From now on, I will no longer be referring to “ISIS”. It implies that this organisation is an “Islamic State” (they’re anything but) and gives a veneer of respectability. From now on, I will simply use Da’esh (the Arabic acronym), literally meaning “to trample down”.
Shami Witness became a figure of notoriety for many covering the Syrian conflict; a frantic blogger and tweeter with a broad range of knowledge who ended up being cited by any number of sources monitoring the conflict.
He initially started out inconspicuously, another activist using the vast expanses of Twitter for publishing his “news” (copied from the timelines of others), commentary on revolutions and “musings on events”. He joined Twitter in 2009. Come the Libyan revolution of 2011 he initially claimed to be of Libyan origin and residing in the UK.
His initial positions were inconspicuous – strong support for the government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, defense of Erdogan during the Gezi park demonstrations, coverage of Libya etc.
After the fall of Morsi in 2013 much of his diatribe became increasingly fanatical in nature (I would use “radicalised”, but it has become immensely misused). He was enraged by Sisi’s illegal coup against Egypt’s democratically-elected government and posted various pieces of diatribe against the coup.
He then turned to Syria with increasing anger. Having previously called for unity between opposition groups of all types, he then became a devout Da’esh supporter and parroted the group’s message devotedly. The open warfare between enraged Syrians and Da’esh in January 2014 finally pushed him irreversibly into the arms of the pro-Da’esh camp. Suddenly becoming less”analyst” and more “fanboy”, he began to call anti-Da’esh groups (even Islamic groups like al-Nusra) disbelievers, began to extol the virtues of joining the group, encourage young men to join etc. Having previously blocked people who suggested he supported them, he began openly endorsing his “bros” in the group.
They were innocent of torturing anyone below 14, they were somehow defeating the oppressors by slaughtering everyone and alienating the population… His excuses were numerous. Even after being expelled from al-Qa’eda for their supreme levels of brutality (too much for even Zawahiri to handle) Shami continued to support them. Many of his followers began to grow increasingly disconcerted by his overt endorsement of the organisation (the author expressed his disapproval and was subsequently blocked).
This didn’t go unnoticed by many Da’esh sympathisers and foreign fighters who by now were flocking to Syria and Iraq in abundance. Figures in the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical weapon massacre by the Assad regime show as many as 11,000 fighters had poured into Syria from abroad, many from the west. They were angered by the atrocities, and often easily seduced by Da’esh’s message of Islamic revival and revenge.
Shami’s profile became a conduit for spreading ISIS propaganda, which included sending personal words of encouragement to their fighters and keeping in regular contact with them. 2/3 followed his account. He also frequently used his profile to post links to commentary and analysis on his website, saturated with jargon supporting the “Islamic State”.
His notoriety gained him some 18,000 followers and immense controversy among activists and researchers; associating with Shami became a liability even for pragmatic reasons. Aymenn al-Tamimi ended up being tarnished for some time, not only because of his methods of extracting information from Da’esh supporters (which included pretending to be a sympathiser) but for referring to Shami as his “bro” in the process – even if it was only to gain his trust. Tamimi has written an account of Shami’s rise and fall on Joshua Landis’ pro-regime Syria Comment site.
It was in December 2014 that things started to go awry for “Shami Witness”. He previously tweeted under Twitter name @ElSaltador. When Channel 4 News discovered his account, they also found his Google and Facebook accounts. They then got in contact with Shami…
To the surprise of many, they discovered that Shami wasn’t an outward fanatic. But one Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a marketing executive located in the Indian city of Bangalore. A 24-year-old man that most wouldn’t have glanced at twice. His “radicalisation” (and I shudder to use that word as Muslims protesting imperialist acts are smeared with this buzzword) had been a gradual process.
It was here that Shami’s cowardice fully boiled to the surface, as he panicked and engaged in a too-little-too-late damage control effort. He first told Channel 4 in a telephone interview that he would have joined Da’esh but had to stay in Bangalore because his family needed him in India.
All these years of bile had come from an individual who slammed Syrian revolutionaries as “apostates” and called for their destruction if they challenged Da’esh. Meanwhile, he was innocuously attending Hawaiian parties, eating pizza and watching western movies full of morally questionable content. His Facebook account was described as containing: “jokes, pictures of pizza dinners with friends and Hawaiian parties at work”.
Shami joked about the rape of Kurdish female fighters captured by Daesh, insulted and abused opponents as heretics… But wanted Channel 4 to leave his name anonymous.
He became erratic; suddenly claiming that the exposure meant that the police might kill him and falsely claim he resisted arrest. This was possibly an attempt to warn authorities against arresting him. At the same time, he emphasised that he wouldn’t “resist”. He then pulled a 180 and claimed the Shami Witness account had nothing to do with him. The link to his email and accounts was because his account (firstname.lastname@example.org) had been “hacked” and he had been “framed”. He then changed his story (again) and pompously stated that he was one of the few Muslims who could “enunciate” in English and that his Twitter-based ravings were somehow some sort of threat to the powers that be, resulting in a conspiracy against him. Very few Muslims apparently speak English in Shami world…
Then he claimed to have “decided to admit” to being Shami Witness in the hope that Channel 4 “would not air the program”; the fact that they had done so made things “complicated”. Indeed, how dare they disrupt his busy life of advocating mass murder?
