March 30, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Caliphate" (Netflix - 2020)

The Netflix series Caliphate is centered around an operation by the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen, SÄPO) to uncover and hopefully disrupt a coordinated terrorist attack being planned by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The targets are in Sweden; the planning is being done mostly in al-Raqqah, Syria.

Obviously set in either 2016 or 2017 before the anti-ISIS coalition assault on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital, the story tends to validate U.S. and most coalition partner fears that attacks against the West were actively being planned in al-Raqqah. It was this assessment that drove the timeline for the coalition's decision to use the Syrian Democratic Forces to lead the assault on al-Raqqah over strident (not to mention unhelpful, unnecessary, and counterproductive) Turkish objections over using the SDF to liberate al-Raqqah.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan objected to the mere existence of the SDF because its key component was the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, known more commonly by the initials YPG. The Turks regard the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurdish separatist group People's Workers' Party, or PKK.

The United States and some of its allies have designated the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), mostly as a courtesy to a fellow, albeit nominal, NATO ally. I have been vocal in my criticism of Turkey and Erdoğan and their disastrous policies in Syria and half-hearted fight against ISIS. See my latest on this subject, Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities.

In the series, the two lead characters are a SÄPO case officer (they use the term handler) named Fatima Zukić in Stockholm and a Turkish-Swede ISIS bride named Pervin trapped in al-Raqqah. Fatima is herself a Bosnian-born Muslim, although that facet of her character is only marginally explored.

The story is about the attack plot and Fatima's handling of Pervin, but it also touches on the tension between Sweden's ethnic Scandinavians and the Muslims who have resettled there from Iraq, Syria, Bosnia, etc. There is also a sizable Kurdish population in the country - all this thanks to Sweden's policy of allowing large numbers of refugees into the country.

Once getting her hands on a contraband cell phone in al-Raqqah, Pervin contacts a former teacher in Stockholm. The teacher contacts Fatima, hoping that the Swedish service can assist the trapped wife and her daughter return to Sweden. Once Fatima and Pervin are in contact, Pervin provides information that her husband's ISIS cell is actively planning a spectacular attack in Sweden. Of course, that sets in motion an intelligence-driven counter-terrorism operation to uncover and stop the attack.

As a case officer, I was intrigued at the thought of running an intelligence operation by phone. Running an asset requires trust and the ability to assess and vet the subject - both are difficult over a phone. Pervin was basically the electronic equivalent of a "walk in," someone who volunteers to become an asset, usually in return for something.

In this case, Pervin wanted to get herself and her daughter out of Syria and back to Sweden. My case officer mind immediately thought - she may be making this up (it's called "fabrication" in the vernacular) to get what she wants. I felt vindicated when Fatima's supervisor said the exact same thing. Walk ins can be the real thing, but mostly they are not.

In covering Pervin's story of coming from Sweden to Syria so her husband could join the fight as a member of ISIS, the series uncovers the deceit, radicalization, and treachery involved in the recruiting of not only fighters for ISIS, but also young women to become ISIS brides.

We do observe the movement of a group of young women to Syria via the Turkish city of Gaziantep. I've driven almost the entire Syrian-Turkish border (on both sides). It's about a seven-hour drive from Ankara to Gaziantep, which is a fairly nice city - good food, great sights. From Gaziantep, the major hub for moving ISIS fighters and brides into Syria, there are a few ways to go, depending on who controls what parts of northern Syria. I'd probably go further east, then two hours south to the border, then another five hours to al-Raqqah.

It is an arduous trip. As I said, I've been on both sides of that border. I would not attempt to cross it going either direction unless I had "hired a guide." It's heavily guarded, fortified, and in places, mined. I still believe that there was some collusion between ISIS (and other Islamist groups in Syria) and the Turkish government to let the crossings happen, if not actually facilitating them - that is just my opinion.

Without spoiling the story, there were some facets that strained the necessary "suspension of disbelief" required in most fictional accounts. In some places, there is too much coincidence, and of course, since it's fiction, everything falls nicely into place. In the real world of intelligence, it usually doesn't work that way. There is a lot more guesswork and estimation - we like to call it "analysis."

There was one phrase that sticks with me. One of the ISIS recruiters described al-Raqqah to potential recruits as "a magical place." I've been to al-Raqqah - it was okay before the war, right on the Euphrates River, but I have never heard it described as magical. Imagine it under ISIS rule.

Watch it, enjoy it. It is well written and well produced. With only a few minor glitches in the Arabic translations, it's solid entertainment.

There is to be a Season 2, to be released in early 2021. You can watch Season 1 here.