Caliphate was released on Netflix on March 20 after premiering in Sweden in January on SVT1 and SVT Play. Readers of European Eye on Radicalization should watch it for one main reason: it is the first TV show that tackles radicalization — not only terrorism. This is quite a big innovation in the TV series landscape of the last ten years.
The creators are Wilhelm Behrman and Niklas Rockström. Behrman has a background as a political reporter for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and news program Ekot, but also was involved in many other screenplays. Rockström has been writing for television for more than 20 years.
Shot in Stockholm and Jordan, the eight-episode series develops through three plot lines. The first one is centered on Pervin, a Swedish Muslim woman in Syria who is desperately trying to get back home. The second focuses on Fatima, a Säpo intelligence officer in Stockholm who is trying to help Pervin. The third deals with Al Musafir (The Traveler), a young jihadi recruiter who helps radicalize two sisters – Suleika and Lisha – and their friend Karima, while also planning major terrorist attacks in Sweden with the help of secondary characters, like two young Swedish brothers who were radicalized in prison, while Fatima tries to stop him. The three storylines are deeply intertwined.
As far as the background research that informed the show is concerned, the screenwriters explained that they gathered information by reading several articles and books and watching documentaries about The Islamic State and how they recruit people in Western Europe. After coming up with their story, they had a couple of experts on terrorism review it. The result is a well-informed product that sheds light on critical issues involving radicalization.
The audience reception has been extremely positive. Viewers are reportedly thrilled by the series’ suspense and intensity and Caliphate is becoming a great binge-watch for many of us in lockdown.
From our perspective, what is really interesting about the show — besides the plot — is seeing radicalization patterns and mechanisms that we have been studying for years. Without giving away too much of the show’s storyline, here are a few patterns the series tackles:
- Dynamics of trust and radicalization from within
Ibbe, aka al-Musafir, works as a school counsellor. In this capacity, he is able to build relationships with teenagers based on trust. The young characters look up to him and open up about their fears, doubts and family issues. While it is fortunately not so likely that a jihadi recruiter infiltrates European high schools and works hand in hand with social services, the mechanisms of radicalization from within and the relevance of building trust in the charismatic leader are pillars of hundreds of known radicalization paths.
This technique is frequently used in online grooming processes. When the relationship between the recruiter and the potential recruit gets more personal, the groomer tries to find reliable and safe ways to keep in touch and create emotional bonds. He or she will try to make the recruit feel important. This mechanism is called love-bombing. In the series, Ibbe takes it a step further by “charming” all the young girls that he is trying to recruit. In the case of a girl working in a duty-free shop at the airport, he even meets her father in order to marry her.
- Exploiting social and psychological vulnerabilities and prison radicalization
The older of the two Swedish brothers that Al-Musafir recruits was radicalized in jail, where he was detained as a common offender. The younger one shows clear signs of mental fragilities, and, without personal discernment, commits to a suicidal plan. Once again, these dynamics are not fully familiar to the general public and here is where Caliphate brings something new to the screen.
- Heterogeneous family profiles
The show depicts the families of the radicalizing girls as extremely diverse – which is realistic. All of them seem to play a major role in the processes that their daughters are undergoing. For example, Karima’s father — from a former Soviet country — is abusive and probably an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Suleika and Lisha’s family — who moved to Sweden from Jordan — are portrayed as secular Muslims. At one point in the series, their father violently rips off Suleika’s hijab. By doing so, he obviously exacerbates the conflict with the daughter, who is searching for answers concerning Islam and Muslims in Sweden.
Concerning the families portrayed in the TV show, a couple of elements trigger some criticism.
First, peaceful, contemporary Muslims are completely absent from the series. The show only depicts two narrow prisms of Muslim identity — extremists or ultra-secularists.
Secondly, if the fact that most of families of radicalizing individuals do not have the tools to fight the process is completely true, the counterarguments that the parents of Suleika use to convince her that her ideas are wrong and dangerous are frankly weak, inconsistent and lack substance. Her parents do not offer any sophisticated arguments to reel their daughter away from radicalization. Instead, they delve out weak statements such as “this is not true Islam” followed by long and passive silences.
Day by day, Suleika goes back home to face the radical cliché she is embracing: There is a conspiracy against Islam, Sweden hates Muslims, it is forbidden to be a Muslim in this country and in the Islamic State people could finally be free.
- Islamic State propaganda and female radicalizing agents
In order to convince the three young girls to move to IS-controlled territories, a female contact of Al Musafir shows them pictures of beautiful places that are supposed to be in Raqqa and tells them that in the city you do not even notice the war that is going on. The contact even tells the girls that the food tastes better there. The emphasis on idyllic sceneries and paradisiac life is a recurring part of jihadi recruitment narratives, which skillfully alternate the heroic component related to the fight on the path of God with the harmony of the utopian daily life under Daesh.
- Insights in the Swedish PVE Strategies
Throughout the eight episodes, we have the chance to discover something about the Swedish Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy — in particular about the primary role played by communication and dialogue between the different actors on the ground.
Interesting examples are the periodical meetings organized between police, social service workers and teachers to discuss radicalization and to learn how to spot the first red flags.
In this respect, widely adopted in Sweden was the so-called Conversation Compass (CC)—an essential guidebook for teachers, social workers and youth workers on probable signs of radicalization and how to proceed when these signs are observed.
Besides the radicalization mechanisms that are well-illustrated in the series, it is worth mentioning a remarkable choice in which the screenwriters did not take any shortcuts and avoided falling into clichés. It relates to the character of Pervin — the woman who moved to Islamic State-controlled territory with her husband, but later wanted to leave Raqqa and go back to Sweden. Instead of showing an abusive relationship where Pervin’s brave and masculine jihadi husband Hosam never lets her have a say or an opinion, the show portrays a much more blurred marriage. Pervin threatens to leave her husband the one time he lost his temper with her. Hosam is depicted as a very fragile man who is full of insecurities and relies heavily on the support of his wife. This is not to say that their relationship is healthy or balanced, but still, the show is able to demonstrate that the Islamic State is a very diverse galaxy.
Thousands of people from everywhere in the world flocked there with their own specific backgrounds and some of them with pre-existing relationships. The shortcut to meet audiences’ expectations would have been going for nothing else other than extreme domestic violence and stereotypical female and male characters. Fortunately, this is not the case and the quality of the show improves significantly without this shortcut.
This review — centered on the way Caliphate portrays the process of radicalization — does not intend to express artistic judgement. This TV show is a captivating and entertaining product that — albeit some weaknesses like those concerning the representation of families — helps familiarize the general public with some of most crucial radicalization patterns that exist today.