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Meet the Israeli ISIS Recruit

His name is Roman. He hates his mother. And he’s a viral video comedy sensation.

Liel Leibovitz
December 16, 2015

Earlier this week, shortly after The Wall Street Journal profiled the terrifying, blue-eyed, shaggy-haired, Russian-born man who traveled from Siberia to Syria to join ISIS and become infamous for beheading a prisoner on camera, another Russian jihadi—this one a Jew—has made a video of his own. His name is Roman Krikilniklanikov, and he is talking to his mother. “Ever since daddy died you’ve done nothing but belittle me,” he says, his eyes wild with rage. “Someone should cut off your head. Cut it off!” Top that, Alexander Portnoy.

Created and masterfully portrayed in a satirical web series called My Affair with ISIS by the Israeli actor Ori Yaniv—better known to American TV viewers as Esam, Carrie’s Iraqi friend on the current season of Homeland—Roman is a bug-eyed sad sack. As a teenager, he emigrated with his domineering mother from Russia to Israel, where he was immediately subjected to a not-too-gentle late-in-life bris. It was all downhill from there, with one disappointment following another and his mother forever haranguing. Where might such a dejected dweeb turn for validation, a sense of purpose, and some hope? In Roman’s case, the answer is ISIS.

And with that, off he goes to Syria, to prove his manhood among the world’s most vile neck choppers. Each episode—there are four so far, ranging from 5 to 10 minutes in length—packs more emotional charge than such a straight-forward satirical premise might suggest. Yaniv’s Roman is a complicated dude: having barely internalized the steely propaganda of the Soviet Union, he was plucked from one Motherland and repotted in another, where he fit in even less. With no job and no love and no prospects, an invitation to join some holy war and decapitate at will was hard to resist. Which, of course, is precisely how the real-life ISIS operates, luring disaffected youth from Baghdad to Brussels with the promise of unchecked, orgasmic violence. Once Roman offers his services to the captains of the Islamic State, the promise quickly sours: they, too, are neurotic basket cases, insecure creeps who turn to swordplay to mask their many and obvious flaws.

My Affair with ISIS debuted last year as a one-off web short, winning both a prestigious award and hordes of fans. It features cameos by some of Israel’s most notable celebrities and a story line that grows richer and sweeter with each installment. And while it’s set in the Islamic caliphate, the show is not really about ISIS but about Israel, a society fraught with tensions in which, sometimes, the only way to survive is to go a little crazy. Strip away his fascination with the radical Islamic death cult, and Roman is a paragon of Israeliness: warm, brash, more sensitive than he cares to admit, resourceful, idealistic, and forever looking for his big break. That’s why he unwittingly defeats the evildoers at every turn: the contact person dispatched to collect Roman from the Israeli border, the aptly named Osama, survives only a few hours of listening to Roman prattling about his life before retiring to the bushes to shoot himself in the head. What a way to fight terrorism.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.