National Geographic weighs in on Islamic State in a visceral new drama series

National Geographic weighs in on Islamic State in a visceral new drama series
Ony Uhiara stars as European recruit Shakira in "The State," a fictional four-part drama about Islamic State on National Geographic. (Giles Keyte / Channel 4)

Companionship, adventure and reclaiming one's faith were the promise, but brutality, oppression and hypocrisy were the reality four young Briton's found when they left home to join the world's most notorious terrorist network in Syria.

"The State," National Geographic's four-part fictional drama that premieres Monday, takes viewers inside the lives of Westerners who voluntarily joined Islamic State in 2015 at the height of the group's power.


The series, a co-production of National Geographic and Britain's Channel 4, sets out to answer why anyone raised in the developed world, outside of a war zone, would pledge allegiance to a network whose M.O. is destruction, human trafficking and wholesale brutality.

Unlike most other TV productions, "The State" filters terrorism through the perspective of the damaged souls who join "the cause" rather than through the rifle scopes of the Special Ops forces who fight them.

"The State" enters Islamic State's underworld via Jalal (Sam Otto), Ziyad (Ryan McKen), Shakira (Ony Uhiara) and Ushna (Shavani Seth). They all leave England enticed by what they've seen on social media in videos and posts disseminated by the group — the promise of an ideal life in a new Caliphate (a contiguous Islamic state stretching across the Middle East). Fight for the cause and you're guaranteed employment, stability, marriage and a sense of purpose — no matter how aimless your life was back in the world of apostates.

But each has his or her personal motivations as well. Jalal has a brother he believes was martyred in battle, and joins up to continue the fight. Shakira, a trained doctor and single mom who's struggled in Britain, brings her son with her to Syria to help build a strong new society based on the pious principles of Islam. Ushna is a pampered, insecure teenager who wants to become "a lioness among lions." She hopes to achieve this through marriage to a brave fighter.

But once they're in Raqqah, reality sets in, and it's far from what they were sold online.

The women aren't allowed outside the all-female compound unless covered head-to-toe and accompanied by a man. If they disobey, they risk public torture and stoning (a punishment they are ordered to inflict on other women who deviate from the rules). They'll be married off to men they've never met, many of whom don't even speak the same language.

At least they're better off than the captured Yazidi women who are being sold into slavery a few blocks away.

The male recruits who dreamed of fighting "the enemies of true Islam" (whatever that means) instead find they're now part of barbaric occupying force that threatens, extorts, tortures and beheads terrified citizens, enemies and noncompliant Islamic State recruits. Ziyad adjusts quite comfortably; Jalal does not.

The series, directed by Peter Kosminsky ("Wolf Hall"), is based on months of research and first-hand accounts of those who either joined, fought or were victimized by Islamic State.

Clearly the background research paid off. The look and feel of the series are authentic, including the Arabesque architecture and marble floors of the captured mansions of Raqqah now inhabited by top commanders, and the cramped quarters of dilapidated buildings where recruits from all of the world must learn to live together.

Their different understandings of that faith, varying interpretations of the Koran and ample cultural baggage exemplify the global battle for the soul of Islam: moderates versus extremists. Secular versus fundamentalist.

"The State's" radicalized Islamic State. members enforce their manipulations of religious law (no smoking, coffee, women looking men in the eye) on townspeople who follow a more recognizable, mainstream interpretation of the faith (women cover by choice, and cigarettes, music and coffee are a core part of life). And among the international pool of recruits, over-zealous Western converts guide their every action by what they see as unbendable religious dictates.

When a white German convert who's joined the cause corrects two other recruits born into the faith for taking their socks off in the wrong order, they mercilessly make fun of him.

Less believable, though, is the men's facial hair. Their beards are just a notch above mall Santa. Why are beards always the last thing TV or film gets right, especially given their obsession with Muslim fundamentalists and hipster fashion trends?


"The State's" bigger flaw, however, is that it doesn't clearly explain the motivations of each main character's life-changing decision to join Islamic State. The series implies their need for direction, self-worth or belonging, but it's not enough to justify such a drastic decision. There needs to be more about their backgrounds, and early on in the show, to explain why they take such a risk.

The depiction of life inside of Islamic State, however, is believable — horrifyingly so. "The State" is a journey into hell, artfully exposing the stories of those who chose to throw it all away and join the most depraved and vicious terrorist group of our time.

"The State"

Where: National Geographic Channel

When: 9 and 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday