The real-life inspiration behind Special Ops: Lioness

By Gen Terblanche14 June 2024

The real-life inspiration behind Special Ops: Lioness

In Special Ops: Lioness Season 1, senior CIA operative Kaitlyn Meade – played by series co-producer Nicole Kidman, who teamed up with Yellowstone, 1883 and 1923’s Taylor Sheridan to create the show – heads up the Lioness programme, which assigns female operatives to go undercover on missions in the United States’ “War on Terror”. 

Zoe Saldana as Joe in Lioness Season 1 streaming on Showmax
Zoe Saldaña as Joe in Lioness Season 1. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario

Kaitlyn’s Head of Operations, Joe (Zoe Saldaña), recruits and trains women like Marine Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) to infiltrate global terrorist organisations like ISIS and eliminate key targets. They’ll operate in areas where, as women, their presence will be dismissed as unimportant. Further turning this drawback to their advantage, local cultural dress codes will make them relatively difficult to identify.

It’s a job only for the bravest and most cunning. The Lioness operatives risk torture and execution if they’re compromised before Joe’s Quick Response Team (QRT) can extract them. To make sure they can survive the pressure, they’ll start off by undergoing S.E.R.E. (Survive, evade, resist, escape) training, during which they’ll be stripped naked, physically assessed, tortured, and beaten to breaking point by their own military. Because even if they are never caught, the Lionesses have to stay mentally strong. They’re setting out to manipulate other women using friendship – only to betray their trust when they strike their targets and leave their “friends” to suffer the deadly consequences.

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The real-life inspiration

Nicole Kidman as Kaitlyn Meade In Special Ops: Lioness
Nicole Kidman as Kaitlyn Meade In Special Ops: Lioness, episode 2, season 1. Photo Credit: Greg Lewis

The Lioness programme in the series gets its cool name from the real-life Marine Corps’ Lioness Task Force. But how they operate was inspired more by the FETs (Female Engagement Teams, which were first used in Afghanistan). 


Laysla De Oliveira as Cruz Manuelos and Stephanie Nur as Aaliyah In Special Ops: Lioness
Laysla De Oliveira as Cruz Manuelos and Stephanie Nur as Aaliyah In Special Ops: Lioness, episode 8, season 1. Photo Credit: Luke Varley

The Lioness programme used female Marines at checkpoints in Iraq and Afghanistan to physically search women, and capture those participating in carrying out terrorist attacks or supplying terrorist cells – since male Marines couldn’t make any contact with female civilians in either country without offending Middle Eastern cultural and religious sensitivities. In a war without a fixed front line, more terrorist organisations turned to using women to attack targets for exactly that reason. 

The Lionesses searched women in a separate area and would also remove their protective headgear and goggles to reveal a female face, and, in some cases, the use of a head scarf, both of which gained goodwill and reassured the women being searched. During their operations the Lionesses searched nearly 100 women a day, and found everything from men disguised as women, to weapons, to photographs of US Military locations. They also flagged anyone carrying currency to the value of more than $5 000, and propaganda materials. 

Lioness training

Morgan Freeman as Secretary of State Mullins In Special Ops: Lioness
Morgan Freeman as Secretary of State Mullins In Special Ops: Lioness, episode 8, season 1. Photo Credit: Luke Varley

While Special Ops: Lioness shows a Lioness undergoing SERE training, in real life, the Lionesses’ training took five to 10 days and was more practically oriented. Training included:

  • Adjusting and personalising their weapons’ sights
  • Shooting range training with a selection of weapons
  • Techniques for searching women
  • Culture and language training and protocols for working with interpreters
  • Training for dealing with explosive devices
  • Responding to escalating force
  • A refresher of the Marine Corps martial arts programme (MCMAP) focussed on take-down techniques
  • Instruction on UN-regulated rules of engagement covering legal and ethical behaviour in war
  • Training in detention
  • Intelligence gathering training
  • Briefs on current threats in the area of operation

After training, Lioness teams of four to five women were sent to support a ground combat unit for 30 days. They generally worked in pairs with one person searching and the other acting as her “guardian angel”, providing her security. The Lionesses also trained local women to conduct searches at US-run checkpoints (for example the Sisters of Fallujah), and worked with female Iraqi police officers to allow them to take over checkpoints and conduct search and screening process, resenting a more familiar, legitimate face at checkpoints, and further reducing the appearance of US hostility. 

FET: More than a Lioness

The specialists whose tasks are closer to what we see in Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 were the FETs. After debriefing several women who’d worked in the Lioness programme, Lt Col Julie Nethercot (Commanding Officer of 9th Communications Battalion) realised that FET teams needed more advanced training. She set up a four-month schedule ending with a 30-day combined arms training exercise to mimic what they would encounter in the field. 

Their training included: 

  • Local languages, culture
  • MCMAP (Marine corps martial arts)
  • Experience on multiple live fire ranges
  • Combat life saving
  • Basic patrolling
  • Radio procedures
  • Tracking
  • Casualty evacuation procedures
  • Improvised explosive device (IED)-searching techniques for vehicles and people
  • Working with an interpreter
  • Leadership
  • Civil military operations
  • Media training

The FET’s main role was to de-escalate conflict, and to create goodwill and stable connections with local population groups. Their mission would include befriending local women by setting up medical clinics, distributing school supplies and household items, and occasionally providing information to women whose male family members had been detained by the US military. This allowed the US to slowly gather information on developments within terrorist cells, isolate terrorist groups, reduce local support, and cut them off from supplies and allies. 

Aside from creating a more secure operating field for the US military, feedback from the Lionesses and FET teams also vastly improved understanding of local populations. Their reports broke down stereotypes the military had formed about local responses to their presence, and about the role that women played and the power that they held in local societies, particularly in Afghanistan. 

Secret locations

Charley Tucker as Army Joint Chief and Michael Kelly as Byron Westfield In Special Ops: Lioness
Charley Tucker as Army Joint Chief and Michael Kelly as Byron Westfield In Special Ops: Lioness, episode 8, season 1. Photo Credit: Luke Varley

The Lionesses aren’t the only ones undercover. Some places aren’t where they appear to be. Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 shot its Washington DC locations in Baltimore. Episode 1’s ISIS compound scenes were shot in Marrakesh (Morocco). Marrakesh’s new Q Street shopping district also stood in for Kuwait City. The wedding sequences were filmed at an oceanside mansion in Mallorca (Spain). The series built additional sets in Mallorca, including their White House Cabinet Room. And scenes set in The Hamptons were shot at Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach.

Binge Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 on Showmax now.

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