It’s 1am in Baghdad, a city under curfew, and the streets of Karrada, a central district in the Iraqi capital, are swarming with nervous security personnel.
A blindfolded man in a yellow prisoner suit is led out of a vehicle by heavily armed security officials.
Positioning himself next to the prisoner, whose blindfold has now been removed, Ahmed Hassan, presenter of the wildly popular Iraqi TV show, “In the Grip of Justice,” does a standup to the cameras in the middle of the street.
"Standing by my side is one of our country's worst criminals. Military leader of the 'Rousafa' cell, he goes by the nickname “Tahseen”. His real name is Fahak Abdallah Radi. This terrorist is going to explain what crime he's committed here," says Hassan, looking relaxed before the cameras.
Welcome to a behind-the-scenes look of one of Iraq’s most popular TV series, broadcast every Friday night on Al Iraqiya, the country’s public broadcaster. Produced in collaboration with the Iraqi justice ministry and anti-terrorist services, “In the Grip of Justice” sees nearly 9 million people tune in every Friday – the weekend in many parts of the Muslim world – to watch how the country’s very own war on terror, an existential fight in Iraq today, is unfolding.
The show features captured terrorist suspects being taken to the scenes of their crimes to reenact attacks they have conducted or masterminded.
FRANCE 24’s team in Baghdad got exclusive access to the shooting of an episode focused on attacks by Tahseen – a 26-year-old leader of the Islamic State (IS) group’s East Baghdad sector.
Even as IS fighters have been inching close to the Iraqi capital, the Sunni extremist group has been conducting bombing attacks – sometimes several in a day – in many Baghdad neighbourhoods, particularly ones with a Shiite majority, such as Karrada.
A wiry man with an intense look, Tahseen has confessed to masterminding several attacks including dozens of car bombings. He’s also specialized in point-blank shootings. To reward his high body count, the IS group granted him the title of "emir". Iraqi security forces have also captured six of his lieutenants and it’s obvious from interviews with the six men that Tahseen is their hardened leader.
The destruction that men like Tahseen unleash on the lives of ordinary Iraqis makes for some fraught moments during the shooting of “In the Grip of Justice”.
In one Baghdad neighbourhood, a portly resident with a bandaged arm approaches the famous TV presenter as he stands in the street with the handcuffed terror suspect.
Ishtar, a Baghdad resident, was wounded in a terror attack conducted by Tahseen – and he is distraught.
“Why did he do this?” Ishtar asks Hassan, the TV presenter. “Aren't we all Muslims? Wasn't it the same God who created us? Why did he detonate that bomb? What have we done wrong? Don't we all have families and homes?”
Standing next to Hassan in his yellow prison garb, Tahseen seems impassive, unrepentant.
A few hundred metres away, at the scene of yet another recent terror attack, anger is brewing as the TV crew and security forces show up with the prisoner.
A resident in a djellaba, or traditional flowing robe, approaches the prisoners flanked by Iraqi security forces and the star TV host. “If it wasn't for all these people around, I'd eat you alive, I swear I'd crush you - you scum," screams the man at the prisoners while the security officials look on.
Suddenly, from a balcony across the street, a male voice screams out from the shadows. “You’re a coward. You destroyed our lives. You burned the little we owned - you're a bastard. A bastard! Our families are dead, our children are dead, our friends are dead - he's a bastard," the man screeches through angry tears.
The situation is getting too tense and it's time for the TV crew to move on.
“It happens a lot,” says Hassan as the TV car drives past the heavily guarded streets of Baghdad. “People react like that when they've lost a member of their family – a brother, a friend, a cousin,” he explains.
“In the Grip of Justice” makes no secret of its main objective. In a country behest by violence, wrecked by sectarian attacks and threatened by jihadists, Iraqi authorities want to convince viewers that the country's justice ministry and security services are still effectively working to secure the nation by capturing hardened terrorists like Tahseen.