The Reality TV Show That Interrogates ISIS Prisoners on Camera

ISIS flag
Iraqi Shiite militiamen parade a captured ISIS flag. Stringer/Reuters

Baghdad, Iraq: Every week, Ahmed Hassan, the presenter of In the Grip of the Law, a reality show broadcast on Iraqiya, the Iraqi state satellite channel, finds himself in the unique position of playing judge and jury to some of the most feared terrorists in the world, on national TV.

In an episode recorded a few weeks ago, ­Hassan stands over three ISIS fighters, captured by Iraqi security forces and dressed in yellow prison suits, suspected of exploding a bomb in south-east Baghdad.

“Tell me, what was your participation in this?” Hassan asks Wissam Hassan, also known as Abu Ayaoub, an ISIS commander who, according to his own testimony on the show, has been involved in five car bombs explosions in Baghdad. “Who ­prepared the suicide bomber? . . . How did you recognise him? . . . What was his nationality?”

For Hassan, In the Grip of the Law is more than just a TV show; it is a space to express himself and display his personal interrogation skills, of which he is proud. Hassan declined to be interviewed for this story: “I am quite famous and do not need more popularity,” was his reply.

In Baghdad, at least, that is true. The programme is produced in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and broadcast on Friday evening. It shows Islamist insurgents recounting their war crimes including bombings and assassinations, as well as detailing their recruitment of other fighters across the country. The camera crew follows the captured fighters to the scenes of their crimes, to re-enact attacks they have ­conducted or masterminded.

“We are at war on terrorism, and this programme is one of our psychological tools to fight the terrorists,” says a senior federal police officer who participates the production of the programme, and declined to be named. “Most people have a curiosity to know how those [militants] are thinking, who are they, what are their scientific, cultural and social backgrounds, so we are focusing on these points to break their morale,” the officer says. None of the defendants shown in the programme has been sentenced to death – all are under investigation – federal police officers involved in the programme and the investigations say.

The format for the programme was derived from a show called Terrorism in the Grip of Justice which was established, funded and distributed by the US troops in Iraq in 2005. That programme was discontinued after the last US troops left the country in December 2011 but the Iraqi ­security authorities kept distributing the recorded interrogations of the Sunni insurgents in their custody. Delivering these confessions and broadcasting them on local TV channels has triggered widespread criticism among international human rights organisations and Sunni communities in the Arab world. Erin Evers, the director of Iraq research of HRW, says: “The broadcasting of confessions before defendants have even had a trail is blatant violation of due process and of Iraq’s crime proceedings code. The show is more evidence that law reform is desperately needed in Iraq. We have raised our concerns about the programme privately with the authorities under Maliki [the former Iraqi Prime minister] but got no response,”. However, the makers of the show argue that their intentions are honourable.

“The interrogations shown [in these programmes] are not the originals, and we do not shoot any of the defendants without the permission of the judge, as we know that they are not convicted yet,” the federal police officer says. “We are just trying to tell the families of the ­victims that we are going after the killers of their sons, and encouraging the rest of people to ­co­­operate with the security forces by destroying the prestige of ISIS combatants.”

Hassan, who is a thickset, energetic man prone to elaborate hand gestures, works hard to crack the detainees who are forced to show up in his TV show. “I am well known by the Americans in the US Embassy (in Baghdad) and if I wanted to get asylum, I would get it easily, whenever I want,” Hassan told Newsweek.

He may one day need to, according to two officers involved in the show, who say that he has become a target. Hassan has received several threats according to multiple sources in the TV station and the security service. The most recent was early this month and was serious enough to convince his bosses in Iraqiya to house Hassan in a safe-house, an apartment in a fortified compound that is owned by the channel.

The Iraqiya satellite channel was established by the Americans after the 2003 US-led invasion in Iraq and is funded by the state. The channel’s compound is built on the bank of the Tigris river, located just outside the Green Zone. Iraqiya’s buildings are surrounded by grey blast walls, many pock-marked by dents from shrapnel. Entrance is via three security checkpoints.

According to managers at the station, more than 100 staff have been killed since 2003, 56 of them individually assassinated by the anti-­government armed groups. “We were always under threat since the channel was established . . . some of these threats targeted all the Iraqiya employees, others specific names, especially those who appear on the screen,” says Abbas al-Yassiri, the deputy of the Board of Trustees of the Iraqi Media Network. Al-Yassiri confirmed that several staff members on the programme were threatened recently.

The citizens of the Iraqi capital are used to ­random acts of violence. The city has been subject to deadly attacks on an almost daily basis for years, mainly targeting the Shiite districts. At least 1,119 Iraqis were killed in violent conflict in September 2014 and a further 1,273 in October, most of them in Baghdad, UN figures show.

On 10 September, two bombers blew up cars packed with explosives one after another in New Baghdad, a busy commercial Shiite district in the south east of the capital. Forty-three people were killed and scores more wounded. ISIS claimed the responsibility for both explosions. “The square was very crowded as it is located near a very busy commercial area. We brought the two cars and left them close to each other,” Abu Ayoub, the ISIS commander of Risafa, says to Hassan, explaining how he and his group carried out the bloody explosions. “We walked away around 75 metres before he (one of his colleagues who has not been arrested yet) dialed a number, so the first car blew up. After people gathered to rescue their friends, lovers and relatives, he exploded the second one,” says Abu Ayoub.

A grieving woman wearing a black abayia, stands at the scene of the bombing, which has still not been cleared. Nearby buildings are seriously damaged and the remains of dozens of cars, burned with their owners still inside, litter the streets. The woman has come to the scene to witness the filming of the TV show. Police block people from ­getting to the captive ISIS fighters.

“What they gave you?” the woman shrieks, at Abu Ayoub. “Did they give you a medal? Why? Why did you devastate us? If they let me reach you, I would eat you like this,” she says biting her forefinger. “I would eat you piece by piece and leave you to gradually die.”