EXCLUSIVE: There has been a continuing sense of unease and high alert from the stars and filmmakers behind Mosul, the Iraqi-language thriller based on the true tale of an Iraqi SWAT police squad that took to the streets to wipe out ISIS members to avenge the love ones that unit members lost at the hands of the terror organization. The film made a high-profile Thanksgiving debut on Netflix and became one of the most viewed movies on the site in Europe and the Middle East. Unfortunately with the film’s popularity, several of the stars of the film have seen their social media pages filled with unsettling threats of violence that purport to be coming from members and loyalists of the fractured ISIS organization.
“When I posted on my social media that the film was going to come out, the first day there was a lot from ISIS,” said Suhail Dabbach, who plays the steely Colonel Jasem, the leader of the SWAT team. “They put on a lot of videos and bad words. Like, they have said, now we know you, and you have to watch yourself. Every day, touch your head to make sure it is still on. They said, ‘We know where you live and we will reach you.’ ”
Dabbach’s family has received similar scary threats, and his co-star Adam Besa, who plays the policeman who gets drafted into the SWAT team, watched his Instagram page get wiped clean and he has been threatened on WhatsApp. Those threats were traced to Turkey. Both the film’s financier AGBO, Netflix and 101 Studios have taken it seriously enough to direct internal security forces to step in and make sure everyone is safe.
“It was certainly an unnerving experience for the actors,” Joe Russo told Deadline. “It’s never a comfortable feeling to have your privacy violated, and it’s terrifying to receive death threats from anonymous sources. We feel it has been handled expertly by Netflix and by our own security team.”
Anthony Russo declined to say if they verified the death threats actually came from ISIS after AGBO re-engaged the TigerSwan security service they used to be sure the actors and crew were safe during production in Morocco.
“I will only say we’ve treated this very seriously,” Russo told Deadline. “We knew the movie was provocative and potentially dangerous for anyone involved. We took the highest security measures we could think of and we were familiar with that process after working on the Marvel movies. This was a whole new level in terms of secrecy. We didn’t distribute scripts, we had a code name for the movie and pulled every reference of ISIS out of scripts when we did have to distribute them, so they were never explicitly mentioned as they were in the film. We had the best security people working with us but still, there was danger, but we had to be in a Middle Eastern country to make the film like we did. We were exposed and had to do as responsible as we could but everyone felt it was worth the risk.”
Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote and directed the drama for AGBO, said the threats are a terrible byproduct of the extremely high viewership of the film, audience numbers particularly remarkable because they shot in Iraqi language with subtitles to keep the feeling of authenticity. It has been hard on Dabbach, whose performance as the SWAT leader has been widely acclaimed. He has waited long for his big acting moment; he graduated from the Baghdad College Fine Arts intent on being an actor, but had to flee when Saddam Hussein came in and installed son Uday to be in charge of the arts. That turned filmmaking into a perilous profession. Dabbach spent time in Jordan refugee camps before finding his way to the U.S., where he scraped for jobs but made his living primarily working in a retirement home. While he was in a memorable scene with Jeremy Renner in the Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker — he was the man bolted into an explosive vest who begs the bomb expert to defuse the mechanism and save his life, to no avail — Mosul is a real showcase of his acting skills, and it is a shame he has had to worry about threats as he waits for the next starring role.
To Carnahan, this is just the latest in a winding and sometimes dangerous road for the film. He would like to see his actors getting roles off the film, not death threats. Fortunately, Netflix and AGBO have been on high alert with security teams that merely had to be reactivated to assess the threat levels.
“It has been this way since we started shooting under a goofy cover name,” Carnahan told Deadline. “It was always called Picnic, because the security guys at TigerSwan said, you’re in Morocco, the third largest national contingent of ISIS are Moroccans, we have to take every step possible to make sure we’re safe.”
Carnahan said they concealed the plot as much as possible when shooting in the country, and most there didn’t recognize the SWAT team flag that flew above an armored Humvee in the battle scenes. “There was only one time where things get dicey on set and that wasn’t even ISIS related, it was more like gang warfare,” he said. “We were in a really sh*tty part of Marrakesh, so from that point forward, we’ve always been cognizant of threats. Now that the movie is out and it is as successful as it was. It was the number two film in the world when it came out, and I just got something forwarded to me, that said it was the eighth most popular film on Netflix in the month of December. I don’t know if Netflix ever thought it was going to be that big; I was over moon when 101 Studios [which acquired it after Toronto 2019 for a planned theatrical release dashed by the pandemic] was talking about putting us in 800 theaters. That felt too good to be true. The idea these people are now threatening us, I guess it comes with the territory. That Suhail’s family in the Middle East would be threatened, that they would hack into his wife’s phone, or that Adam’s Instagram page would disappear and he would get these WhatsApp threats, none of use knew it would get to that level. In one way, it was terrifying, in another we thought, man we must have hit close to home. We must have hit a nerve, in what remains of ISIS, or at least that ISIS mind-set.”
