In a dramatic tweet-by-tweet account, Sohaib Athar and Mohsin Shah gave their Twitter followers live coverage of the middle-of-the-night raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, illustrating the rising importance — and limits — of online social networks.
While the pair are believed to have independently provided the first accounts of the raid, they and their followers had no idea that the attack was on the Al Qaeda leader. They would find out from television news reports several hours later.
In a tweet Monday morning, Athar wrote, "Uh oh, now I'm the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it."
Athar and Shah began sending out tweets, or 140-character messages, shortly before 1 a.m. in Pakistan, documenting abnormal helicopter flybys, a copter crash and then an explosion.
"Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM" is a rare occurrence, wrote Athar, whose Twitter biography says he lives in Abbottabad, the Pakistani city where the raid occurred.
At 1:09 a.m., Athar wrote, "A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope it's not the start of something nasty."
At 1:43 a.m., Shah, who identified himself as living in nearby Rawalpindi, wrote a message to Athar, asking, "Hello sir, any update on the blasts? What has really happened?"
Athar responded, saying "all silent after the blast, but a friend heard it 6 [kilometers] away too... the helicopter is gone too."
Their tweets came ahead of the news of Bin Laden's death, which produced the highest sustained rate of tweets in Twitter's history, with an average of 5,000 messages per second during President Obama's announcement of Bin Laden's death.
Shah didn't realize that Bin Laden had been killed until hours later. "Oh. My. God. Just woke up after a long lazy sleep to the news that Bin Laden was killed in the attack I was tweeting last night."
Their tweets generated global interest and turned them into instant if reluctant Internet celebrities. One of Athar's last tweets Monday: "Bin Laden is dead. I didn't kill him. Please let me sleep now."