Predictably, news came in on December 13th that the Indian police had arrested Mehdi on charges of violating Indian Penal Code section 125, dealing with “waging war” against an India-friendly alliance/country. A photograph of his mugshot emerged on the internet, to the mirth of activists, Syrians and just about everyone else his odious ravings had insulted.
Probably one of the most disgusting aspects of this whole Mehdi/Shami debacle is the sheer hypocrisy he showed when it came to Syria, in the form of his 150-character efforts to persuade young men to die for a cause he would never have considered abandoning his comfortable lifestyle for.
When the accounts of Da’eshis would be suspended due to regular Twitter crackdowns, Mehdi would promote their new accounts and urge his followers to follow them. He would also give tips and advice about how to join the Da’esh, eulogise the “martyrs” killed fighting for a cause that pitted them against the Syrian people.
In short, he encouraged the susceptible to go and die on his behalf from the comfort of his living room. He praised fighters Ifthekhar Jaman and Anil Khalil Raofi as “bros” who “talked the talk and walked the walk”… Despite only doing the former.
Such cowardice isn’t unique; terror recruiters of all ages residing in the west have an oft-overlooked tendency to send young men into the Middle Eastern fray (with no knowledge of Arabic and even less military experience) to be killed whilst they stay behind embezzling tens of thousands of pounds in benefits and spreading their poison. Anjem Choudury is probably the most recognisable of the cultists. He also refused to go, ostensibly for the sake of his livelihood and family. Yet he didn’t mind propelling many of his followers into the ranks of Da’esh.
Fouad Belkacem (AKA “Abu Imran) the founder of Sharia4Belgium staunchly denies ever having sent any young men to die for Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. Yet tens of young men from his organisation ended up in the ranks of Da’esh. One of his proteges is Brian De Mulder. In a short time, Belkacem’s bile turned Brian into a “programmed robot” who repeatedly threatened to drop his family “like bricks” and then fled to Syria in January 2013, disowning his family on Facebook and claiming that he would never return. He was later killed in 2015.
Other leaders of Sharia4Belgium such as Hicham Chaib, Noureddine Abouallal and Feisal Yamoun also went to Syria, the latter two also died. The organisation now claims to have disbanded. This may be one of the few cases in which some recruiters had the courage to accompany followers.
In Australia Musa Cerantonio had spewed pro-extremist rhetoric for years, supporting Da’esh and encouraging young Australians to sign up without making a move himself. He eventually went to the Philippines, boasting in July 2013 that he would be arriving in Syria “very shortly“. Two days later he tweeted that he had “reached the caliphate”.
What all these parasites share in common isn’t an unwavering desire to act on their perverted visions, but the fact that their rise was totally enabled by the internet. Most of them are hated by their co-religionists (with good reason) so their only choice is to use the internet to shorten the time and space between themselves and their clique. In the case of many (Mehdi included) they are simply too cowardly to express their awful opinions outside the internet. Lurking under pseudonyms is their “safe space”.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the aftermath of Mehdi’s arrest, in which various pro-Da’esh users suddenly realised that their plan to hide anonymously online and vent their hormonal frustrations could go very badly.
Da’esh “fanboy” accounts started disappearing all over the place. That being said, there will be many out there like Mehdi (even described by the police as having “no social life” as a result of his dedication) who have so little going on that returning to the internet a second time may be too tempting to refuse. It wouldn’t surprise me if his account was kept up throughout the repeated suspensions of like-minded users in order for intelligence agencies of various nations to gather data on his followers and interactions.
Ironically enough, although many analysts and online researchers have denounced Shami, they were constantly citing him in their work and giving him much-needed legitimacy at a time when his commentary was increasingly pro-Da’esh.
How do you solve a problem like Shami Witness? In short, there is no answer. The internet, despite mass surveillance by the authorities, will always be a veritable haven for malcontents, terrorists, criminals and other characters. The solution is not more surveillance and censorship; these communities will always be present in every sphere of offline and online life. The best solution is to ideologically challenge their Khawarij sympathies and deprive them of the narrative they seek to establish.
That being said, it certainly isn’t a good idea to post your every thought online. The case against Mehdi is complicated and made all the more tenuous by the attempts to draw the line between free speech and terrorism, as well as the fact that his initially-respectable research and documentation degenerated so badly.
Mehdi undeniably went too far, quickly spreading foul content within minutes when posted by Da’esh (such as the video of the beheading of American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig) so a conviction seems likely. Especially since his moral bankruptcy translated into encouraging others to take part in terror acts from an inconspicuously safe distance.
Update: Shami Witness claims he is a “soldier” with no regrets, in court.