The outing of @ShamiWitness, a pro-IS Twitter account, has been a wake up call for the Indian government. Run by a 24-year-old food company executive, Mehdi Masoor Biswas, he had 17,800 followers, including hundreds of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. A Channel 4 News investigation revealed recently that this Twitter handle extolling the group's military campaign was run, not from somewhere in the Middle East, but from Bengaluru, 4,000 kilometres away.
According to Al Arabiya, millions followed @ShamiWitness every month, among them leading journalists and counterterrorism experts in the West, desperate for any kind of information on the group. Biswas’ strength was his ability to break news and report firsthand developments on the Islamic State.
Despite being caught unawares, embarrassed Bengaluru authorities detained Biswas last Saturday. Police are reportedly poring over the 129,000 tweets he had posted over several years to determine if he was simply a cheerleader for the group or an online recruiter, an officer told Reuters.
India has the world's third-largest population of Muslims, but they have largely shunned violent extremism. Police say only four Indians are known to have joined IS, of which one later returned and is in police custody.
"It is true the number of Indians in the group or involved in its activities is only a handful," Home Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament. "But I want to make clear we are taking this seriously."
Singh said the government aimed to limit the activities of the Middle Eastern group that has carved out swathes of territory in the Middle East.
"We had taken cognizance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria activities in other countries," he said. "As a first step we have banned this outfit in India."
India had earlier held off from banning IS, because of the group's lack of activity in the country and worries over the fate of 39 Indian construction workers missing in Iraq since June, who are believed to be held by the group.
According to Reuters, officials had also suggested it would be harder to track sympathizers if IS was banned, driving their activities underground.
Nevertheless, with a 24-year old in Benguluru tweeting an average of 142 tweets every day in favour of violent jihad, the authorities felt the time had come to ban the group. A ban also reportedly makes it easier for police to prosecute suspects.
Despite booking Biswas under the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Information Technology Act, and Section 125 of the Indian Penal Code (for waging war against an Asian ally of India), police may find it difficult to make a case against Biswas.
“As of now, the case is weak. He is not involved with the IS. But let the Bengaluru police complete probe against him first,” a counter-terror official told the Hindustan Times.
Sources said there was no doubt that Biswas was a radicalized youth, but it is not clear whether he actually did anything to implement his jihadist ideology.