“It would be great if the world realized these guys – and Suhail was working in a retirement community when I cast him, that he is now on the radar of some very bad people,” Carnahan said. “I want him to be acknowledged for the risk that he has taken, I want Adam to be acknowledged for the risk he’s taken, and I want people to think about this movie and see it knowing there are very dangerous people out there, who hate that they’re watching it. Who hate that somebody has depicted this struggle, with a narrative they have no control over.
“I think 48 hours after we came out in Iraq, ISIS puts out this 44-minute response to the movie, but uses a pirated Netflix logo that runs over the top of it. I want people to know what these guys did, how crazy this movie was from inception, when they’re watching, Yes, it’s a movie, but that it has carried physical risk for everyone involved, and especially those actors. It’s testament to how good they are.”
Netflix put its security and AGBO re-engaged TigerSwan, their security firm that provided security on set and technical advisors, most of them ex-Delta, Green Beret, and Foreign Legion soldiers.
“They went through all of it with Suhail and Adam, and helped them scrub pages and protect themselves,” Carnahan said. “We have done the most we can do on the front end of it, but there are people out there who are murdering people with knives, because they have insulted Islam. It would be silly to not be on edge and a little bit freaked out.”
The Marrakesh scare was about money, not political ideology, Carnahan said.
“We were in a really tough part of Marrakesh, in those scenes with the narrow alleyways where there are caverns but they are apartments,” he said. “To shoot in that really tough part of Marrakesh, you have to hire security, which means the local dominant gang so people aren’t harassed and hurt on the high end and on the low end, people aren’t screaming during your take, because that’s a tactic as well to get money. The gun laws are so strict in Morocco that if you’re caught with a spent shell, you go to jail. So these guys fight with knives. A handful had the Glasgow smiles, where the cut starts at the corner of the mouth and goes up to the ear? That’s how they fight. They are all high on Parkinson’s medication because that’s where this particular Parkinson’s medication is made in Morocco. We’re shooting there, everything is going as well as it can, and then the rival gang hears the other is being paid. Right when school lets out, they get a bunch of kids from their part of the neighborhood and they rush the set. Marrakesh police show up, they have riot shields. It got dicey for 15-20 minutes. John Sweeney, who ran the TigerSwan crew, always said, if you ever feel me grab you, go with it. I won’t do it unless it really means something, that we’re in a tough spot. That was the only time he grabbed me. We always had a secure green room facility. We waited there 10 minutes and it all panned out. The people who needed to get paid got paid and the people who needed to be threatened got threatened. We were able to continue shooting.”
None of those gang members had an allegiance to ISIS, it turned out. “They were the kind of gang you would see in the U.S., or in the Michael Jackson ‘Beat It’ video, fighting with knives,” he said. “It helped greatly that there was no American cast or uniforms, nothing identifying with American soldiers. It kept us under the radar and we carefully covered the Humvees at night.”
Dabbach told Deadline he was eagerly awaiting his next role. The Russos have put several of the actors in some of their other AGBO films including the sequel to the Netflix hit Extraction, and the hope is the film will draw them some attention in awards season where it is eligible for Golden Globes as the Iraq selection. It was not qualified as the Iraq selection for Best International Feature Film Oscar but is eligible in all other categories.
“I don’t want them to look at it from the terms of foreign picture or Hollywood picture,” Carnahan said. “It was American filmmakers making a movie in a different language with different faces, about people and a story that is eminently human. The idea we would be considered a foreign film, well, I get it, but I am not lobbying for that. I want people to judge the movie on its merits and come what may.”
What Carnahan really wants is for the brave actors in the film to use Mosul serve as the calling card for future roles, and perhaps not just as drivers or terrorist thugs.
“Nothing would make me happier than to see these guys work again and not in any war movie capacity,” Carnahan said. “Just get roles playing lawyers, something completely removed from that world. Especially Suhail, because that guy is talent and dreams deferred for decades, because of the country he happened to be born in. This madman comes into power and he has to flee, and this budding career he was starting to build gets put on hold and for the next few decades, he is working at a retirement community, after living in a refugee camp in Jordan. I would love it if they were able to translate the popularity of this into continuing career opportunities. They’re all in that same spot, waiting for what comes next.”