Twenty-four-year-old manufacturing executive Mehdi Masroor Biswas was never associated with the Islamic State (IS), but had gathered knowledge about the group by spending hours aggregating information about its campaign in the Middle East, Bangalore Police Commissioner M N Reddi said on Saturday.
Masroor put out this knowledge on the Twitter handle @ShamiWitness, which was followed by the top fighters of the IS and other jihadis.
Masroor, who was outed by the UK’s Channel 4 as the individual behind @ShamiWitness on Friday, was arrested from his one-room apartment in Ayyappanagar in Jalahalli area of North Bangalore in the early hours of Saturday. He has confessed to running the Twitter account, Reddi said.
Hours before Masroor was picked up, The Indian Express spoke to him over the phone from Kolkata. He said he had spoken to Channel 4, but had lied — and that he was not @ShamiWitness. He also said he was afraid the police would beat him.
Investigators seized two mobile phones and a laptop from Masroor’s residence, and efforts were on to obtain the computer log to verify the electronic links between him and the @ShamiWitness Twitter handle. Police were seeking the co-operation of Twitter, the commissioner said.
Masroor has been booked under IPC section 125, which defines “waging war against any Asiatic power in alliance with the Government of India” as an offence with a maximum punishment of seven years in jail and fine. NIA invoked the same section against Mumbai youth Areeb Majeed, who recently returned after reportedly training with and fighting alongside the IS in Iraq and Syria.
Masroor has also been booked under section 39 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004 for supporting a terrorist organisation, and section 66 of the IT Act, 2000 for computer-related offences.
Police sources involved with the interrogation described Masroor as “very emotionally invested in the cause of Islam”, and obsessed with posting from the handle. “The @ShamiWitness account seemed to have become his main cause in life. He was so consumed by it that he did not have much of a life beyond his work and the Internet,” said a top source. He had no social life, and no girlfriend, the source said.
“But he did not take any concrete step to actually join the outfit,” the officer added.
Commissioner Reddi said Masroor “was not directly involved with the Islamic State, but he was also not a mere sympathiser”. “He operated exclusively on the Internet. He was not linked to Indian terrorist activities,” Reddi said.
Mehdi who came to Bangalore from West Bengal in 2012 to work as a manufacturing executive earning Rs 5.3 lakh per annum, spent hours on the Internet looking at information on jihadi activities in the Middle East, police said. He allegedly aggregated information put out in Arabic and translated it into English using online translation tools, before tweeting it. He also tweeted his own interpretations of events and situations, Reddi said.
“He got interested in the Levant or al-Shams region consisting of countries like Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon from 2009. He would be active on the Internet late into the night. He took a 60 GB monthly Internet connection, and used to read all breaking news websites related to the Islamic State,” Reddi said.
According to the police, Masroor became close to English-speaking jihadis of the IS, and a source of incitement and information for new recruits. “Through his social media propaganda he abetted ISIS in its agenda to wage war against the Asiatic powers,” the police said.
Investigators said Masroor appeared to have been confident that he would never be detected. After being outed, he made no attempt to run, but he \deleted all records of his links to the @ShamiWitness account from his computer logs before police arrived at his apartment.
Masroor’s alleged confession that he was @ShamiWitness will not alone be sufficient for police to build a case in court against him. Masroor, a qualified engineer, is believed to have used proxy servers to camouflage his identity and location while putting out messages on Twitter over the past few years.
“He believes he has not done anything illegal in India. He did not tweet messages targeting India,” an officer said.