The State: A Provocative New Drama Considers ISIS

The four-part miniseries by Wolf Hall’s Peter Kosminsky explores life inside the terrorist group for the Britons who join up.

Channel 4 / National Geographic

When it premiered in the U.K. in August, Peter Kosminsky’s four-part miniseries The State capped a summer that had seen two of the worst terrorist events in recent British history: a bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that killed 22 people and wounded 250, and an attack near London Bridge in which eight died and 48 were injured. Both acts were claimed by the Islamic State, the militant group in Iraq and Syria that an estimated 850 British nationals have left home to join. So Kosminsky, the writer and director behind the period piece Wolf Hall and the factual drama The Government Inspector, was wary about how viewers might receive The State, which dramatizes the experience of life inside ISIS for the new British recruits. On the one hand, he’s humanizing people who sign up to commit horrific acts in the name of Islam. On the other, he’s contributing to a media culture that tends to disproportionately portray Muslims as terrorists.

The balancing act required of The State was near-impossible—to create a deeper understanding of the lives of the men and women who join ISIS without either lionizing them or demonizing a whole religion. But the series, which airs in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel over two nights on Monday and Tuesday, has somehow pulled it off. Kosminsky’s drama is a cautionary tale first and foremost, but one that probes the alienation and nihilism that, he feels, define the majority of extremists. “These are groups of people with a very absolutist attitude to society who want to tear it down and replace it,” he told me recently. “But they’re also looking for a place where they feel they can belong.”

The State follows four primary characters, all amalgams based loosely on real people who joined ISIS. Jalal (Sam Otto) and Ziyaad (Ryan McKen) are schoolfriends from London who decide to travel to Syria after Jalal’s older brother is killed fighting there. Shakira (Ony Uhiara) is a young doctor and single mother who hopes to help save the lives of ISIS soldiers, and who brings her 9-year-old, Isaac (Nana Agyeman-Bediako), to the caliphate. Ushna (Shavani Cameron) is a doe-eyed teenager who dreams of being a “lioness” wife to ISIS fighters she mythologizes like boy-banders. At the beginning of the first episode, which sees all four embark on their respective journeys to Syria, Ushna comically navigates her bright pink suitcase through wire fences and over fields to enter ISIS territory.

Kosminsky’s goal in creating the series wasn’t explicitly uncovering how fundamentalism takes root—he explored that subject in 2007’s Britz, which starred Riz Ahmed and Manjinder Virk as British Muslims who end up on different ends of the political spectrum. With The State, he wanted a more thorough sense of what happens once people cross the border, and their conviction runs up against reality. So it’s there that his story really starts, as Shakira and Ushna are taken to one house for female members, and Jalal and Ziyaad to another for men. Kosminsky and his research team spent months poring through public records and interviewing people who’d returned home after traveling to Syria, although he declines to talk about the latter, since they were interviewed on background and occupy precarious legal territory. The characters might be composites, chosen to represent the kinds of people he kept encountering in his research, but the events in the show are all real.

What’s notable in the first episode is that even though there are early signs the four new recruits are headed for disaster, all of them seem delighted by their new home, and by the sense of inclusion they feel. The closing scene, which depicts the male recruits cheering and hugging each other, and the female recruits sitting down together to eat dinner, smiling and laughing, is accompanied by rousing string music. It’s the most provocative moment in the series, simply for how momentarily rosy a portrait it paints of a group Kosminsky describes as a “death cult.” But he felt it was necessary to emphasize the appeal of ISIS to disaffected citizens, most of whom only have a tenuous relationship with Islam. “People contemplating going to Syria are people with no sense of investment in our society,” he said. “They feel very apart from it, and more importantly, they feel a sense of disgust at our society … And they’re looking for a band of brothers or sisters, or a place where they will be welcomed, [where they] don’t feel like they have to hide or make excuses for their faith.”

At a private screening of The State in July, Kosminsky was asked whether he was concerned about humanizing ISIS in the wake of two horrific attacks carried out in its name. “It doesn’t do any service to people who’ve suffered at the hands of ISIS to pretend that all the people who go over there are clinically insane,” he said. His characters are delusional to different extents, but they’re not sadists. And Jalal and Shakira even become audience surrogates as they’re exposed to some of the more horrific practices ISIS engages in: the rape and torture of Yazidi sex slaves and their pre-pubescent daughters, beheadings, the harvesting of organs from captured enemy fighters. Shakira, in one scene, finds her newly indoctrinated son playing football with a human head.

One of the hardest things to comprehend watching The State is what a strong-minded female doctor could see in ISIS that would compel her to endanger both her own and her son’s lives. Uhiara’s performance as Shakira is phenomenal, even more so given she’s often limited to using her eyes, since her character is veiled. But Shakira’s sense of medical ethics, and her commitment to saving lives, seem directly opposed to both the tenets and the practices of ISIS. “What I was trying to do was show a kind of battle between the head and the heart,” Kosminsky said. “In her head, she’s rationalized this. She believes in the concept of the caliphate, a perfect place for Muslims that she can help build. But her heart is protesting in the most violent way imaginable.”

By the end of the fourth and final episode, any illusions have been dispelled. The atrocities portrayed in The State are well documented by now, and hard to ignore even for the four recruits themselves. What is surprising about the series, though is the insight it seems to offer into extremist groups all over the world: Scenes where women brutally discipline each other while veiled from head to foot have echoes of the recent Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, itself based on history; the sense of raging nihilism that Jalal and Ziyaad feel at the beginning of the series brings to mind the alt-right. The State, while a meticulously researched and reportorial series about life inside ISIS, ends up being a parable about isolation and disaffection. It’s not a cheerful ending, but redemption for these characters isn’t the point. It’s trying to understand them, Kosminsky would argue, that matters.