Inside the death cult: Chilling new TV drama based on real stories of ISIS recruits – who are now all dead
They make their way through wasteland at night to crawl through gaps in chain-link fences, hoping the bribes paid will save them from a hail of bullets as they cross the border to Raqqa.
Their children follow, enrolled in training schools by the age of 10 to practice fighting by taking aim at beheaded bodies strung up in the playground.
Men burn their passports in group rituals, women and girls are paraded and bought at sex markets and the dead bodies of babies lie horrifically mangled on a bombed hospital ward.
And at training camps, where the men perfect their skills dodging fire and handling kalashnikovs they are told: “Don’t get too attached to the brother next to you. His greatest wish to be shahid (martyred), may be granted today or tomorrow. Very few brothers live more than a year.”
It is a horror that is depressingly true – it is life in the IS caliphate .
Most of the people who went out to join IS in Syria from 2015 are now believed to be dead, many killed in battle or bombings, others murdered for becoming disillusioned and trying to leave.
The terrifying reality is depicted in director Peter Kosminsky ‘s new dramatisation The State, which follows four people who travel to join the terror group. Each scene is based on real events which took place in Raqqa and Mosul over the last two years when the IS stronghold was established.
Beheadings, women whose feet are lashed until their soles are reduced to bloody shreds and sex slaves lined up to be abused are all based on reality, garnered from more than 18 months of meticulous research by Peter’s team.
Many of the speeches – including that of the trainer who tells fighters about martyrdom and a woman who asks ISIS wives “What can you do that man can’t do better?” – are direct quotes.
While each scene in The State is overwhelmingly rooted in truth, so are its characters. Each one is based on the experiences of real people – all of whom the Wolf Hall director says are now dead after living and fighting in Islamic state.
“The characters are all composites of real people,” said Peter. “I created fictional characters that had elements of various different people. The people that these characters are based on are dead. There’s no probably about it.
“The life expectancy out there is pretty short.
“The vast majority of the men have died in battle. They are immediately sent out as front line troops. Many of the women have died in bombings. The bitter truth is that a lot of people who went out two or three years ago are now dead at a very young age. They have paid the ultimate price for their bad judgement.
“Our research suggests that within this two year time frame some of them attempted to return. Some are in our prisons, some are on the streets – under the radar acting on behalf of the security services. But the bitter truth is a far larger number have been killed.”
One character, Peter admits, is modelled on Jihadi John himself.
Peter, renowned for his rigorous attention to detail in his productions which include Wolf Hall, conducted 18 months of research before starting to write The State. Some of this was done by analysing posts on social media or going through lengthy court documents during hearings for those that have returned that include pages of phone conversations with people in Syria and back home. He also says his team did their own research for the four-part production, but won’t be drawn on whether this involved going out to Syria.
He insists that he has not invented any of the events illustrated in The State and that every single scene is based on fact, evidenced from the memories and records of people who have lived in the caliphate.
He added: “The incidents that happen are all real. I haven’t made up anything at all.
“A lot of people talk about new arrivals burning their passports. It has a particular significance . When you still have your passport you are able to change your mind and you might be able to escape and return home.
“There’s also a very specific story of a bomb hit on a special care unit and some extremely graphic footage of the aftermath. Our version is far less graphic.”
The State, which is due to be screened on Channel Four, is set in 2015 and follows two men – Jalal, played by Sam Otto, and his friend Ziyad, played by Ryan McKen, who are eager to go out and fight. Teenager Ushna, who arrives at the perilous border with a suitcase on wheels is portrayed as a particularly naive extremist by Shavani Seth while single mum Shakira, played by Ony Uhiara, quickly learns how hard it is to do her western job of being a doctor.
Through his research Peter said he learnt a lot about the people who have been radicalised. He says many like his key four protagonists were from comfortable backgrounds, with families and a good education. While he notes that in recent weeks reports suggest the IS stronghold is crumbling, with Mosul virtually razed to the ground and Raqqa almost flattened, he doesn’t believe this is the end of the terror group.
