The case of a virtual warrior

Investigators are certain that IS tweeter Mehdi Masoor Biswas had no real-world activities, but the likely impact of his online campaign is keeping them busy on the case. Meanwhile, his arrest raises complex legal questions.

December 28, 2014 02:25 am | Updated November 16, 2021 04:48 pm IST

Mehdi Masoor Biswas’ life in a one-room apartment at Jalahalli in Bengaluru appeared ordinary to everyone who knew him — his landlord, colleagues, parents and siblings. The 24-year-old engineer spent a lot of time watching cartoons and on social media, called his parents in Kolkata every evening and craved for food cooked by his mother.

A Channel 4 report early this month uncovered Mehdi as the handler of a Twitter account that promoted Islamic State, a multi-country terror organisation. “He was fumbling for words ... But as we sat over his laptop trying to confirm that we had the right man, I saw him transform into a suave, confident operative. That is the defining image of the man for me,” says Hemanth Nimbalkar, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), Bengaluru, of his first encounter with an unlikely radical when he led the police team that raided his home on December 12.

The Channel 4 report said: “On his Facebook pages, he regularly shares jokes, funny images and talks about superhero movies, posting pictures of pizza dinners with friends and Hawaiian parties at work.”

“He did not go to a Madrasa, studied in English-medium schools and if he has tweeted in Arabic, he must have used an online translator,” his sister told The Hindu .

His is a classic tale of double life made possible by the digital age. “It’s as if he had a split personality. The venom-spewing ‘tweeter’ who cheered and defended beheadings motivated youths to fight for the IS, made fun of rape of Kurdish women and comes across as a meek and confused man when you meet him in person,” an officer said.

Investigations have so far revealed that Mehdi had no direct role in recruiting anyone nor did he have any links with IS ideologues, Intelligence Bureau sources say. But that does not make the case any simpler for security agencies. Mehdi started his Twitter account, @ElSaltador, in 2009, before the IS took shape and renamed it to @ShamiWitness in 2011. What troubles the police now is not the fact that he posted 1.29 lakh tweets over the years — they averaged 100 a day in days before he was arrested — but the 17,700 followers that he had, and the more than 14,000 direct messages he had exchanged with them. This included Arif Majeed, a youth from Kalyan, Maharashtra, who went to fight for the IS and returned injured. Arif was Mehdi’s follower on Twitter, through an anonymous Twitter handle, “Abu Ali Al Hindi.”

More than 15,000 fighters recruited from over 80 countries, including those from the United Kingdom and France, have joined the IS terror campaign. Although @ShamiWitness has fallen silent post Mehdi’s detention and arrest, another account, @shamicollector, that he followed has taken over since. The other account has now 1,298 followers and 4,810 tweets of a similar nature. “We have come across a few Indian nationals who had re-tweeted the contents uploaded by Mehdi. Their antecedents and activities are being probed to ascertain whether they have any active links with IS militants. More worried is the British intelligence, as many of the followers of the account were from the United Kingdom. In fact, word about the account got out only when some British nationals who joined the outfit talked about it,” said an official in New Delhi.

Investigators claim that Mehdi traces back his radicalisation to his early teens, to the post-9/11 events, which put him on to reading about Islam. Sources say that though he was attracted to Afghanistan and then Iraq, his passion was kindled by the Levant and the re-establishment of the Caliphate. He turned “ShamiWitness” even when he was an engineering student at Guru Nanak Institute of Technology, Sodepur, West Bengal. His radical tweets even predate the IS phenomenon in 2011 and propounded an Islamic state as a world order.

A senior police officer who has considerable experience in interrogating Islamists says the most stark difference he observed during Mehdi’s interrogation was that he was not an orthodox Muslim subscribing to the Wahhabi strand of Islam, unlike other noted jehadi terrorists from the country. “I have not seen that strand in Mehdi till date,” the official said.

“He had been getting followers from different parts of the world and that gave him further motivation to keep it going full throttle,” said another official privy to investigations in the case. The user location shown on his Twitter account was “Planet Earth.” However, most messages were either re-tweets or information gathered over the Internet, showing western countries in poor light. In the days running up to his arrest, he had been taking more interest in the latest U.S. Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture of terror suspect detainees. He frantically posted and re-tweeted details of the revelations made and the reaction from radical elements on the micro-blogging site. He also kept a close watch on the U.S.-led fight against IS militants and the terror strikes carried out by the outfit. One officer said Mehdi stood up to the name of his Twitter handle, “ShamiWitness,” acquiring such knowledge on the region that intelligence agencies always mistook the man tweeting as someone who came from the region. “It was almost as if he were living there,” he said.

Intelligence officials are now also analysing those accounts that followed Mehdi on Twitter, to understand what exactly shaped his views. Among those he tracked was also the account purportedly of the chief of the media commission for Pakistan-based terror outfit, Tehreek-e-Taliban. He kept a close watch on international media reports on countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Yemen, Turkey, Jordan, North Africa, Israel, Palestine, Germany, China, the U.K. and the U.S. Mehdi had been following news channels and several journalists, including one from India, primarily reporting on security, intelligence and foreign affairs. And then there were also those from the troubled region of Iraq and other West Asian countries. Interestingly, he had been following the Twitter handle operating in the name of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. One of the re-tweets by the young engineer from West Bengal shared information on how to erase electronic data.

Intelligence officials say that during interrogation, Mehdi disclosed that he was “radicalised” by information on atrocities committed against members of his community in different parts of the world and it motivated him to come out in support of the IS. Curiously, he has not been concerned about issues regarding Muslims in India or the country’s politics. “Although he was apparently not in direct touch with the outfit, the Twitter account he operated attracted a large number of followers, many of whom are suspected to have joined the IS. The real challenge before all of us is to track down such persons,” said an intelligence official.

Though his Facebook activities tracked by Channel 4 suggest that Mehdi had an active social life, his relatives and neighbours of his Kaikhali residence near Kolkata know him as an aloof youth who kept himself to books. “In every sense of the term, Mehdi was the archetypal mama’s boy. He never fought with anyone or talked loudly,” a relative said. Those who knew him were shocked that a “soft spoken, introvert and extremely amiable” person like him could have done what he is accused of. His dependence on his family, especially his mother, is the most striking feature of his personality that emerges from interviews with people who knew him.

Mehdi complained to his family that everything in Bengaluru tasted the “same and is tangy.” During his two-year stay there, his mother stayed with him cooking food for him. Mehdi’s sister described him as a “kind and loving brother who is only interested in books.” “He cannot even drive a motorcycle, did not have any friends in Kolkata or his workplace,” she said adding that though he had been staying with some friends in his early days in Bengaluru, he could not adjust with them.

“He used to go to office and return to his rented apartment,” she said. During the weekend and holidays, he would take his mother out. However, he was fond of cricket and used to watch matches on television, but not played much with the local boys. “As far as I know, he does not have any associates or gang with him,” she said.

Mehdi fumbled for words when the Channel 4 journalist asked him whether he considered himself to be an honest Muslim. “I try to. But I am not sure if I am,” Mehdi said.

Mehdi is probably the first truly global terror ideologue of the country, operating only in the virtual world as a “lone wolf,” but tracking his impact in the real world is not going to be easy. He has thrown up serious legal, sociological and political questions.

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