An Indian youth whose sympathy for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria made him a leading light in the online world of ISIS supporters — a 2014 study of ISIS accounts ranked his Twitter handle @shamiwitness in the top 10 accessed by Western ISIS fighters — has suffered a setback in his attempt to avoid prosecution on charges of cyber terrorism.
A special terrorism court in Bengaluru, where Mehdi Masroor Biswas, the 25-year-old electrical engineer from West Bengal, is set to stand trial for his online adventurism, has ruled that there is sufficient ground to try him on charges of cyber terrorism given the evidence with police.
Biswas was outed by UK’s Channel 4 and was arrested in Bengaluru in December 2014.
His will be one of the first in the country where an individual has been charged with terrorism for activities that took place in the virtual world rather than the physical one. It is also likely to be a test case for over a dozen ISIS online sympathisers arrested in India after him.
The court gave its ruling on April 29 after Biswas questioned the move by Bengaluru police to charge him with involvement in cyber terrorism under Section 66 F of the Information Technology Act, 2000 over his alleged ISIS-linked online activity. The charge under this section carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Apart from the cyber terrorism charge, Biswas is to stand trial under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 for advocating terrorism, facilitating recruitment for terrorist activities and for supporting a terrorist organisation, and Indian Penal Code sections on attempt to wage war against India, sedition, waging war against an Asiatic ally of India, provocation to rioting, and making statements amounting to public mischief.
Biswas contested the framing of cyber terrorism charges saying he had not hacked into a computer system, created a virus or denied access to any computer system as stated in Section 66 F of the IT Act which defines acts of cyber terrorism.
Advocates for Biswas told the court last month that the youth must be discharged from the case at the stage of the framing of charges itself since police had failed to place sufficient material on record to substantiate the charge of cyber terrorism.
His advocates also argued that his online activities did not threaten the “unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India’’ or that it was done with the “intent to strike terror in the people or any section of the people’’ since ISIS was not a banned terrorist organisation in India during his activism.
The Bengaluru police, on their part, argued that as mandated by law at the stage of framing of charges, a prima facie case of cyber terrorism had been made out against Biswas in a chargesheet and supporting documents, running into 30,000 pages, placed in court.
Police also placed printed records of some of the pro-ISIS material tweeted by Biswas while he was operating the @shamiwitness Twitter handle between January 25, 2013 and December 11/12 of 2014.
The prosecution argued that Biswas had tweeted, re-tweeted thousands of ISIS messages and also posted pictures and videos of war to support the terrorist acts of ISIS and thus abetted waging of war “against Asiatic powers like Syria, Iraq and Iran, who are in alliance with India’’.
The prosecution also told the court that Biswas allowed his Twitter account to become a meeting place for ISIS supporters trying to connect to ISIS leaders and to accounts of ISIS individuals already in Syria and Iraq.
Biswas is alleged to have led online ISIS sympathisers to the official Twitter accounts of ISIS leaders like “Sheikh Abu Hafs al Masri” to enable ISIS recruitment and guided Westerners trying to join ISIS by providing specific inputs like details of unguarded border crossings.
He is alleged to have helped a Western recruit, using the Twitter handle @TalabAlHaqq, to cross into Syria from Turkey by tweeting a message in June 2014 saying “@TalabAlHaqq walaykum salam, Tal Abyad crossing open now”.
The prosecution also alleged that Biswas supported cession of Jammu and Kashmir from India through some of his tweets in which he supported terrorists attacking civilians and Indian forces and by calling on Muslims in Kashmir to support the ISIS Caliphate.
One of the prosecution arguments that the court took into consideration while judging that there is a prima facie case for framing charges of cyber terrorism against Biswas is the argument that though ISIS was not banned by the Indian government at the time of his arrest, a UN document had equated ISIS with the already banned al-Qaeda.
“As such it is to be presumed that ISIS was a terrorist organisation banned by the UN and an organisation listed in the Schedule of UAP Act at Sl. No. 28 and Sl. No. 33 even as on 25.1.2013. In that event, there is reasonable ground to believe that the accused was fully aware that ISIS was a terrorist organisation,’’ the court observed in its order.
“The materials on record prima facie indicate that the accused had intention to threaten the unity, integrity, security and sovereignty of India as well as to strike terror in a section of the people, particularly in Kashmir,’’ the court said.
The start of his trial is expected next month.