It’s a sad day for ISIS’ online fan clubs; if they weren’t scurrying into hiding, they’d be clicking their black flag avatars down to half-mast. The Twitter account of @ShamiWitness, the bravest jihadist to never actually join the jihad, was shut down after a reporter learned his real identity.
ISIS’ top English-speaking PR man is an advertising executive living in India, Britain’s Channel 4 revealed.
Shami, we hardly knew ye! All those bloodthirsty tweets and arcane exhortations and now we find out you were an advertising executive—an ad exec!—who liked “pizza dinners with friends, and Hawaiian parties at work” all along. Such dark comedy.
Citing Shami’s own claim that “his life would be in danger if his true identity was made public” Channel 4 identified him only by his first name, Mehdi. It didn’t take long for a full name to surface online, but we’ll hold off on posting that until The Daily Beast can verify that the “Mehdi” in question is the man behind the @ShamiWitness Twitter account.
His life could be in danger! Shami is scared. Not about encouraging aspiring butchers to live out their violent fantasies in Syria. That’s still fine. He just doesn’t want people to know that it’s him cheering on the murder.
Shami—no, let’s use his real name—Mehdi’s praise for ISIS was easy to digest for his nearly 18,000 followers, which included two thirds of all foreign fighters according to Channel 4’s report. His message evolved into a hardline defense that celebrated beheadings while praising the self-declared Islamic State for its governance. As ISIS massacred its enemies—anyone who didn’t swear allegiance to the group—Mehdi laundered the slaughter as a tough on crime, law and order agenda. Islamic State brought “peace, autonomy, zero corruption, low crime-rate,” he Tweeted last month.
“It’s hard to overstate how influential ShamiWitness was among English-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter,” said terrorism analyst J.M. Berger.
Berger, who has specialized in documenting the way terror networks operate through social media, describes Mehdi’s influence and the consequences of his outing:
“Even before his self-deletion, ISIS social media activists were already complaining about the suspensions of their most influential users, which they have described as having a ‘devastating’ effect on their online efforts. The early reaction to Shami closing his account is similarly alarmed. This is a big deal. It won’t stop ISIS’s efforts to spread its message and recruit, but it is a significant setback for those efforts.”
He wrote mostly in a clever colloquial English that appealed to Western ISIS admirers and served as a source of information for intelligence analysts and reporters—I was one of his followers. But he sprinkled in enough Arabic and stern, old-fashioned injunctions to fit in with ISIS’ hokey approximation of a pre-modern style.
There’s a longer story to be written about Mehdi’s radicalization, but that’s for another day. Right now it’s enough to let the bare facts of his existence be the knife twisting in his back.
I say his back because Mehdi is now a fugitive. Both the Bangalore City Crime Branch and Indian national intelligence officials are after him. “We are tracking down the man,” the Bangalore Police Commissioner said.
Before it caught up to him, here was Mehdi in top form, talking tough through his alter ego Shami—check out that hard-man slang—about the risks others took.
“You bros talked the talk, walked the walk,” Medhi wrote after Iftikhar Jaman, a private school educated British jihadist, died fighting for ISIS in Syria.
But Mehdi, bro, what about you?
He was gonna join the fight, you know, really he was, got his ninja getup fitted and everything.
“If I had a chance to leave everything and join them I might have.” But we’ll just cut the quote off there and spare you the bullshit about his family needing him at home.
How many Xbox games, pizza boxes, and fresh towels are there in that home of Mehdi’s? How fast was the Internet connection? How many emails and private messages did he send, urging young men to martyrdom, soothing their consciences about those troubling stories of ISIS raping and enslaving Yazidi women, and butchering fellow Muslims by the thousands? What other shameful secrets might a search of his Internet history turn up unrelated to his months swooning over ISIS?
It’s a satisfying downfall, but dizzying. A lost Mel Brooks musical parodying the dark side of Post-modern globalism—an Indian ad exec connected to his English speaking pop culture-saturated followers through a common longing for an anti-Western, pre-modern Caliphate and a pizza crust dusted keyboard.
A choice between terrifying and pathetic presents itself. It’s a false choice.