A man has been charged in India for running one of the most influential ISIS propaganda accounts on Twitter, after being unmasked by Channel 4 News. But who is the real man behind the mask?
The man alleged to have operated the single most influential pro-ISIS Twitter account, identified following a Channel 4 News investigation last year, has today been charged by police in India.
Mehdi Biswas is alleged by India’s police to have operated the @ShamiWitness Twitter account, which was followed by two-thirds of all the foreign jihadis on Twitter according to research by ICSR at King’s College London.
Following his arrest in December, police in India today filed a chargesheet against him, which lays out the charges which a court will consider.
On Twitter the City Crime Branch of Bengaluru City Police, India, said: “Charge Sheet against Mehdi Masroor Biswas is filed under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, it contains 35,000 pages & 122,000 tweets.”
Joint Commissioner of Police, M. Chandrashekhar said that he is charged with supporting a terrorist organisation, waging war against the State, unlawful activities, conspiracy, sedition and promoting enmity, according to the Hindu newspaper.
Mr Chandrashekhar said the charges include aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation on Twitter.
At the end of last year the Channel 4 News investigation revealed that the @ShamiWitness account was being run by Mehdi Biswas. The 24 year old office worker from Bangalore admitted that he ran the Twitter account and shut it down.
Mr Biswas stands accused of glorifying ISIS war crimes and terrorism. But information gathered by Channel 4 News reveals another side to him, a man who attended Hawaiian themed parties, was obsessed with American superhero movies, adored Hollywood actresses and shared Western jokes and cartoons on Facebook almost every day.
Mr Biswas was a manufacturing executive at food production company ITC until his arrest, according to his Facebook page, where he boasted in 2012 about what an important job he had.
“I have been working for the past 9 months in one of the top 5 top Indian conglomerates, working directly with most influential bosses … just saying … please suck on that”.
While the @ShamiWitness account appeared to defend some of ISIS’s most violent acts as an anonymous propagandist, Mehdi spoke of adoring Hollywood and democracy.
On Facebook he spoke of his disappointment at India’s election result: “You had a chance of turning this largest democracy on the planet into a really free country.”
Soon after explicit images of Hollywood celebrities were leaked online, he wrote on Facebook: “Well I like Jennifer Lawrence even more now.”
And at the end of 2013 he wrote: “A man’s shirt is like a flag on a conquered fortress.”
On Twitter @ShamiWitness was recorded praising martyred British fighters for their dedication and sacrifice. But Mehdi Biswas seemed like a normal twenty-something on Facebook. He posted pictures from visits to the mall, sharing funny pictures online, and eating takeaway pizza for brunch with his friends.
He did occasionally post on Facebook about the Syrian civil war last year, including regular criticism of the Assad regime.
He shares similar interests to that of @_UmmWaqqas, an influential Twitter account that was also identified by Channel 4 News as being operated by Seattle-twentysomething Rawdah Abdi. She was a key online contact for recruits who want to join ISIS, and was also a fan of American football, Starbucks and pizza.
Before his arrest in December 2014, Mehdi Biswas told Channel 4 News that he was behind the account and said: “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.”
At the time of the arrest of Mehdi Biswas, Dr Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, told Channel 4 News that India’s legal system is “extremely formalistic”. He added that the entire process is “punishment by trial” and that the prospects of conviction were slim.
Supporters of @ShamiWitness continue to campaign for his release, and express almost everyday on Twitter how much they miss @ShamiWitness, asking their followers to pray for his release.
Pro-ISIS supporters on Twitter quoted a phrase incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, saying: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. #shamiwitness”.
He wrote on Twitter shortly before his arrest: “May allah guide, protect, strengthen and expand the Islamic State … Islamic State brought peace, autonomy, zero corruption, low crime-rate.”