What is life like for the men and women from the West—thousands of whom have traveled to Syria—to join ISIS in its campaign of brutality? Do they encounter the caliphate they imagined, or does their commitment to the ISIS cause waver when they encounter its reality, removed from the group’s infamous propaganda machine? National Geographic's new mini-series event, “The State,” seeks to uncover answers to these questions.
The mini-series' creators spent over 18 months producing "The State", a process that included extensive research and firsthand accounts from former ISIS recruits. Peter Kosminsky, director of “The State,” recently sat down with The Daily Beast in London to talk about his mini-series and what he learned about the nature of terrorists while making it.
TDB: All four episodes of “The State” take place in Syria in 2015. Why did you leave out the radicalization process that brought your characters there in the first place?
Kosminsky: I left out the radicalization process for a variety of reasons. … The process was fairly familiar. People were being radicalized in their bedrooms online watching videos and having social media contact with people who are already out there. People were being radicalized in splinter groups from mosques, or at school. It was well documented, there was nothing surprising about it, and I didn’t want to spend the first hour of the drama getting people to the border, showing things that would be in no way revelatory or surprising—in fact, would be borderline cliché. And once we got there I wanted to maintain the pressure cooker effect of being there. I didn’t want to constantly be flashing back to London. … In the final analysis, it seemed to me that what we didn’t know about was what happened to these individuals when they were there.
And this drama, I increasingly realized, was going to be about the clash between an abstract radicalization that had occurred back at home, outside the theater, if you like, the clash between that conviction and the day-to-day reality of life in the Islamic State. So, I was less interested in how that conviction was formed. I felt the audience would be reasonably knowledgeable about how people were radicalized through their reading prior to coming to the show, but what they would know nothing about was what the daily life of those people would be like in Syria and how their conviction would survive the encounter with the realities of the State. So, that’s what we ended up making the show about.
TDB: The vast majority of recruits are young men, yet you divide your main characters evenly: Two men, two women. And in your earlier series, “Britz,” about two siblings, the one who becomes a jihadi is the sister, not the brother. You seem more interested in the radicalization of women than of men.
Kosminsky: I think you’re right. … For the men, it was always going to be about the impact of the violence, of the brutality, of this death cult, a horrendously violent, bloody regime, and it was always going to be about how somebody like Jalal coped with the reality of that violence. Shakira’s an interesting character, though. She’s born and brought up in London, she’s a trained doctor—you get the feeling when you spend some time in her company that she doesn’t take any shit from any man, and most intelligent and thinking women in London are like that. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up in this city, but now I am happy to say we have made big strides, and women don’t allow themselves to be patronized, and rightly so.
Now, the fictional character Shakira forms a conviction that she wants to go live with her son in the Islamic State and therefore—we assume—intellectually, and she’s a long way from stupid, she takes onboard the tenets of the Islamic State. What I was interested in was how that conviction, formed with her circle of friends at university and in her daily life in London, would survive the reality out there. So, it’s all very well for her to intellectually accept that women have a subservient role, a different—but you know, subservient—role in the Islamic State, in her head. But how does her heart react to it, when all her life she has railed against male chauvinism, and now she is living in a society where it is written into the DNA of the place? And the reality of it is, she doesn’t survive it very well because her gut rails against it.
Don't miss a rare glimpse into the world of life in the Islamic State. "The State" premieres on National Geographic tonight at 9/8c.
TDB: Besides testosterone, a second element common to most terrorism is identification with a heroic narrative. People think that terrorists have to have suffered, themselves, or they are simply monsters. In their own eyes, there’s a chivalric element.
Kosminsky: The hardest thing about making “The State” was that we were going to have to spend four hours in the company of people that were ostensibly deeply unsympathetic because of the choices they’ve made. But your analysis is really important and really uncomfortable for us, because what you’re saying is, there is an altruism that drives—I mean, it’s not the only factor—but there is an altruism that drives these people, and that is the uncomfortable truth.
TDB: Which brings us to another element, which is “theater,” the terrorist’s desire to project yourself as part of this narrative onto a stage, preferably a world stage.
Kosminsky: I remember reading a piece of research where one guy said… “One minute I was flipping burgers, and the next minute I was doing things that were influencing the policy of the President of the United States.” … I was trying to pick up this mood, which I detected in the research and which you are alluding to in your question, this sense of people who feel marginalized, powerless, suddenly being in a position where they feel they’ve become powerful. They are actors on the world stage—through this very violent and destructive ideology, they have started to become relevant and important and significant figures. … I imagine for a weak mind that can be quite attractive.
TDB: So on his own the terrorist can cherry-pick the Quran, or fall under the sway of the recruiter who’s doing it for him.
Kosminsky: Our research strongly suggests that the only common feature between these people is the shallowness of their knowledge of and association with their faith. … It does feel a little bit as if Islam is a useful cloak to wrap around your shoulders for people who have other reasons to want to get involved with this kind of regime. And in the past where there have been similar impelling forces within a personality, they used different cloaks with which to wrap themselves. And currently this is the cloak which is being chosen. And that’s why I think probably the single most useful thing that “The State” can do is to remind people or try to bring home to people that this easy simplistic equation between the Islamic State and Islam is unhelpful.
TDB: You will come under attack from those who say you have no right to portray Islam in any guise, and those who will say that you are humanizing terrorists.
Kosminsky: I only really can answer it in one way. Television is a very powerful medium. … And it’s terribly tempting to escape into escapism at this point, with the world being as dark as it is. But whether it is in the destabilizing effect of the Islamic State in the theater itself, in the Middle East, or whether it is the very direct impact of gun and bomb and knife and machete attacks on the streets of our cities in Europe, this phenomenon is a huge part of our life in the world at this moment, for us, for me and my children and their friends and family. And I believe a dramatist’s job, using the medium responsibly, is to hold a mirror up to that society and to try to help, in as un-simplistic a way as we can possibly manage, to understand what’s going on in the world around us, and yes that may lead to one being criticized from left and from right, but that doesn’t mean it isn't worth doing.