One of the many intrusive thoughts I’ve had during this long lockdown period is how Western audiences have been so undernourished with decent TV & film fiction on jihadism. The ideological struggle of the Cold War produced some timeless fiction, from the bleak and terrifying ‘Threads’ and the LeCarre classic ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ to From Russia with Love and Rocky IV. Yes, even the outright propaganda was good. It turns out the looming threat of nuclear annihilation can really provide that creative spark.
While we lack the Cold War catalogue when it comes to jihadism, there have been some decent efforts, alongside one or two homeruns in the 2-3 decades since militant Islamism started to emerge in the West. So, if you’re all done baking and learning a new language (right) and you’ve been for your state sanctioned walk, here’s a list for your lockdown viewing pleasure.
Before we get started, a quick plug for Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell. Although its focus is the experience of a man’s torrid experience in the aftermath of the ‘96 Atlanta bombing, I can’t technically include it on the list because the focus isn’t jihadism. That said, I literally just watched it and so should you. The performance from unknown actor Paul Walter Hauser left with me with “something in my eye” for much of the movie, and Sam Rockwell is just a legend.
Anyway, the actual list (in no particular order):
This Swedish TV series dares to take viewers to the heart of Islamic State’s Caliphate and delve into the recruitment of Swedish youth. The depiction of life in Raqqa is compelling, and at least compared to some of the incredible footage obtained by Vice News of life inside the Caliphate, the show does feel realistic – quite an achievement given the budget compared to the average HBO production. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Islamic State straight off the bat: a public amputation and rowdy fighters celebrating a major terror attack in Turkey. I will be sure to tweet my dissatisfaction if it takes a turn for the worse after the first few episodes.
Okay okay so I never watched after Season 2. I’m a believer in the low-budget British principle of quality over quantity when it comes to TV shows: think Sherlock (before it got weird…), The (British) Office and Fawlty Towers. Nevertheless, the first two seasons of this American remake of the popular Israeli show ‘Prisoners of War’ had me hooked. I’m in good company, Barack Obama is a fan. The show never had you sure you knew the truth, nor who the good guys or bad guys were - perfect. Maybe lockdown means I’ll make it through the other six seasons.
The film can be a little… Mark Wahlberg, if you know what I mean. That said, the dramatization of the Boston Marathon bombings and the enthralling inter-agency manhunt for the bombers is exceptionally well done. As noted by the New York Times, the movie declines to really get into the ideological motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers, a common frustration for fiction based on jihadist terror. Despite this, the dynamic between the lazy stoner younger sibling and his committed older brother is fascinating and the fortitude of the bombing survivors is a sight to behold.
15:17 TO PARIS
Clint Eastwood makes another appearance. As an Americanophile (is that a word?), the teary-eyed flag waving of some American movies is off putting to some, but catnip to me. As such, I was slightly taken in by this lovely story about 3 young Americans whose bravery prevented a massacre on a packed train in France in 2015. The most interesting part? The real-life heroes are playing themselves.
MADE IN FRANCE
Where the British do bleak (very little teary-eyed flag waving to be found) there is something especially dark and gritty about France’s takes on subjects like terrorism. In this case, even the timing was gritty, as Made in France’s 2015 cinematic release was postponed after the catastrophic year it turned out to be – starting with the Charlie Hebdo atrocity all the way to the horrors unleashed across Paris eleven months later. The film starts with great promise, a French-Algerian journalist has infiltrated a homegrown terror cell plotting a major attack in Paris, but ultimately takes a few disappointing turns and fails to tackle the subject matter with as much rigor or depth as terrorism nerds will be crying out for.
Side note: I have it on good authority from terrorism expert Andrew Zammit (who recently wrote an investigation for CTC Sentinel that sounds straight out of a movie) that another French production, The Bureau is worth a watch.
Based on real events, there isn’t much of a ‘plot’ as such, but the sheer heroism of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel during the horrors of the 2008 Mumbai attacks conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba (co-founded by Abdullah Azzam – the father of global jihad) deserves its own movie and so much more. The film does not shy away from showing the callous brutality of the terrorists, and as such, it is not for the faint of heart.
THE LOOMING TOWER
Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winner is one of the most important books ever written on terrorism, charting al-Qaeda’s road to the 9/11 attacks and the inter-agency rivalries of which the 9/11 Commission was so scathing. The TV adaptation centers around an up and coming Ali Soufan, the Lebanese American FBI agent, and his mentor John O’Neill tracking al-Qaeda in the lead up 9/11. The show is fascinating in its depiction of intelligence agencies on the tail of real-life figures in the global jihadist movement, and the atrocities of that terrible September day are depicted with exceptional care.
And now for the absolute cream of the crop:
Netflix has grabbed this hit Israeli show and relabeled it as ‘Original’ – and I am so glad they did. In something of an unprecedented development for an Israeli TV show, Fauda also has the distinction of being one of the most watched shows in the Arab World.
As over the top as it is utterly gripping, the digestible episodes come in at well under an hour each, invariably ending with the show’s lead, Doron, about to do something utterly outrageous – meaning Netflix’s autoplay next episode function has never been put to better use. Just to add a little magic, the lead actor and producer, Lior Raz, really did serve in the elite Mista'arvim unit the show is based on.
That Season 2 is about Isis makes it both relevant and usefully – eligible for this list. Be sure to watch with the original audio and English subtitles rather than dubbed.
It simply does not get better than this. A genuine laugh out loud spectacle confronting a very serious and sensitive topic without fear. Among all the cultural and political sensitivities that come with tackling Jihadist terror, this film shows exactly how to do it. Taking ruthless aim at both the hapless wannabe mujahideen and the security services chasing them, this is satire royalty Chris Morris at his very best. It gets five stars just for the line about establishing the "Islamic State of Tinsley" – a dreary English suburb.
I recently watched the original “Tottenham Ayatollah” documentary, a look into the life of al-Muhajiroun founder Omar Bakri Muhammed – with the added Easter egg of a fresh faced, suited and booted Anjem Choudary. There are shadows of these characters in Four Lions and I’m certain Morris will have watched this documentary, but we now know some of these men are much more dangerous than their sheer novelty suggests. The great paradox of Four Lions is the depiction of how utterly ridiculous the would-be terrorists are, juxtaposed with the nagging awareness of just how close they are to unleashing mass murder. After all, people just as preposterous have pulled off much worse than the jokers in this satirical masterpiece.
Liam Duffy (@LiamSD12) is an advisor on extremism and counterterrorism based in London. Liam has previously delivered the British government's domestic terrorism prevention strategy, Prevent, and designed and delivered CVE programs in both the U.K. and overseas. He regularly comments on extremism in the U.K. media and has written on the subject for the Times Educational Supplement, the Jewish Chronicle, and CapX among others.