“I think this particular manifestation of radicalisation is over,” added Peter. “IS as a state, a caliphate, a country with borders and a judicial system is over, it’s on the point of military defeat.
“But as generals have said previously, you can’t defeat this idea militarily, it just transforms into something different. It transforms into violence on the streets of London, Manchester, Brussels, Australia. You can’t defeat this version of radicalism on the battlefield, It’s an idea.
“I think there’s no doubt people are still being tempted, if not by this specific manifestation then a similar form of radicalisation. And I’ve no doubt they are planning the next steps as we speak.”
If the mantra held by IS fighters featuring in The State is to be believed, this idea of defeat is all part of the plan, justified by warped interpretations of scripture. As well as being warned their life expectancy is short, they are also told that dying and ultimately defeat through fighting is part of the plan, and the reason for beheadings is to anger and draw in the West so they fight them.
The characters, like the real people they are based on, come from seemingly good homes and are educated. Shakira who travels with her son is a hospital doctor. Peter said they didn’t find many common factors for why people choose to join a bloody terror group, other than a sense that some had a need to belong.
He added: “Speaking to a source in the intelligence service, he said when they go into homes of some of the men who have travelled to Syria they often find British army recruitment literature. It seems that at least a proportion of these young men had at some point contemplated joining the British army, which is a pretty extraordinary thought when you think of IS and the British Army now.
“The only common factors that we seem to have been able to find is that those who travel seem to have a very shallow association with their faith. They seem to be either recent converts or people that are born Muslim but haven’t been very religious but are ‘born again.’ It seems to be the deeper your knowledge of Islam the less likely you are to choose to travel to Syria. It isn’t really about religion.
“If you put that all together then it seems to be people who travel do so for a desire for adventure, a feeling of belonging, they may have experienced racism and sexism so will be seeking a ‘band of brothers or sisters.’ “
As Peter decided to make the series, he wanted to make the people involved as realistic as possible – which means many of them are likeable, particularly the conflicted figure of Jalal who travels to Syria to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
“I tried to make something that was an antidote to simplistic thought,” said Peter. “It’s very easy to dismiss the people who carry out these appalling acts, the butchers as insane.
“But a lot of interviews showed this was not the case and many of them seemed really nice. Unfortunately what makes this so difficult to deal with is they do monstrous things but they are not necessarily monsters.
“I wanted this to be a cautionary tale for anyone who may be considering a similar path into radicalisation. The fact that some of the characters become disillusioned is really important. I’m trying to encourage a slightly more complicated analysis of what is going on rather than the simplistic view of ‘they are all mad, so let’s nuke them.'”
Peter and the team conducted a lot of background research by analysing online posts and propaganda, as well as papers in court cases where phones had been hacked to reveal conversations between people out in Syria and those in the west. He said while they had to read and watch a lot of horrifying content, much of which had to be “sanitised” without taking away the realism for The State, the treatment of women sticks particularly in his mind.
“I had to watch a lot of imagery and read a lot of material that I wish I hadn’t,” said Peter. “Once you get these images in your head and you read some of the really nasty propaganda coming out of ISIS it’s very difficult to get out of your head. It’s there forever.
“The thing that really shocked and upset me throughout this was the graphic detail of the treatment of the Yazidi women and children. Their husbands, brothers and fathers were all killed and the women were taken into captivity and then sold in a kind of central market. They are sold into sexual slavery. This is women and children. They are passed from person to person. It’s barbaric stuff. It’s totally horrifying.
“Over there they have industrialised slavery and sexual slavery. A story about a man gouging his name into a woman’s arm is set out in the research. A woman hadn’t been able to protect her daughter from rape. And there were much worse things.”
The female characters in the drama give a particularly interesting view of life for women in Islamic State. Well educated women are depicted travelling to Syria and unequivocally accepting the mantra they are told in female training schools that anything they can do can and will be done better by men. They are told they will never fight, they must marry, have to cover their bodies and are seen rooting out and lashing other women until they bleed if they don’t wear the full niqab.
