Russia state TV drama follows fate of IS women

Moscow (AFP) - A young woman in a headscarf speaks calmly in Russian to the camera, describing herself as a student from Moscow who now serves in a radical Islamist group in Syria.

"What are you first and foremost: Russian or Muslim? What is in your heart: Allah or fear?" she asks the viewer.

The Russian drama series "On The Edge" is a far cry from state television's often bland romantic or period dramas.

Following the fates of three fictional women who travel to Syria after a seductive young man recruits them to join Islamist fighters, the drama is among the first in Russia to tackle the hot button issue.

Director Yevgeny Lavrentyev said it is "absolutely clear" the programme is about the Islamic State group -- depicting slick multi-lingual recruitment videos, black-and-white flags and gun-toting child fighters.

Due to Russia's strict laws on terrorism, however, the organisation is not referred to by its name on screen.

Lavrentyev told AFP that, while he backed these laws, they had created fear among the public and media of open discussion.

"It's easy for these radical Islamists to present themselves as some kind of romantic heroes and tell a lot of lies about themselves because no one really knows anything about them and people don't want to talk about this."

- 'Should go to jail' -

Thousands of people from the former USSR have travelled to Syria to fight with Islamists, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, since Moscow intervened on the side of the Damascus regime in 2015.

As in Europe and the US, the country is now grappling with how to reintegrate the families of those Islamist fighters who want to return home.

Russia's foreign ministry warned in March that fighters' family members may also have been radicalised and present a risk if they return to Russia.

Some children have, however, been flown back.

A former student at a top Moscow university, Varvara Karaulova, was this month granted parole after being jailed in a high profile case in 2016 for attempting to join a fighter who groomed her online.

Lavrentyev said IS generally targets those who are vulnerable due to career and personal problems.

His central characters are a languages student who turns to Islam after feeling betrayed by her family and boyfriend, a poor provincial woman dreaming of a wealthy foreign husband and the widow of an IS fighter who is shunned by neighbours.

"At those moments when a person has lost his aim in life, when he's on the edge -- the series doesn't have that title by chance -- you just need to find that person and talk to them."

But in the drama there is little moral ambiguity about the characters' fate.

The only central character who goes to Syria entirely voluntarily, the widow of an IS fighter, gets killed by hand grenade just before the others are rescued.

"Here I don't question anything -- if a person participates of their free will in a terrorist organisation, they should go to jail," said the director.

- Provocative -

Reaction to the series, filmed in Moscow and Egypt, has been mixed.

Meduza news website praised it as "the first Russian series to talk about how the caliphate recruiters... lure Russian women into their snares".

Rosbalt news agency called it "a brave and even provocative move," saying the show "could be a lesson for other hapless young women."

For Tricolor television news site, however, the drama is let down by questionable casting such as a Belarusian actor playing the women's Arab recruiter and is "banal and stereotyped".

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov's English-language feature film "Profile" last year also examined how Islamic State recruiters lure women to the cause.