Shami Witness arrest rattles ISIS’ cages on Twitter
The arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas is putting jihadist tweeps on notice
The arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, author of the highly influential pro-ISIS twitter account @ShamiWitness, on Saturday in Bangalore, India, is putting jihadist tweeps on notice. Deactivation, suspension and anxious-ridden tweets have been widely visible in the last two days, while more questions are being raised to improve Twitter's anti-extremism tools and prevent ISIS from using it as a platform.
“He became a hub for ISIS recruits and propaganda,” that’s how Frances Townsend, president of the “Counter extremism Project” (CEP), sums up the rise and fall of Shami Witness, who raked up more than 18,000 followers on Twitter in the last two years.
From his executive office in India’s “silicon valley,” Shami Witness cheered on ISIS and its reign of horror more than 4,000 km away in Iraq and Syria. His outing and arrest this week after a Channel 4 investigation is a “very good development,” Townsend tells Al Arabiya News, proving that an anonymous address and fake Twitter handles are no guarantee for impunity.
Sophisticated and ‘legitimate’
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who had interacted with Biswas in the last two years, qualifies his strategy as “looking legitimate” while "humanizing ISIS."
Millions checked the Shami Witness Twitter feed every month, among them are leading journalists and counterterrorism experts in the West, desperate for any kind of information on the extremist group. His strength was in his ability to break news and report firsthand developments on ISIS, which proves according to Townsend that he had direct contact with its fighters on the battlefield.
Smyth’s first interactions with Shami Witness were in spring of 2013, through Biswas’ first account @elsaltador. “He played a neutral-slightly Islamist personality until around late 2013 before turning into full ISIS mode in 2014,” Smyth tells Al-Arabiya News.
The transition Smyth suspects was a reaction to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, whom Biswas favored originally, clashing with ISIS. During that period, Smyth says Biswas increasingly sent him privately “very sectarian posts and praised jihadist activity in Syria.”
Shami Witness was sophisticated enough and “understood how to manipulate the English language social media sphere for analysis and attract journalists seeking quick information and snarky posts,” according to Smyth. He tweeted Abdul Rahman Kassig’s beheading video and hailed arrests of Kurdish women fighters in Kobane. He also gave logistical advice at times about crossing into ISIS territory.
Twitter and extremism
The Shami Witness bust and arrest is sending shockwaves through jihadist Twitter circles. Some have already reconsidered and deactivated their Twitter accounts, while others are questioning the authenticity of other Jihadist accounts and possibility of intelligence agencies tracking them.
Despite this unsettling development for pro-ISIS accounts on Twitter, Townsend still sees the network “undisturbed, free to act without risk to disseminate propaganda, recruit and communicate within ISIS.” Townsend, who has been a target of vicious ISIS threats herself, voices concern about lack of protocol and guidelines on Twitter to report members spreading extremist propaganda.
“It is faster to start a Twitter account than to do a pregnancy test,” Townsend explains. Many of the pro-ISIS users who get blocked or reported recreate a new account in no time. Townsend, who worked as a homeland security advisor under U.S. President George W Bush, and CEP have been advocating putting more resources to help Twitter in data-mining and filtering its information.
Townsend suggests putting in place a set of algorithms that track extremist content, “similar to those that Google employs against pornography.”
Right now, Twitter does not have the feature to report a user for supporting terrorism, and it could take 12 days to review a profile while thousands of pro-ISIS figures utilize the outlet to exchange information. A U.N. effort supported by a U.N. Security Council resolution is in effect as well to combat online support for ISIS.
Deactivating the Shami Witness account is a setback for ISIS and raises red flags and unease among fellow jihadists. But absent of a long-term effort that enforces anti-extremism guidelines and safety measures on Twitter, stories of a tech executive in India or elsewhere promoting ISIS’ agenda in Deir Zour and beyond are bound to recur.