Peter added: “For me sexism was the thing I was most interested in. For example you have Shakira, born in London, a strong highly intelligent hospital doctor. She has grown up in a world where we are just beginning to get to the point where women are not prepared to take any patronising s*** from men. But she has formed a conviction that she believes in the teachings of the Islamic State and somehow intrinsically accepted that women must take this second class subservient place in society.”
Many of these women are also seen accepting, seemingly without question, that it is their duty to marry, cook and clean for their men. Rather than bringing their westernised views, Peter found many of the women had a romanticised, almost archaic view of their relationships with men in the caliphate.
“One of the things that comes out of the research very strongly is that the women who travel have romanticised views of the future. The line that Ushma says that she wants to be a ‘lioness amongst lions’ comes up in the research again and again. Many of these women are very young. They have these romantic views that almost go back to the chivalric era.
“With the Mujahideen fighters they even seem to see them as chivalric knights.
“For the ISIS brides the lives of the women were very circumscribed. They were taken to a form of women’s hostel and there they stayed cloistered in something that was more or less like a nunnery. They lived and cooked together, they studied the Koran together. They were very closed off and closeted. Then they go and cook and clean for their husband.”
Many of the women, who had left comfortable lives back home, subscribe to the discipline that they must marry. When they arrive they are housed in a form of convent and assured husbands will be found for them. Once a man is found, simple exchanges are performed in a back room, a simple nod acknowledging an agreement to marry.
The marriages also highlight another interesting aspect of life for women in the IS caliphate. Having only met their husbands for a matter of minutes many are unable to communicate with them – some use an app to translate their husband’s Arabic. And despite being married a manner of days before they are sent off to fight and inevitably die, women show an incredibly deep connection with the men they marry – being left in a state of total terror that they will die in battle.
Peter added: “I read one blog where a woman meets the guy at lunchtime, he asks if he can marry her at tea time after afternoon prayers. She’s given a fistful of dollars, off they go and within minutes of having met they are married.
“Suddenly she’s talking about this guy that she can’t communicate with as they don’t have a common language.
“When the men die and the women are confronted with these very complex feelings. On one hand they are deeply distressed and on the other they are being told to celebrate and their husband is in heaven. They have so much invested in this romance that they build it up way beyond anything that’s formed naturally. It’s an expression of that romanticism.”
But Peter said one of the things he found was that many of the women were not under any illusions as to what life would be like in IS – their naivety shown in some of the questions they asked before travelling there. In one scene a member of IS is talking to a woman online who asks if she will be able to eat the food or get inhalers for asthma. He reassures her they are not ‘living in the desert’ and she will be able to choose the food they eat.
Peter said this element of the series came straight from their research and reading real conversations between people living in Islamic State speaking to people thinking of travelling there.
“In one conversation someone asked ‘will I be able to get M&Ms’,” added Peter. “They are extraordinary questions, coming from people with a romanticised sense. Some of these people were still in their teens and had never been abroad before. They were considering crossing one of the most dangerous borders in the world and they are worried about whether they could get a particular brand of dandruff shampoo. It’s indicative of how the decisions were made.”
And surprisingly, Peter said he didn’t find many reports of women regretting their decision to move to Islamic State, as many were able to live relatively comfortable lives and had not been lied to about the reality they were to expect – particularly that there was not some secret women’s fighting brigade.
He added: “They were not living in appalling conditions, not until much more recently. In fact IS tended to move into areas where they could kick people out of their homes, taking the best houses and cars for fighters and their wives. Most of the women who chose to travel would have had a reasonable idea of what life would be like.”
The series was filmed in southern Spain with CGI used to recreate some of the more graphic violent scenes, particularly those involving children and beheadings. Peter said he was keen to show the reality of the grizly life in Islamic State but realised this had to be sanitised or it would have been impossible to watch.
He added: “In the show you don’t see any heads coming off. It it showed many of the things I read it would have been unwatchable. It’s a question of being able to balance this. You can sanitise it so much, but you are watching a bloody death cult here.”
The State will be shown on Channel Four , with the first episode at 9pm August 20. The subsequent three will run at the same time on the following three nights. It is a co-production between Channel 4 and National Geographic.
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