Have You Seen The New Women in Terrorism Thriller, The “Kalifat”?

Like so many Americans, I am self-isolating and went to Netflix to find a new women in terrorism thriller called “Kalifat.” The episode-turning story is complex, at times confusing, but carefully planned. Each scene reads like a thriller novel as an array of characters struggle to stay alive (the lead protagonist, Pervin wants out of the Kalifat, or the Caliphate). Other (young) men and women are looking for ways to join the Kalifat in Raqqa, Syria. 


The ISIS-inspired thriller takes place in Sweden, an unexpected and unlikely place for female recruits, as they make their way into Syria–the safe haven and stronghold of the terrorist group. At first glance, the Kalifat exploits every known stereotype about Muslims living in the West. They are as follows:

All of the above may be true. In my research and interviews of terrorist women and victims of violence, I have seen examples of all this above. Note: Female terrorism is not the norm and only the exception. 

Who Joins the Kalifat?

Consider the facts.

During 2015, a pivotal recruitment year for ISIS, the terror group managed to recruit young (Islam-ignorant) women from Europe. See the chart below for an illustration of this. My own book, Invisible Martyrs, explores women in the United States, another unlikely country for female terrorists. 

The actual numbers of women traveling to Syria to join ISIS–or the Kalifat in the Netflix series–is unknown. We only have conservative figures. What we do know is that some women have wanted to escape. They soon realize they are duped into a fantasy that is unreal. Raqqa is a lie. It is a police state at its worst with Islam practiced with hedonistic and barbaric (read unIslamic) practices. Pervin is that woman. In the drama, she wants out of Raqqa and back into Sweden, her home.


Female recruits migrate to Syria to join ISIS in 2015


Leaving the Kalifat

The harsh reality is the Pervin can not leave without risks. In real life, last summer, the news exploded with the story of Shamin Begum, a British girl who left her home with other young women to join ISIS in 2015 and then wanted to return to England. But Begum was refused re-entry. She gave birth to a baby boy, while living in a refugee camp and has asked to return to her Western home and family. Sadly, the process isn’t that simple.  

In the Netflix series, Pervin is a young woman with a child and terrorist facilitator husband. She gets a hold of a phone, which is forbidden in the Kalifat, and contacts the Swedish police. For days and weeks, she secretly speaks to a female police officer, her handler, and negotiates her escape. Eventually, Pervin finds a way out…until something horrific happens. (I’ll stop there in case you want to see the full series.)

Photo of Shamima Begum. Courtesy of the Daily Mail

Finding True Islam

While watching the series, there are a few take-aways that are worth mentioning. First, the “Kalifat” is not for everyone. It is a tragic story of self-sacrifice, struggle, and ultimate survival for those who are able to find a way out, including the brave young woman, Sulle–she’s the typical young Muslim girl growing up in a secular Muslim family who is on a journey to find true Islam.

Like so many young women, who we know joined ISIS, Sulle clumsily finds the wrong person to teach her Islam. Her quest for knowledge leads to greater ignorance and illiteracy. She is blinded by so-called religion, lured by a male handler, whose own shallow readings of Islam make him the perfect “man” to befriend young women in need of a friend, a support system, and a guide. The handler is as naive as is alienated as he is apathetic to the real needs of the women he recruits.

Finding true Islam begins with asking a question. A famous hadith (oral saying) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is: “The answer to ignorance begins with a question.” And of course, finding the answer to those questions begins with finding the right scholar who practices the 3Ps of Islam: Peace, Patience, and Piety. 


Scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a worldwide figure based in California, lectures widely on the Mercy of the Creator and the purpose of life. He is also a scholar on how to combat violent extremism. As the “Kalifat” illustrates, all the young women and men in the series are looking for a greater meaning to their lives. They want to belong to something beyond themselves. This could be a cause, a calling, and a community. 

The easiest way to find Islam, according to Shaykh Yusuf, is to understand the miracles and mercy o f God. How do we do this? By improving the Self. 



Fast-Forward to the Present

Today, former ISIS female recruits–both victims and victimizers of violence–are trapped in sprawling refugee tents in Syria. There, some ISIS women impose a harsh rule and make life intolerable for women trying to survive. Women are trapped inside the Al-Hol camp, for example, and report serious challenges of living in an overcrowded and underfunded refugee camp.

Al-Hol, Syria

In late 2019, at a private luncheon sponsored by The State Department, I listened to award-winning journalist Robin Wright speak about the horrors she witnessed inside the refugee camps. Wright described the children looking for play–they made make-shift market places; others made guns with water pipes and other materials. She shared stories of women with no alternative–they had no place to go except remain in the camps. 

For how long? No one knows. A former student of mine, who is an active U.S. military officer looking at this issue, told me about the refugee camps in Kosovo, an Eastern European country. Admittedly, the conditions were different. 

What both Wright and my student, who will be unnamed, agree to is that there is the danger of rising fanaticism if help is slow-moving and governments as well as the international community fail to address the way forward. In a separate conversation with ex-radical Mubin Shaikh, the challenge with the camps is negligence and reluctance by governments to find a practical, realistic answer to closing down the camps and finding a “new” home for ex-ISIS women. 

This brings me back to the film, the Kalifat. The last episode and the last scene are the most revealing. We see two different women–both victims of violence–find their own path. The new series sheds light on one final truth: not everyone survives terrorism. 

As of this writing, we do not know why. We can not say why one woman survives and another woman disappears or worse, she is dead. All we can do is continue to be vigilant and prudent to save young women (of the future) from joining. 


Additional Must-Read Articles on Women in Terrorism 

The Caliphate, a podcast by Rukmini Callimachi and series producer Andy Mills, explores the nature of terrorism. 

ISIS’s Persecution of Women by The Counter Extremism Project by The George Washington Univ, my alma mater

Role of Women in ISIS in Indonesia (a case study) published by The Middle East Institute

Terrorism Gender and History (academic article) 

Crenshaw_Gendering of Womens Terrorism by Martha Crenshaw (my all-time favorite scholar)

Layla M. trailer, a must-watch series on radicalization and repatriation





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