What Shami Witness tells us about the potency of the Syrian jihad’s message around the world -- and online.
The last private message I received from the pro-Islamic State Twitter user Shami Witness was one day before an investigation by Channel 4 revealed his true identity.
“Will you journalists ever talk about the continuous deportation of Arabs, burning their homes and properties … and killing them by YPG [Syrian Kurdish militants]?” he asked me. “Or are you waiting for [the northern province of] Hasaka to be Arab-free before the faux wailing can begin? Aren’t they Syrians too or is YPG that much venerated that their war crimes can’t be touched.”
This was typical Shami Witness — simultaneously defending the Islamic State’s attacks on its enemies, while accusing its critics of violating their principles in failing to do the same. And he was influential: He had gathered over 17,700 followers by the time his identity was uncovered, and a report released in April found that he was followed by two-thirds of foreign fighters on Twitter.
In reality, as the Channel 4 investigation discovered, Shami Witness was a 24-year-old executive in Bangalore named Mehdi Masroor Biswas. The cleanshaven young man didn’t live the life of a grizzled jihadi, instead posting pictures of eating pizza with his friends and attending Hawaiian-themed parties at work on his Facebook page. Mehdi was arrested in his one-room apartment on Dec. 13 and, despite initial confused attempts to deny it, eventually confessed that he ran the account.
I started following Mehdi on Twitter in August last year. I interacted with him often, publicly and privately. His tone in private messages was noticeably different than his tweets to thousands: He toned down the aggressive jihadist rhetoric, and would write in a more detached manner. Until recently, I had the suspicion that he either worked for a foreign intelligence service — and I told him that at least twice — or that he exaggerated his dogmatism in public because he wanted jihadists to trust him.
The disclosure of his identity is significant, not only because his tweets were effectively the link between many Syria analysts and Islamic State supporters on social media, but also because his behavior after the arrest showed he was not what he was pretending to be. After writing thousands of tweets praising the Islamic State and trying to convince other Muslims to join the fight, he told Channel 4 that he would not resist arrest if the police came, and attempted to downplay his loyalty to the Islamic State. In the end, he was never willing to push his radicalism as far as he wanted others to go.
His politics aside, he was a mostly accurate aggregator of news about the Syrian conflict. In November 2013, rebels inside Syria told me about foreign fighters from “Khorasan” — locally known as “Khorasanites” — flowing into Syria to work with the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. In September 2014, U.S. airstrikes targeted what officials termed the “Khorasan Group,” which they said was made up of al Qaeda operatives planning attacks against the United States or Europe.
I then asked those following the jihadist landscape in Syria if they knew anything more about those. Mehdi was the only one who did — he said in a private message there were “a few dozens” who came to shore up al Qaeda. At the time, Jabhat al-Nusra was operating closely with the Islamist rebel coalition known as the Islamic Front — the fear among radicals was that Jabhat al-Nusra would drift closer to Syria’s mainstream Islamist rebels and away from al Qaeda.
Mehdi was also attuned to dynamics within Syria that often drop beneath the radar of many of the conflict watchers. His comment about the Arabs in Hasakah presents a perfect case study, as it actually echoes grievances felt in eastern Syria toward the Kurds. Sympathies for the Islamic State among Arabs in Hasakah are sky high, because of what people regard as expansionism by Kurdish forces. Such concerns are more felt among the maghmoureen — Arab families who were resettled in Kurdish areas in the north by former President Hafez al-Assad’s regime after their lands were drowned by artificial lakes established in the neighboring province of Raqqa.
The real problem with Mehdi was not reliability. For professionals who followed him because he echoed the voices of jihadists, it was not propaganda either — we knew he was a propagandist for the Islamic State and treated his arguments and information accordingly.
What was truly troubling about Mehdi is that he represented a certain category of Islamic State sympathizer across the Muslim world – those who wholeheartedly back the group in public even though they do not share the same characteristics of the jihadists they purportedly support. According to dozens of interviews I have conducted with Islamic State members over the past several months as part of research for a book, he is hardly an aberration within the jihadist landscape. Young people like him constitute a sizable part of the Islamic State’s members or support base. They believe in its political project — but not necessarily its ideological one.
Online, Mehdi bought into the Islamic literature and traditions that the Islamic State uses to justify the rape of Yazidi women, to slaughter a whole tribe, and behead hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims. But he struggled with watching the ideology in practice: As Channel 4 pointed out, he spoke out against rape on his personal Facebook page — even as he joked about the raping of Kurdish women by Islamic State fighters on Twitter as Shami Witness.
It’s also important to note that Mehdi was not a supporter of the Islamic State from the beginning. Early last year, he defended all jihadists in Syria — including Jabhat al-Nusra. (Later in the year, he attacked them, in line with the Islamic State’s growing hostility to the group.) And he defended former President Mohammed Morsi’s government in Egypt, which the Islamic State regarded as apostate because it accepted democracy. His outspoken criticism of the Egyptian military’s ouster of Morsi last summer also betrayed his declared jihadist principles. “Have to admit this today, many westerners are true democrats. They’re openly calling it coup coz they can see it,” he tweeted, a day after the removal of Morsi. “Egyptian liberals r hopeless.”
He was also conscious of what he called his “radicalization.” A month ago, he wrote: “Biggest ‘radicalizer’ of last 2 years was the 2013 Egypt coup. The enemy does not understand it. But when they do, it will be too late for them.”
Regardless of what life Mehdi led in the real world, his value to the Islamic State cannot be downplayed. His account served in many ways a “virtual inn,” where jihadist travelers linked up. His attempts to humanize and explain the jihadist group streamed into the feeds of journalists and analysts every day. His downfall in this manner has been a heavy blow to the jihadist group’s online propaganda machine. He should get the justice he deserves, but he won’t be the last jihadist tweeter to rise to prominence without quite convincing himself of the rhetoric he’s spouting.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images