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Peter Kosminsky: Branding all terrorists “mad” doesn’t serve those who perished at their hands

ISIS propaganda has entrapped a lot of men and women of European origin, who are enticed to join the terrorist cult with utopian promises. Peter Kosminsky, the acclaimed British director, spent months researching their stories – and presented a docudrama film, ‘The State,’ about British jihadist converts who travel to the Islamic State.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Peter Kosminsky, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you on our programme. Your film, “The State”, which is about British Muslims going to join ISIS, has been criticised for giving terrorists a human face. I get it that you wanted a nuanced look, you wanted the people to understand more about the issue - but how do you implore the public to relate to those who go to join ISIS - where do we even begin to sympathise with people who go join a death cult, how do you find a human angle there?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, it’s difficult obviously. And I think, asking people to sympathise with them is difficult. The problem we’re facing over here in this country is that there’s a sort of very simplistic response to some of these incidents, which is “they are all insane”, “they are all mad”. And we just dismiss what’s happening in that way. I don’t think, it does a service to those who suffered, were injured or died in their hands actually. I think, we need to have a slightly more nuanced understanding of why people might possible choose to do this thing. And so we’ve attempted through extensive research to create characters that are a bit more realistic, a little bit closer to the types of people who actually did decide to travel to Syria back in 2014 and 2015. But whether you end up actually sympathising with them - that’s another matter.  

SS: But then, for ISIS all publicity is good, it doesn’t matter whether they are pictured as idealistic fighters or bloodthirsty cutthroats. How do you feel about giving them what they actually want?

PK: Well, I suppose, the first thing to say it that the version of ISIS that we’re depicting effectively no longer exists. The fictional composite characters we’ve created are all likely dead now. They either died in battle or died in the bombing campaign. So that version of ISIS as a caliphate, as a state no longer exists. So what they want or don’t want in that manifestation is rather nude. But in the end I wasn’t really aiming at it, I wasn’t thinking about the needs, desires and wishes of ISIS when I was making this programme. I was thinking about my audience, the audience in the United States because America co-funded this project, trying to tackle the view we have of these events. And, let’s not forget, of course, that terrorism has now been imported back to streets of our cities in Western Europe. So it’s very real-in-life issue for us, and understanding the process is actually quite important. Drama’s job is to hold a mirror up to society in my view. And nobody could deny that this is a pretty important part of what’s going on in our society at the moment.       

SS: You emphasized many times that you would hope your drama would serve as a sort of an anti-recruitment video for Islamic state. Do you feel it was actually perceived as such? 

PK: Well, the reaction of the audience was interesting and complicated. Given that this four-part drama is shown from the point of view of the recruits, and we were following extensive research very carefully, the first part of the drama is almost like a celebration. It ends with a fairly euphoric feeling of arrival, of acceptance into a band of brothers or a band of sisters. And the reaction to that in some aspects, in the British press at least, was furious, hysterical. But as the subsequent episodes go on and you start to see the disillusionment of these young Brits, you see the way in which determination to join the Islamic State survives a direct confrontation with the Islamic State itself. Disillusionment sets in, and in the end a number of them attempt to leave. And that overall shade coming through the series as a whole has probably gave our audience a more realistic sense of the reality of life in the Islamic State.     

SS: What about the wanna-be terrorists? I’m sure among your audience people who were just about to go and join ISIS. Do you think some of them, having seen the film, were like “no, I’m not doing this”? 

PK: I’d hope so. It’s very difficult to tell because these people are not easy to identify. But if they were drawn in by the first episode and if they watched episodes 2, 3 and 4 and saw the reality of life, and they would have seen a number of things in there that they would have known in their own research, because we were accurate, we were careful to get this as accurate as we could. Yes, I think, they would have second and third thoughts about going out there. But, of course, as I said earlier, the concept of a caliphate in Raqqa, in Syria and in Iraq, essentially no longer exists now.   

SS: I understand there’s this desire for a sense of community, of belonging, that is partly responsible for people going to ISIS, but British or European Muslims have a well-established, quite large, quite old communities at home. I even did a programme some time ago about how British suburbs are actually having Sharia law. What’s that that they’re looking in ISIS that they don’t get home in terms of community and belonging? 

PK: That’s a very good question. If you talk to people who’ve been tempted by Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, what’s particularly interesting about the people who made the decision to travel is that their association with their faith was shallow. These are often recent converts to Islam from another religion or no religion, or they were people who were born Muslim and had no connection with their faith until relatively recently when they had been almost born again, to steal a phrase from another faith. So these are not typical British Muslims or French Muslims or American Muslims or, I would have to say, Russian Muslims. In fact, everything that our research gave us suggests that the deeper your knowledge of Islam is the less likely you were to be tempted. So to think of these people as Muslims in a wider sense is misleading. These are often people who had come to a position of a fairly extreme interpretation of Islamic faith for a variety of complicated reasons not necessarily to do with religion itself. 

SS: But, Peter, ISIS advertised itself with the images of horrific violence. Anyone who has seen it - I’ve seen it, my friends have seen it, and we don’t want to be recruits - how can people who go to join them claim that they didn’t know what they were joining? How can there be “disillusionment” when the beheading videos don’t exactly create a picture of Woodstock in Syria? 

