MINNEAPOLIS — A new report has exposed the past collaboration of Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat and influential neo-conservatives with the “most influential Twitter account” of the terror group Daesh, also known as the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS). That collaboration helped promote the account, which posted under the Twitter handle @shamiwitness, as an “expert” on foreign jihadists while also helping to promote the account’s pro-Daesh messaging.
However, instead of being an “expert,” the account was run by an Indian marketing executive living in Bangalore by the name of Mehdi Biswas. Biswas used the account to help recruit foreign extremists and lead them to Syria — where they participated in the slaughter of religious minorities, among other atrocities.
The explosive report, written and self-published by journalist Mark Ames, extensively details how Western accounts and figures closely associated with influential government-funded think tanks helped to elevate the ShamiWitness account from “a cretinous troll” into a credible “ISIS expert” who was subsequently promoted by Middle East correspondents from The New York Times and other mainstream publications.
At the height of his popularity, the ShamiWitness account – which was voluntarily deleted in 2014 by its owner after a Channel 4 News exposé – had over 17,000 followers and was followed by two-thirds of foreign jihadists with a presence on Twitter. When Twitter would ban an extremist’s account, ShamiWitness was key to promoting the new account created to replace the banned one. ShamiWitness also helped guide foreign extremists to battlefields in Syria and actively recruited individuals to join Daesh through his social media accounts, according to a report published earlier this year by George Washington University.
In addition, the ShamiWitness account promoted sectarian violence committed by Daesh in Syria and elsewhere and regularly shared videos of Daesh execution and beheading videos. The account also mocked female Kurdish fighters who were raped by Daesh after being captured and defended Daesh after Amnesty International accused the group of torturing children as young as eight, claiming that the group tortured only teenagers ages 14 and up.
Mark Ames recounts in detail how Western “experts” like Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat and the Atlantic Council frequently promoted the ShamiWitness account despite its frequent promotion of Daesh talking points and brutal deeds. For instance, in tweets unearthed by Ames, Higgins urged his followers to follow the ShamiWitness account on more than one occasion, as a Syria expert and a source for information on jihadists and foreign fighters.
In another example, Higgins retweeted a video posted by ShamiWitness of dead Kurdish female fighters Daesh had killed. That retweet came in 2014 after ShamiWitness’ promotion of Daesh was well known and had even been exposed in mainstream outlets like Business Insider. In other cases, Higgins joked with ShamiWitness about Daesh suicide-bomber vehicles, choosing to make a tasteless reference to the American comedian Gallagher instead of decrying how the terror group’s use of suicide-bomb pickup trucks had killed and mutilated thousands of civilians. Higgins also once offered ShamiWitness advice on how to deal with his online critics.
Higgins’ online interactions with ShamiWitness took a dramatic turn only after a Channel 4 report exposed the account as being run by a 24-year-old Indian marketing executive with no Middle East expertise in any form. As Mark Ames notes, rather than owning up to having promoted a Daesh propaganda account run by an Indian national with no real knowledge of the region, Higgins attempted to downplay ShamiWitness in an effort to shield himself from criticism. Yet, as Ames points out, ShamiWitness was not on Daesh “toilet cleaning duty,” as Higgins had joked, given that academic reports have shown that the account helped guide foreign fighters to Syria where they participated in gruesome terror attacks.
Another prominent Syria “expert” who regularly interacted with the ShamiWitness account was Charles Lister of the Saudi government-funded Middle East Institute. Like Higgins, Lister promoted the ShamiWitness account to his followers and also made jokes with ShamiWitness, including joking about the hat worn by a notorious terrorist who helped massacre Alawites in Syria’s Latakia province.
Other prominent pro-regime-change Syria “experts” who promoted the ShamiWitness account include: Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast; Oz Katerji of Vice News and formerly of Bellingcat; Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council; Micah Lee of The Intercept; Liz Sly of The Washington Post; and Aaron Zelin of the AIPAC spinoff, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and formerly of Bellingcat.
These individuals were not alone in promoting the ShamiWitness account, as large U.K. publications like The Daily Mail and The Telegraph also promoted him as an “activist” in their reporting. According to Ames, only one reporter who had promoted ShamiWitness’ account, Michael Kelley, has ever publicly apologized for doing so.
Allergic to criticism
Some of the figures singled out in Ames’ report have reacted to the piece, but not necessarily in a professional manner. For instance, Bellingcat’s Higgins responded to Ames’ reporting, not by answering any of the serious allegations contained within, but instead by chiding Ames for not realizing that Higgins’ former blogger name, “Brown Moses,” was an alleged reference to a song by musician Frank Zappa.
Gary Brecher, who co-hosts a podcast with Mark Ames, was taken aback by Higgins’ response, writing on Facebook:
We’re talking about a long, documented history of collaboration with a proven IS [Daesh] recruiter, a guy who cheered online for the rape and murder of women of the YPJ…and it comes down to “you’re not cool because you missed my Zappa ref[erence]”?
Higgins has often been criticized for his unprofessional and often inflammatory responses to legitimate criticisms of his activity and the activities of Bellingcat, the group he founded. A well-known example was when Higgins told critics to “suck my balls” after Bellingcat’s analysis of the MH17 crash was derided and debunked by several experts, including MIT Professor Emeritus Theodore Postol.
However, Ames’ recent report shows that the behavior of establishment-promoted “experts” like Higgins – though their actions may seem trivial or trollish – can have disturbing, real-world consequences that have resulted in atrocities committed in Syria and elsewhere. Given that figures like Higgins are often uncritically promoted by mainstream media outlets and are also often influential on government policy, it seems likely that the actions of these individuals will continue to have global ramifications despite their now-documented history of promoting a terror group propagandist and recruiter.
Top Photo | A composite image shows the Twitter page of @shamiwitness, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, left, and the man behind @shamiwtiness, Mehdi Biswas.
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.