Shami Witness is a thoroughly online creation

Shami Witness is a thoroughly online creation
A 'well-mannered' middle-class Indian is caught up in the web of the Islamic State group. He was less PR officer, more embedded journalist, all from his modest flat in the outsourcing city of Bangalore.
5 min read
17 Dec, 2014
The family home of Shami Witness in a modest middle class neighbourhood (Getty)
Indian labour: either imported for menial tasks or used in an outsourced capacity for IT work. That about sums it up.

Why should it be different for the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS)?

Areeb Majeed, age 23, leaves Maharashtra, all fired up to join some kind of fantasy global jihad. He arrives in the dominion of the IS group and is handed a bucket and a mop. It is toilet duty for him. Not long afterwards he heads back home. He is now being interrogated by the Indian security services.
     The difference between gamers and Shami Witness is that Biswas cheered people on to their deaths

Mehdi Masroor Biswas, age 24, sat in his modest flat in Bangalore, created a twitter avatar called Shami Witness, and began to proclaim the glories of the "Islamic State".

Like Majeed, Biswas also wanted to taste the flavour of the battlefield. But he could not go. His parents relied upon him for his income earned from ITC Foods, a branded packaged food company. He stayed, with his computer, in his one-room flat. He was part of the IS back office.

The British Channel 4 News then uncovered his identity. The Indian security services arrested him and have begun to interrogate him to learn about his relationship with IS.

Both Majeed and Biswas come from middle-class lives: Majeed's father, Ejaz Majeed, is a medical doctor, while Biswas's father, N. Masroor Biswas, worked for the West Bengal State Electricity Board. The Majeeds live in Kalyan, a city that feeds Bombay with professional workers. The Biswases live in Kaikhali, abutting Calcutta's airport. Both of their neighbourhoods are modestly middle-class. The Majeeds, in fact, live in the Sarvodaya Society building complex – Sarvodaya meaning "welfare for all" Gandhi’s word for socialism.

Nothing in the lives of these two young men suggested a turn to radicalism of this kind. Both went with full bellies to decent schools, and while Biswas had parlayed his electrical engineering degree into a job, Majeed was studying engineering.

What did not draw them to IS are the many mosques in both Mumbai and in Calcutta. Neither men seemed particularly pious, and neither took their local maulvis seriously.

What drew them in was the internet. In the 1990s, Western intelligence agencies began to talk about "homegrown terrorism" – referring in particular to extremists who acted in the name of Islam. What was most fascinating about the examples before them is that the men – and they were mostly men in the examples – came from reasonably affluent families with affable relationships with their neighbours.

These men had been raised in the typical institutions of their societies – members of sports leagues and local schools. Some of the men frequented mosques, but this was not something for all of them. One survey of British Muslims in the early 2000s found that almost a third learnt about Islam and Islamism from the web.

The imams who knew some of these young men registered their dismay – they had remained outside the cultural world of the mosque and had frequently challenged the authority of the imams.

There is something of the homegrown extremist in both Majeed and Biswas. Biswas' neighbours in his building in Jalahalli said he was "well-mannered". Both Majeed and Biswas honed their Islam and their politics on the web. Neither seems to have been attached to any local, Indian extremist groups.

Outside the dragnet

This is what helped them exist outside the dragnet of the state, whose eyes and ears are more in the orthodox forms of organisation rather than in the virtual universe. Biswas, or Shami Witness, has never left India. He has never been to Syria or to Iraq. But what he had been able to do in the space of two years is quite extraordinary.

He learned as much as he could about the region from his readings on the web and began to declaim with authority from his Twitter account. He is not unlike Eliot Higgins, age 35, who sits in his Leicester suburb and writes with authority about Syria under the name of Brown Moses.

If Brown Moses became a major source for western media outlets, so did Shami Witness. Both made claims about the world through assessments of YouTube videos uploaded by jihadi groups; neither had first hand reporting experience in the region.

On Twitter, Brown Moses even recommended "following" Shami Witness. He was not alone. The National’s Hassan Hassan, the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani, and the Washington Institute of Near Eastern Policy’s Aaron Zelin promoted Biswas as a witness from Syria.

Biswas had taken fairly conventional Islamist positions on events in the Middle East – pro-Brotherhood in Egypt and pro-Erdogan in Turkey, before he migrated in early 2014 to becoming a full-blown apologist for the IS group. He became one of the main disseminators of IS material, less a public relations office of the IS and more an embedded journalist in its continent.

Quickly the capaciousness vanished – Shami Witness became just another IS stronghold, fulminating against Shia and propagating the victories of its legions. He began to question others who portrayed the group as a vicious band of marauders, ironically suggesting that Twitter posts from activists in Raqqa had been sent from Europe instead.

Shami Witness was a product of the internet more than of IS – a consumer of information who sought forms of community online that he did not enjoy in life. He could just as well have been a gamer and thrown himself into the Gamergate fiasco. The ferocity of his commitment should have indicated that something was not quite right – he went so quickly from being pro-Brotherhood to pro-IS. The leap took only a month.

The difference between gamers and Shami Witness is that Biswas cheered people on to their deaths, and to the murder of hundreds of others. The implication of his Internet recreation was not passive. It was deadly.

Another twitter account that often speaks for the US group threatened the Bangalore police over its arrest of Biswas – "Revenge is coming wait for our reaction." The police rightly dismissed the threat. It is easy to exaggerate a threat. Harder to dial it down to reality.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.