Britain’s Channel 4 News reported Thursday that the author of @ShamiWitness, one of the most influential and widely followed pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, is actually not a fighter on the front lines but an executive at an Indian conglomerate in India’s technology capital. The account has since been shut down.
He turns out to have been fairly easy to doxx. Shami Witness used to tweet under a different handle, which he had also used to register a Google Plus account. From there, it was a quick step to the Facebook page of a man named Mehdi on which, according to Channel 4, “he regularly shares jokes, funny images and talks about superhero movies, posting pictures of pizza dinners with friends, and Hawaiian parties at work.” The report didn’t use Mehdi’s full name as he believes his life may be in danger, but it’s been reported on Twitter and in the Indian media.
Shami Witness had more than 17,700 followers, including an estimated two-thirds of the foreign fighters on Twitter. As Adam Taylor of the Washington Post notes, he had been sharing information about the war in Syria for years but only began actively defending ISIS at the beginning of this year.
But he did interact frequently with British ISIS fighters and praised them after their deaths. “you bros talked the talk, walked the walk,” he wrote about Iftikhar Jaman, a British ISIS fighter killed in Syria last December. When asked why he didn’t travel to Syria himself, Mehdi told Channel 4 “If I had a chance to leave everything and join them I might have.. my family needs me here.” In his own case, he was evidently satisfied with just talking the talk.
He also shared the video showing the beheading U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig multiple times.
ISIS has been renowned for its social media prowess, but Mehdi’s case suggests that much of the group’s propaganda and recruitment campaign may rely not on fighters themselves, but on self-starting keyboard jihadis, far from the battlefield. After Shami Witness’s identity was revealed, a number of other pro-ISIS Twitter accounts went dark.
This should also be a cautionary tale for outsiders following the war. The near impossibility of reporting within Syria has forced many journalists and analysts to rely on accounts like Shami Witness for information. These accounts, often anonymous, may not always have the firsthand perspective they claim.
It’s also simply a fascinating digital-age story of a man with dual identities. While the mild-mannered executive Mehdi condemned rape on his Facebook page, for instance, his alter-ego on Twitter joked about ISIS captors raping female Kurdish fighters.
The reaction among Shami Witness’ longtime Twitter antagonists has been positively gleeful. “So basically the Islamic State was outsourcing to Bangalore. Wait till the Daily Mail hears about this,” tweets the Lebanese architect and satirist Karl Sharro.
As for Mehdi himself, he says he will not resist arrest but fears that police will kill him. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t harmed anybody,” he told Channel 4 in a follow-up Friday.
While doxxing and social media manhunts generally make me uncomfortable, it’s pretty hard to feel sympathy for someone who cheered the killing of innocent people and urged others to their deaths while hiding behind anonymity for his own safety.