Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old engineer from Bangalore has been arrested for running a pro-ISIS Twitter account @ShamiWitness to spread propaganda related to the terrorist organization. The Bangalore police’s FIR said that he was booked under the under Section 125 of the IPC for “waging war against any Asiatic power in alliance with the Government of India”, section 66 of the IT Act, 2000 and section 39 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004 for supporting a terrorist organization.
The ShamiWitness account currently has 17715 followers, and has 129,413 tweets. A scan of its timeline indicates that it has pro-IS tweets and retweets, but isn’t indicative of it being an official ISIS account, or of an involvement with the terrorist organization.
Arrest based on Channel4 story
According to the Times of India, the police are yet to find a direct link between Biswas and any terror organization but he has confessed to the police that he wanted to be in the “creamy layer of the operations and not fight on the ground. ” The police added that he wanted to play the role of strategist and support the cause. The police had launched a manhunt for Biswas after Britain’s Channel 4 News had aired a report regarding the Bangalore link with the Twitter account that is followed by foreign jihadis.
However, it is interesting to note that Biswas had spoken to the Indian Express hours before his arrest and said he had lied to Channel4 and that he was not @ShamiWitness.
Bangalore Police commissioner M N Reddi said that they had recovered two mobile phones and a laptop from Biswas’ apartment and were looking to verify the electronic links between him and the @ShamiWitness Twitter handle.
Reddi also added that Biswas allegedly aggregated information put out in Arabic and used online translators and pushed the tweets in English. He also added his own interpretation of events and situations. A police officer speaking to The Indian Express further added that Biswas is a qualified engineer and is believed to have used proxy servers to hide his identity and location. The police officer also said that Masroor believes that he has not done anything illegal in India and did not tweet messages targeting India.
CNN-IBN also reports that a joint investigation by state and central agencies showed that Biswas wanted to radicalise Muslims abroad and that most of his tweets were sermons translating Arabic literature. The report adds that he did not receive any funds from ISIS and that it was highly unlikely that he was in touch with other members of ISIS even though he was highly motivated to spread the message of jihad.
This points that the extent of Biswas’ involvement in terror was more virtual than real and also brings a question of freedom of speech, and the potential abuse section 66 of the IT Act. Either way it remains that outing someone on the internet operating anonymously has a lot of ramifications in the real world.
It is interesting to note the parallels of the situations of Biswas and Michael Brutsch, the internet troll on Reddit, who was doxed (having your real personal information discovered and revealed on the internet, destroying anonymity) in an investigative report by Gawker.
The challenge that the Mehdi Masroor Biswas case poses (Nikhil adds)
If Biswas hasn’t been actively involved is ISIS, and is merely supporting their cause by tweeting in support, how is he complicit in acts of terror? The Indian state might not support ISIS, but tweeting in support of a terrorist organization is hardly an act of terror, or an act of “waging war against any Asiatic power in alliance with the Government of India”. Does this qualify as being involved in a terrorist organization? Also, what does one make of contradictory statements: one reports a confession, another where he says he lied to Channel4 about being @ShamiWitness. The news reports also suggest that he hasn’t said anything against India. Cases like this define how tolerant the Indian government is towards speech and ideas that are conflict with its own.
It’s not clear where the courts stand on tis issue. To quote from our coverage of the Section 66A case in the Supreme Court: “If a law requires a person to be careful, it is not violative of free speech”
Update: Changed the headline to bring it more in line with the story.