Undercover in ISIS


We hear about it daily: Western men and women lured by ISIS recruiters to go and fight in Iraq and Syria. But how does that actual clandestine recruitment process go down? Martin Himel,  a filmmaker and former foreign correspondent who has been covering radical Islamic militias for nearly 30 years, wanted to find out. 

Like the finest spy story, Himel ’s film begins with the training of two brave young people who will work  undercover and online to lure ISIS recruiters. He enlists counter-terrorism professionals to create “Theo” and “Sara”, two fictitious but plausible characters, complete with detailed backgrounds, who have shown an interest and sympathy online for the ISIS cause. The bait proves irresistible to ISIS recruiters, who are quickly in touch.

     MORE:
     ISIS and the internet: Turning a tool into a weapon - Listen to an interview with director Martin Himel

Filmed from March 2015 through June 2016, UNDERCOVER IN ISIS documents, in real time, the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the supposed ISIS sympathizers and the ISIS recruiters.  “Theo” is offered a meet-up with a terrorist cell in Belgium - six months before the deadly attacks there. His cover story is that he wants to become a Jihadi fighter. 

“Sara” develops trust and an emotionally intimate relationship with a Swedish recruiter and her son-in-law, an ISIS Jihadi fighting in Syria and Iraq. The contact is initiated on webpages, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter but, at the ISIS recruiter’s suggestion, soon moves onto encrypted  audio-visual communications apps like Skype, Viber, Kik and Wickr to hide the growing dialogue from the cyber eyes and ears of Western security organizations.

The recruiter offers  her Jihadi son-in-law to “Sara”, inviting her to join them in Syria as a second wife— a Jihadi bride.  Arrangements are made to smuggle her into  Syria after first travelling to Turkey. He gives her careful, detailed instructions on the tricks of the trade: what to wear (and not wear), what to carry (and not carry) and other ways to hoodwink border and customs officials from discovering her true purpose: joining her Jihadi future husband in Syria.

This entire, tense process is shockingly captured, step-by-step, in UNDERCOVER IN ISIS, which unfolds like the spinning of a giant spider web. The question is, in this game, who is the hunter and who is the prey?

Eventually, Himel actually locates the ISIS recruiter, who has since fled  the ISIS  Caliphate back to  Sweden  because of the massive bombardment . Himel  travels to interview her face-to-face to learn details of life within the Islamic State.  “We are not the terrorists,” she says, “It’s your governments who are true terrorists.”  

Says filmmaker Martin Himel, “I wanted to find out why so many Western men and women left their own countries to  fight in Iraq and Syria. Social media is the driving force behind ISIS’s extensive recruitment and how they stage deadly terrorist attacks throughout the world, so I thought the  best way to contact ISIS was to convince them to recruit  us via our “virtual” people online. The process was a journey into the unknown, and UNDERCOVER IN ISIS is the result.”

UNDERCOVER IN ISIS is written, directed and produced by Martin Himel.