Pro-IS Indian tweeter arrested in Bengaluru, had 17,000 followers

Bengaluru/Kolkata: In an arrest with international ramifications, Indian business executive Mehdi Masroor Biswas, whose Twitter handle @ShamiWitness was alleged to be the most prolific for jihadist terror group Islamic State, was held from a Bengaluru suburb early Saturday. His family claimed he was not linked, but his account was "hacked".

Biswas, 24, who hails from West Bengal, was arrested two days after Channel 4 News reported from London that he was part of the dreaded IS' twitter activities and was regularly tweeting from Bengaluru.

He was picked from his one-room rented house in the northeast suburbs of the city and sent to police custody after preliminary interrogation, Karnataka Director General of Police Lal Rokhuma Pachau told reporters in Bengaluru.

"Mehdi was found asleep in a one-room tenement when our probe team knocked on his door in the early hours. He was detained, interrogated and arrested on confessing that he was a radical Islamist," Pachau said.

The police team seized incriminating documents, Islamic literature and many pictures from his room. Biswas' twitter handle @ShamiWitness has over 17,000 followers, mostly from the West, and he used to aggressively tweet after collecting information on Middle Eastern developments.

"Mehdi's tweets from his Twitter handle were most popular among British IS supporters," Channel 4 News said in its report unmasking Biswas' activity. The twitter handle has been de-activated a day after the news channel unmasked his identity.

Hailing from Gopalpur town in West Bengal's Nadia district, Biswas was employed in Indian multinational firm ITC and according to police, earned an annual package of Rs.5.38 lakh.

ITC vice president Nazeeb Arif, confirming Biswas was an employee, said the company had informed police "about his employment status" and "extended all cooperation to the investigation". He also said Biswas didn't have access to social media from office.

Biswas' father, who was employed with the West Bengal electricity board, refused to believe that his son has any terror links and claimed his account was hacked.

N. Masroor Biswas, who stays in Koikhali in northeastern Kolkata, said that he had no knowledge about his son's arrest as his phone was switched off.

"My son said he did not understand how it has happened. He said his internet account is hacked. I don't believe that my son has any link with IS," said the senior Biswas.

"My son is busy with his office duty from 8.45 in the morning till night," he added.

Biswas, who studied in Guru Nanak Engineering College in Kolkata, was selected by ITC in campus recruitment and moved to Bengaluru in 2012 on posting. He was confirmed in his job in March this year but kept up his interest in the Middle East.

"Mehdi Biswas got interested in developments across the Muslim world, spanning West Asia and North Africa since a decade. He used an internet account with 60 GB capacity to download news, views, videos and pictures and browse social media sites such as Facebook, blogs, news portals and used e-mail extensively," Pachau added.

Bengaluru police registered a case against Biswas under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Information Technology Act.

Biswas confessed to operating @ShamiWitness over the years as he got interested in the region.

"He was close to the English-speaking terrorists of IS and became a source of incitement and information for new recruits trying to join the group," Bengaluru Police Commissioner M.N. Reddi said.

Biswas was careful in hiding his true identity and was confident that it would never get revealed. However, preliminary investigation, including his interrogation, revealed he has been operating mostly in the virtual world and did not have local associates or links.

Reddi said Mehdi became an IS sympathiser after reading voraciously on the socio-religious situation of Muslims in the Arab world and became active on social media to share, translate and spread messages of the IS from Arabic into English and from other languages into Arabic.

"He did not recruit or facilitate or travel outside the country," he added.

Biswas had told Channel 4 News Thursday that he thought he had not done anything wrong.

Channel 4 news said on its website that his tweets were seen two million times each month, "making him perhaps the most influential Islamic State Twitter account, with over 17,700 followers".

It also said that two-thirds of all foreign IS fighters on Twitter followed him. Channel 4 news said Mehdi spoke to British jihadis regularly, both before they left to join the IS and and after they arrived. If they died, he praised them as martyrs.

The arrest follows that of Arif Majeed, an alleged IS recruit from Kalyan in Mumbai. The National Investigation Agency is probing that case.

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