Foreign Policy Blogs

The Casual Propagandist Today

 Garrett Heath  via Flickr

Garrett Heath
via Flickr

The exposure and arrest of @ShamiWitness, one of the “most-followed” ISIS-fan accounts on Twitter, is indicative of the problems inherent in trying to monitor the Islamic State’s activities from afar.

@ShamiWitness –whose real-name is Mehdi Masroor Biswas – was not a journalist, though one could call him an analyst (if so charitably inclined). His primary inclination was propagandizing a cause he had become attached to from afar. And if you followed him on Twitter, as I did, you would see that his retweets of other jihadist uploads or jihadist news portals’ content always showed up in the feed several times a day. That constant aggregation of content was probably more influential than anyone (including him) would care to admit.

He is not the first ISIS tweep to be “doxxed,” though. Unlike @ShamiWitness, most of the people who have been exposed were actually members of ISIS fighting in Syria or Iraq. They did not claim to be anything but fighters – they just hid their places of birth to avoid prosecution back home should they ever return. Among the deluge of fake photographs and trash talk online about IS, his material was omnipresent and, usually, the real thing. He was also usually first to tweet, again thanks to his almost round-the-clock Internet presence. It is true that when your “activism” is limited to round-the-clock computer use, you do not have time to actually influence events and causes in more tangible ways. And that you are primarily speaking to an echo chamber of your peers. But for propaganda purposes, such a lifestyle is ideal. @ShamiWitness would probably have liked to think that his analysis, published and cited online by other commentators (some of whom I know), carried the most weight.

And one imagines there will be similar reckonings in other countries “of proto-jihadists who won’t go for jihad unless absolutely guaranteed free WiFi and valet parking”. Whether these tweeps truly inspired anyone to do what they would not – leave their families behind to go to war – will probably come out in a list of charges before a court. It is hard to imagine anyone could credibly argue he or she was solely motivated to join IS because of @ShamiWitness’s actions, but he was nonetheless popular among the majority of the ISIS’ foreign fighters. And he was, by association, a member of the larger network of preachers, war tourists, unemployed youth, and people smugglers that have helped thousands make their way to the self-proclaimed “caliphate” to act out their political convictions – mostly against civilians who have nowhere to go.

The banality of @ShamiWitness, and other IS cheerleaders like him, raises another point worth considering: should they be censored and exposed en masse? One of the most consistent assessments of @ShamiWitness, by his detractors and defenders, is that he tried to “humanize” ISIS – and was well-placed to do so because he possessed English language skills, did not traffic in disinformation, and was (apparently) an approachable person via direct message. A raving nutcase cannot accomplish such a feat because they are so socially maladjusted they repulse most of their hoped-for audience. So, letting the more articulate members and fellow travelers of ISIS propagandize helps them “sell” their larger war effort – silencing them reduces exposure of that message.

Yet, with so many options available for such propagandists – if a violent video gets taken down from YouTube or LiveLeak, it simply reappears on another platform. Banned Facebook and Twitter users can reopen accounts – indeed, @ShamiWitness’s account only went offline because he took it down following the Channel 4 exposé. It is now back up — an archive of his rise and fall. In spite of everything that has transpired since he started the account – including his arrest in India, including his tweeting content that violated Twitter’s rules on a daily basis – his account has not been banned. And some of his associates’ accounts only went dark when they too decided to cut and run. Again and again, even members of ISIS are able to reappear under slightly modified user names without actually changing their stripes. It is worth noting that he, and these other individuals, would never have been allowed to continue as long as they did have some governments not judge their output to be of some value.

Some intelligence communities around the world do prefer that these accounts stay online. This is not mere speculation: This is a documented policy. They are valuable sources of open source intelligence (OSINT), as are a great many other clearinghouses of information for other causes whose content falls under the category of “incitement.” Such has always factored into official reporting, but has become more important to collection efforts against ISIS for several reasons. One is that seeing how ISIS presents itself is useful for combating its message. Active pro-ISIS social media campaigns help law enforcement scrutinize people at risk and people likely to seek out ISIS recruiters in transit countries, especially among the informal network of Arabic-language accounts that do (unofficial?) PR work for ISIS.

Another reason is that social media provides some insight into life inside the conquered territories, as the provincial Twitter accounts for ex-Syrian and Iraqi provinces combine the pedestrian functions of local access TV (trash pick up day, curfews, where aid is being distributed at what time) with slick, blood-curdling propaganda. Even the worst kind of IS clips can provide possibly useful information in terms of filming locations, people who are present, and weapons on display.

It would be inconvenient for intelligence services and analysts to lose these open source materials. To apply consistent standards would be extremely difficult. Would all designated FTOs have to be banned from Twitter – including groups in Iraq that are now de-facto inside the U.S.- and GCC-led coalition against ISIS? In the end, it seems that the utility of having these materials out in the open will protect the Mehdi Masroor Biswases of the world more than arguments for free speech – so long as they stay within certain boundaries defined by national security agencies.

@ShamiWitness, and many of the people who read him, and were even inspired by him to go to war, probably enjoyed free pizza and casual Fridays as much as he did – in between justifying the rape of civilians and cheering on extrajudicial murders. That he was both so normal in his behavior, yet so abnormal in his politics under the cover of anonymity is certainly unsettling. But it is not unique, and certainly not as unique as he is striving to present himself in defense of his actions.