One of the most popular English voices of the Islamic State on Twitter — @ShamiWitness — may have hit the headlines Friday after he was tracked down in Bangalore by UK’s Channel 4. But according to sources, Indian intelligence agencies were keeping an eye on this Twitter handle ever since 2009 when it first started pushing the al-Qaeda world view — they just didn’t consider it a threat serious enough to warrant any action.
“Somebody whose account is in the open and who has been very popular for so long is unlikely to have had any direct connection with the IS beyond the ideological level,’’ sources said.
The agencies believed that the person behind the handle was not involved with the recruitment of cadre for IS from India, though they continued to closely monitor his tweets. “But no action was deemed necessary,” the sources said.
According to them, a major IS recruiter across the globe is an Indian-origin man based in the Gulf. This individual, they said, had directed many IS supporters to the popular Twitter handle but there is, again, no evidence of any direct links between this recruiter and @ShamiWitness.
The @ShamiWitness account was known to be very authoritative on Syria and Iraq and was used as a source of information by Indian agencies monitoring IS’s activities, sources said. “But there were no tweets about India,’’ they said.
However, news that @ShamiWitness’ digital propaganda operation was running out of Bangalore could still come as a major embarrassment for India’s government, which has long been warned by the intelligence services that they lack the tools and personnel to adequately monitor potential terrorist threats online.
The Indian Express had reported in August that NETRA, a super-secret National Technical Research Organisation project intended to enable India to monitor terrorism-related traffic, had come to a dead-end because of the lack of adequate resources.
Channel 4’s investigators, meanwhile, discovered that @ShamiWitness had used a personal email address, ElSaltador@gmail.com, to set up a personal Twitter account, @ElSaltador. Based on this lead, the channel found out that the same email address had been used to open personal LinkedIn and Google Groups accounts. The data enabled them to contact @ShamiWitness in Bangalore.
Reached by Channel 4, @ShamiWitness denied that he intended to win over recruits to the Islamic State, saying his tweets only expressed his opinion. “Just because someone follows me, it doesn’t mean that I am the reason for their joining ISIS,” he said in the audio interview that was telecast along with the report.
But in the Channel 4 interview, he made clear his support for Islamic State, adding that he was prevented from joining the group by his commitments to his family.
@ShamiWitness’ tweets demonstrate a serious grasp of Islamist politics and the conflict in Iraq and Syria. He was cited in the scholarly work of top experts, invited to blog on academic sites following the jihad in Syria, and wrote commentary on the differences between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. He is said to have been followed by an estimated two-thirds of the UK-origin jihadists active in Syria.
Indian government sources said the UK’s intelligence services had been contacted for any information they might have on @ShamiWitness, but were told he was not a person of interest for any ongoing terrorism investigation.