Social media, for good or ill, has become an important part of covering conflict and a conduit of propaganda for its combatants. Supporters of the Islamic State have taken enthusiastically to Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, reposting and broadcasting videos of gruesome beheadings and paeans to their martyrs as fast as the services try to take them down.
Interested in the war in Syria? Follow the right Twitter accounts and you have access to battlefield videos and photos (many real, some faked), statements and propaganda from various sides, and a window into the lives of individual fighters as well as Syrians just trying to survive that gruesome civil war.
But if you're not careful, you'll also be following seemingly knowledgeable accounts run by people at least as far away from the battlefield as you are.
Enter "Shami Witness," the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Walter Mitty of the Syrian Jihad.
The account, which tweeted almost exclusively in fluent English, courted the interest of academics and journalists covering the war, and developed a following among analysts, journalists, and jihadi wannabes from Bradford in the UK to Mumbai in India. A majority of Shami Witness's Twitter followers were people claiming in English to be men who had joined IS in Syria and Iraq. He had nearly 18,000 followers in all.
While polite to a fault in personal interactions, he also spread vicious sectarian rhetoric, called for the death of "apostates" fighting both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and IS's self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and sought to downplay some of IS's worst abuses, like the enslavement of Yazidi women for their sexual gratification.
Extorting cash from subjugated people in exchange for their lives? A legitimate Islamic tax, he said. If a UK citizen blew himself up in a suicide attack for IS or otherwise died in the conflict, he was the first to rush out congratulations to the new "martyr."
Yesterday, Britain's Channel 4 blew Shami Witness's cover – describing him as an executive at an conglomerate in Bangalore, India with little desire to upend his comfortable life for their extreme ideals he espoused online. He told the station that while he'd like to go fight in Syria, "my family needs me."
Channel 4 declined to identify him beyond the name "Mehdi" – since he said that doing so would put his life in danger – though it's fairly trivial to figure out his full identity with what was revealed. His Facebook profile (since deleted) was filled with pictures of pizza nights out with friends, discussions of action movies, and fond reminiscences of Hawaiian-themed parties at work.
It seems that Mehdi was a Walter Mitty without the charm – urging death and destruction by others far from his comfortable home, and pushing a version of Islam that demands the submission of all other faiths and individuals to its will, while living at the prosperous center of India's tech industry.
Writing on Joshua Landis' Syria Comment blog, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, says he was one of those taken in, allowing Mehdi to write two pieces for his blog. (An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified Mr. Landis as the writer of the linked piece.) "For all this, a mea culpa is the appropriate response. Those who say that Shami’s rise was partly facilitated by analysts giving him space to express his views are right: regardless of agreeing with his views or not, his prominence was increased," Tamimi writes, while going on to consider what real importance he had, if any.
As for Shami and the question of recruitment, no definite case has yet been shown to demonstrate that a foreign fighter/would-be recruit ended up joining/trying to join IS because he had been following Shami’s tweets or had interacted with Shami on direct messaging. Evidence in this regard can only be gleaned from the testimony of foreign fighters or would-be recruits. It will be of interest to see what emerges, if anything.
One interesting tidbit for the conspiracy-minded is that Mehdi managed to keep his Twitter account open following the company's purge of many accounts involved in the dissemination of the beheading videos of captives like the Americans Peter Kassig and James Foley. For months, some had speculated that perhaps he was being operated by an intelligence service as a way to track the Westerners who had joined the Islamic State, or were hoping to do so.
But that doesn't seem likely anymore. There are millions like Mehdi in the world, who channel their boredom with day-to-day life and a desire for a more heroic role for themselves into video games. He simply found a game that could be played in the same way with real world consequences. And many ended up unwittingly playing along with him.