PK: I know, it’s a very good question. But when you talk to people who were tempted to travel or who had traveled, it’s very interesting that the very last thing they focused on is violence. Let’s not say that they were unaware of violence, but it’s not... I mean, of course, there were exceptions, there were psychopaths amongst those who traveled, but I’m not really talking about that group. It’s interesting how rarely they cite the violence as any factor at all in their decision to go. They talk about the things you’ve mentioned, they talk about feeling of racism in the country which they come from, they talk about feeling of isolation, of being seen as “other”, of not being part of the community of the country which they come from, they talk about seeking the band of brothers, the band of sisters where there’s a comradery, a sense of fellow feeling where they would be welcomed and not criticised and won’t come in for any race discrimination of any kind or religious prosecution of any kind. They think of it in terms of community. Of course, when they get there the daily reality of violence and cruelty, corruption and all the other aspects of the Islamic State that we’ve shown in the drama are forced in upon them. So it’s not to say that they would claim that they were unaware of it, but it wasn’t up in most of their mind when they made the decision to travel.   

SS: I understand everything you’re saying, but it’s still mind boggling to me, how they can overlook that kind of violence. How can that be the last thing on their mind? 

PK: Bear in mind, I underline what I’ve said to you just a few moments ago, that these are the people who might have relatively recently come to an understanding of Islam. Remember, when a couple of guys from Britain were stopped at the airport on their way to Syria they were found to have a book “Islam for dummies” in their backpack. But they are told that this particular interpretation of Islam not only condones this level of violence but mandates it. Now, of course, as any mainstream Muslim will tell you, this is a very particular and unreliable interpretation of Muslim scripture. But these people without a very deep knowledge of their faith are talking to clerics and members of their own PR-group who are telling them that this level of violence is mandated as part of God’s law. And, of course, little phrases can be found, just like phrases can be found in the Bible which guarantee extraordinary outrageous punishments, seem to support this kind of action. But of course, when they get out there, having been born and brought up in a different kind of culture, some of the inequities, some of the cruelties and some of the corruption and the misuse of power that they see works on them. This is why I say the film in the end is about how a conviction to join the Islamic State formed outside the Islamic State survives their direct meeting with the Islamic State.   

SS: 18 months of research went into this film, you conducted interviews, but I know from your previous work such as “The Promise” that you take great care of visuals, that you base visuals on real-life footage. You’ve got to have seen so many of these Islamic State videos, it’s impossible to watch all that gore, and blood, and hate... Sorry, but how were you not throwing up all the time? How did you manage to pull through? 

PK: Well, thank you for asking me that question. It’s not what I’m often asked. But, of course, you’re absolutely right. To prepare the programme I had to look at a lot of material, listen to a lot of material, and also read a lot of material that was appalling. When you get these images into your head (of course, the images that I saw were far more graphic than anything I could include in a television programme for a general audience), you can’t get those images out of your head. I remember, years ago I made a TV series on the British television about child abuse and, of course, I had to direct actors to play abusers. This meant I had to read quite a lot of material produced by psychologists who are working with child abusers. I had young children of my own at that time, and when you read this stuff you can’t get it out of your head. You know, it’s a disturbing material. And I had that same experience again doing research for “The State”. Somehow I tried to compartmentalise things that had to do with work, and things that had to do with my ordinary life, my family and my loved ones. But I’ve got to write these characters, I’ve got to direct actors playing these characters. I need to see what they see and know what they know. And if I’m going to write these responses realistically it’s difficult to do that from a sedentary position, hiding behind a sofa.     

SS: Exactly. The research for “The State” comes from real people who went to ISIS - you talked to those people. Was it hard for them to relieve those things? Were they repentant? Or defiant? 

PK: One of the advantages of working in drama compared with what you do, in real journalism, if you like, is that we’re able to offer people the opportunity of talking off-the-record. No one has to go on camera as I’m now on camera for you. No one is ever quoted, none of this material is ever reused in a book or a newspaper article. It’s surprising how many people are prepared to talk under those off-the-record circumstances. So one of the undertakings we give is that we just won’t talk about it. Your question, of course, is completely reasonable. But then it leads to the next question, and the next question... And before I know it I’m talking to you about where I met those people, and what kind of people they were. I’ve just given them my undertaking that I won’t do that. So all I can do is ask you to trust me that we did our research very thoroughly and extensively, and it was checked by Channel 4 lawyers. So they’ve seen all research material. But beyond that I’m not really answering on that subject.  

SS: Ok, but let me turn the question around then. What did you feel when you were coming to interview them? After all, they are former terrorists… You said, it’s hard to be objective about ISIS, and you know, I totally agree, I get it. But how did you talk to them if you weren’t objective about who they are? 

