heard it from a few kilometers away?
Athar: Yeah, there's that one--I am actually 2.5 kilometers away.

Have journalists descended on Abbottabad en masse? Political tourists?
Athar: The town is already a tourist hub in the summers, so the people are very used to lots of foreigners coming and going in this season. This time, they'll just get more journalists than mountain climbers.

Any bin Laden T-shirts yet?
Athar: Not in Abbottabad yet, nobody has cashed in on it...Hmm...thanks for the idea!

Should the photo, and perhaps the video, of bin Laden's demise be released?
Athar: Yes, definitely. The world deserves to see it. An "Osama II: The Return of Osama"-type scenario will always be in the back of their minds otherwise.

Your bio says you're a programmer and software consultant and that you worked with Frontiers in Neuroscience. How did you get into programming and Web application development?
Athar: My first computer was an Atari XL 800...1991 or so. Both me and my younger brother--he is at Cambridge, doing his PhD in neuro-linguistic programming--were hooked. Web and application development is what I have been doing off and on. My primary domain for around 10 years was 3D graphics programming.

You're using some sort of Unix-type system now? or Windows?
Athar: Err... Right now I'm on Windows 7--because I needed Visual Studio. But it is a dual boot. I'm usually using Kubuntu.

Why live in Abbottabad instead of somewhere more urban?
Athar: I moved from the second most urban city of Pakistan (after Karachi), Lahore. There were many reasons for the move, but the weather alone is a sufficient reason to live here. Other reasons: less power failures (not true now), no doorbells, more focus, cleaner air, low traffic.

Do you have a generator or a UPS battery backup? (Or just lots of candles?)
Athar: I do have both here at the coffee shop. In fact, there is no electricity right now, so the UPS is what is keeping the DSL working.

Any plans to visit the U.S.? We'd be happy to host a dinner for you and your many fans (especially in U.S. intelligence).
Athar: Thanks, I can't really travel even to Lahore at the moment--too tied up with a lot of things, but the next time I'm there, I'll take you up on that offer (minus the U.S. intel part).

So I just went to your coffee shop's Facebook page. Why did you start it? As a side business? To be social? And, most importantly, do you offer free Wi-Fi?
Athar: Yes, yes, and yes. I had been working from home for three years, and the no-social-circle scenario here was getting a bit boring, I couldn't get good coffee and wanted to break the cycle. It was the only place offering free Wi-Fi until others started copying us last month. Others are still selling instant Nescafe though; Coffity uses gourmet arabica beans.

Are you the first person in Pakistan to pass 100,000 Twitter followers, as far as you know?
Athar: As far as I know, yes.

What do you think is going to happen to the ex-bin Laden compound now? And is it really a "compound" or just a collection of houses with a perimeter wall?
Athar: It is actually one house with a double-walled perimeter. I have a bunch of images that I have to upload tonight actually.

Straying into foreign policy for a moment, what are your views on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, its Predator drone policies, and its cross-border excursions into Pakistan?
Athar: Since I moved to Abbottabad, I have tried to reduce the number of things that I should be concerned about and have tried to focus on things that I can actually change. I can't change the U.S. Afghan policy (or the AfPak policy as they are now preferring), so I spend more brain cycles thinking about how I can help my immediate environment. In Pakistan, the only information we get is X people killed by drone, out of which Y are assumed to be terrorists. That is not good enough for public approval of the U.S. policies here in Pakistan.

Us Pakistanis are kept in the dark by both Pakistan and the U.S. regarding the true picture, so most of us resort to agreeing to one conspiracy theory or another--which helps the terrorists' causes.

Have the WikiLeaks-leaked U.S. State Department cables changed anything?
Athar: Only a small percentage of the Pakistani population--mainly the Internet activists and the literati--actually read and try to understand the implications of the cables, I think. So as far as the general population is concerned, they only read translated and distorted versions of the cables.

There isn't much "actionable" information regarding Pakistan in the cables to change anything--besides the opinions of a very small segment.

One of my colleagues wanted me to ask you if there was any weirdness with radios, Wi-Fi, or mobile phones during the raid. Jamming, in other words.
Athar: The power was cut off during the raid--a friend living in the neighborhood verified that. Landlines were working at least in my area. They did jam the signals and landlines a while AFTER the operation (and probably during the search operations) in the (Pakistani) morning, as many people could not get through to their friends or family living near the compound.

Do you have any more details about your Web site being hacked, at least briefly, after your initial tweets?
Athar: Not really. I had some malware running on the site last week actually, but was too busy to look at it and remove it. After the site started getting traffic and the malware was reported, I asked my brother to remove it (as I was too busy myself). I think he did, as nobody has complained after that.

After this interview, are you going to continue answering questions on Twitter through tomorrow?
Athar: Yes. I haven't even started yet... I need to move the hosting from a $10 shared one to a better server first, and will resume answering after that.

You know you're getting marriage proposals, right?
Athar: Oh--I guess I have room for three more wives.

I'm not sure whether you're joking.
Athar: Half joking--I can only take one more.

Did you ever walk by the bin Laden house before the raid? Did it stand out?
Athar: I did not walk by that particular area. I had no reason to. Nobody I know lives in the neighborhood--I did pass by the main road many times though.

When did you begin to suspect what you heard was linked to a bin Laden raid? And what did you think?
Athar: Let me check back on my timeline.

Ah, right, it was when I woke up, got to my coffee shop, logged in, and went over the last few hours' tweets. I retweeted a tweet saying: "I think the helicopter crash in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the President Obama breaking news address are connected."

And your initial thought when you drew that connection was?
Athar: I drew the connection but saved myself from some typing by clicking the Retweet button. Funny, I remember that part. I was actually quite proud of saving the keystrokes. I think I started to guess how this would change the world in general and Abbottabad in particular in the next few days.

Has the Western media coverage, at least what you've seen, been fair to Pakistan and the Pakistani people?
Athar: Regarding the event itself, there is still confusion regarding whether or not the Pakistani authorities assisted in this particular operation--which is the main point that has been bothering the Pakistani people. If this was done by approval of the Pakistani Army, and if the Pakistani sovereignty was not violated, then most of the average Pakistani people would probably be more relaxed. Had it been someone else besides Osama, they'd be just as agitated to hear of an unauthorized attack by a foreign force.

The Pakistani government still hasn't been clear about whether they agreed to the raid, either with permission in advance or permission just before. I've read contradictory reports.
Athar: There are multiple versions being reported online as far as I have read. Most say that the Pakistani Army are acknowledging they assisted in the operation, but the U.S. Army is claiming that they did it alone, without any help. I need to read up on today's news to get up to date with these reports before I try to interpolate the facts.

Are you hiring? Your fans want to know.
Athar: I am an independent consultant myself these days. But perhaps when I work on my next startup...

Which will be?
Athar: Selling OBL T-shirts? Seriously though, I came to Abbottabad to brainstorm and create something new.

I have been involved with a couple of biotech start-ups in the last 10 to 11 years, and was missing the days of innovation a bit. So after a few more months of staying away from software development, I know I will need to find an idea and start working on it.