United Kingdom broadcaster Channel 4 revealed recently in an interview that the man behind Shami Witness (derived from al-Sham, the Arabic word for the Levant), the most influential pro-Islamic State (IS) Twitter account followed by foreign jihadists, was an Indian businessman from the city of Bangalore. The man, Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who is not in Syria as previously thought, is now being hunted by the Indian police and is said to have fled the city. His Twitter handle, which had 18,000 followers, also seems to have been shut down.
The man, who goes by the name Mehdi, lived a relatively secular lifestyle, which could be attested to by pictures he posted on Facebook. The clean-shaven Mehdi’s Facebook profile “was filled with pictures of pizza nights out with friends, discussions of action movies, and fond reminiscences of Hawaiian-themed parties at work.”
Nonetheless, Mehdi was a sympathizer of the Islamic State, though more in the role of a cheerleader than in the realm of action. He told Channel 4 during his interview that “if I had a chance, I would have left everything and joined [IS]. But my family needs me here” (which seems like a convenient cop-out). However, his tweets and ideology clearly promoted violence and extremism and seemed aimed at inciting violence in Syria and Iraq. For example, he tweeted a video of American citizen Peter Kassig’s execution by the Islamic State five times, writing: “May Allah guide, protect, strengthen and expand the Islamic State. Islamic State brought peace, autonomy, zero corruption, low crime-rate.” Mehdi also announced his support of beheading and urged IS fighters to rape female Kurdish fighters.
According to Vikram Sood, a former director of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s intelligence agency, Indian armchair jihadists like Mehdi are dangerous because “they’re the only ones who have the equipment and sophistication to” consistently influence large numbers of people through Twitter via English. Mehdi himself made a similar argument, saying “I think for the first time there’s a Muslim who can actually enunciate in English and get the message across and which has really pissed off our enemies, enemies of Muslims.” According to Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, Mehdi was “justifying and explaining ISIS so that lots of people who were thinking of going to join ISIS could find the arguments and information to justify to themselves and legitimize that choice.” ISIS is the old name of the IS.
In a second interview released by Channel 4, Mehdi denied any wrongdoing. Asked if he thought he had done anything wrong, he replied: “No I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t harmed anybody, I haven’t broken any laws of the country. I haven’t raised any war or any violence against the public of India. So no.” Police are still searching for Mehdi, who has said that he won’t resist arrest but fears that the police will try to kill him under the pretext of self-defense.