PK: First of all, I can’t claim that I did most of these interviews myself, I had a very good research team who were picked because they were all better in this kind of thing than I am. But my approach with all these things is to keep one’s eye on the prize. And the prize here is to try to increase human understanding. I found a very prevalent attitude amongst my own peer group which was that these people who go there are mad or insane or psychotic. And those words I said earlier are undoubtedly some examples of that. And with me it’s not the case. If I’m going to try to help us understand - and how can we combat if we can’t understand, if we refuse to understand? - then I have to talk to those people. There’s no point going in with a hostile or aggressive attitude to prove my antipathy to who they are and what they say. If you’re going to talk to people, you’d better talk to them properly and hear their side of the story. So I keep my eye of the prize which is to try to increase understanding. I don’t believe in us standing in our respective trenches and bellowing at each other or firing Sidewinder missiles at each other. I don’t think that helps in the long-run. 

SS: Obviously they were all different people with different backgrounds, and I’m not asking for any names or any specifics, but just in your opinion, what did you noticed they all had in common? 

PK: A very interesting question, and, of course, there’s been quite a bit of academic research about it. As far as I can see, they had very little in common. They came from well-to-do backgrounds, they came from economically challenged backgrounds. They were children of first-generation immigrants and they were, what you might call, caucasian indigenous white British people. They were people of limited academic attainment and quite high academic attainment amongst the people whose interviews we read and who we actually interviewed ourselves. The only common factor that I found and I referred to it earlier is that they had a shallow association with their faith rather than being people who had years of studying and praying in mosques. Those types of people tended not to travel.   

SS: Men go to ISIS to fight, to have sex slaves, to have friends and comrades. Why do women go? ISIS is clear they should only expect a full-on veil and a marriage, nothing else - what’s so appealing about that? 

PK: It’s hard to understand, I agree. Somebody told me a story during the research which I found helpful, I don’t know if you will. Talking about the kind of guy which young British Muslim women were looking for… ‘Cause in my day it was a sort of biker type - the type your mother wouldn’t like really. What I was told from a pretty reliable source was that what a lot of young British Muslim women are looking for now is the devout guy, the guy who prays fives times a day, and that it seems to be an almost Disneyesque quality to one of the attitudes that we were reading expressed online from women who were contemplating going out. This phrase which kept cropping out of wanting to be a lion amongst lions besides a slightly romanticised view of Muslim warrior, extremely devout, praying fives times a day, going into battle, risking his own life for his faith. The idea to be wanting to be associated with a figure like that in a quite wide-eyed way that a lot modern British women who fought hard for equality would find hard to understand. I’m not saying that’s the case in every case. And in fact one of the characters I’ve depicted is a very different type of woman. But that came across pretty strongly in the research.      

SS: The Islamic State’s so-called version of Islam claims to be extremely traditional with a focus on family life. But the most poignant thing for me about this whole thing is how the family’s power over children is being superseded by the so-called “state”. How does that happen - by force? 

PK: I’m not exactly sure what you mean. But certainly it is interesting to see that children of people who migrated out there appearing on television fiercely propagandist… 

SS: Sorry, what I mean is that once you’re part of ISIS and you have a family there, your children don’t belong to you, they belong to “state”. And they get to do whatever the “state” tells them to do, and you don’t really have much right to say: “No, I don’t want my kid to do this or that.” 

PK: Certainly from research we carried out children do continue to live with their parents, it’s not a collective education in a sense of the old-fashioned kibbutz in Israel or something like that  where children literally live apart from their parents. But at ten young boys are taken off for military training - we’ve depicted that in the show. And at that point, of course, they are in residential training, therefore, directly exposed day and night to indoctrination associated with people running the Islamic State. Of course, parental influence is much reduced to that point.     

SS: Also, “The State” has given me an idea of many things I didn’t realize. For instance, the daily routine of the recruits.  I mean, it’s like communism: the life of a jihadi fighter doesn’t go just in just trenches, but in a cozy house with wife and maids. The so-called ‘jihadi brides’ don’t have to pay for anything when they come. Seriously, communism! I was wondering who supports them all? Who pays for the house? Where do jihadists and jihadi brides get money to buy things? 

PK: Well, remember that this drama is set in 2015, a relatively early period when people from all over Europe, including Russia, travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State. And as you know, fighters of the Islamic State spread very quickly across vast areas of terrain of Syria and Iraq, and overrun Mosul, which is the second city in Iraq. As I understand it, everything was left, banks full of gold were left. Then they had access to the oil fields, and they continue to sell oil bizarrely to the Assad regime, their sworn enemies. So there was a certain pragmatism there, it would seem. As a result of that in the early stages they had a great deal of money. So money was given out fairly freely. And, of course, because of the ethnic cleansing that took place, people fled their homes, and these foreign jihadists, mujahideens, and their partners were able to move in in these vacated properties some of which were extremely luxurious. So yes, in those early days there was a great deal of money and a great deal of property. They requisitioned the best vehicles, there was this phrase - “the Five-Star jihad”. And I think, in those early days to some extent there was an element of that in some areas. 

SS: Peter, thank you very much for this very interesting insight. We were talking to Peter Kosminsky, the Golden Globe and BAFTA winning British director of “The State”, a TV-series about the life of British recruits inside Islamic State in Syria.