Russia's Black Widows

Have female suicide bombers become terrorism's political pin-ups?

By Gabrielle Giroday March 29, 2010

IT'S INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY in Moscow, and Tverskaya Street is festooned with banners. Hyacinths, chrysanthemums and primroses—a Russian favourite—have been pouring into the city in preparation for this March 2005 holiday. On a nearby corner, a government poster shows an elderly woman weighed under with military medals, arms full of tulips. My destination, an upscale eatery called Mon Café, is packed with stilettoed Muscovites. As I approach, a burly security man opens the door for me, stating in Russian with the utmost seriousness, “I commend you on your achievements on this special occasion.”

This popular shopping promenade, with its crowds and bustling street life, has played host to another special occasion. Almost two years ago, on a warm June afternoon, a young Chechen woman carrying one and a half kilograms of explosives in a black shoulder bag attempted to blow herself up. She never got the chance. Police arrested her after being contacted by suspicious security guards, who noticed the woman pacing outside the high-end café. Instead of detonating herself, twenty-two-year-old Zarema Muzhakhoyeva set off one of Russia’s most sensational legal cases in recent times.

For nearly two centuries, ever since Nicolas I invaded Chechnya in the eighteen-thirties, this mountainous region on Russia’s southern border has been hotly contested, with Chechen forces facing off against the Russian government’s efforts for control over the area. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechens made a fresh sprint for independence, only to be thwarted again by a Russian government determined not to see another republic fall away. Now, after a decade-long war punctuated by brief peace accords and ceasefires, both sides have turned to drastic measures in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Enter Muzhakhoyeva. She is one of the so-called Black Widows, women responsible for bombings in Russia’s biggest cities who are fuelling the fear that Chechen women are now prepared to fight in place of their dead husbands. The fear is well-founded: female suicide bombers in Russia have accounted for more than 260 military and civilian deaths in less than five years. They have downed domestic flights, blown themselves up near restaurants, in subway stations, at rock concerts, and they were involved in both the Dubrovka theatre hostage-taking and the Beslan school massacre.

“People say those women are not human,” Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, of the Novoya Gazeta, tells me (through a translator) as we sit in her ramshackle office. Admired for her reporting on Chechnya, Politkovskaya—nicknamed “Russia’s Michael Moore” by Western observers—served as a negotiator during the Dubrovka siege. “They say that either there is something wrong with them or they are deficient in other ways. They are just as human as we are, and they’re driven to terrible decisions by the conditions of their life.”

“It’s a Cinderella story gone wrong,” is what Muzhakhoyeva’s lawyer, Natalya Yevlapova, calls her client’s long journey from woman to bomber to prisoner. As Muzhakhoyeva’s story continues to be pieced together, the debris left in the wake of her bombing attempt includes her twenty-year jail term, the killing of the bomb-disposal expert who died while disarming her device, the arrests of a stream of accomplices—and questions of who, exactly, these Black Widows really are.

WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON

Female suicide bombers may be a recent occurrence in Russia, but they’re old news everywhere else. “Women have been committing violence on behalf of terrorist organizations for decades,” says Mia Bloom, the author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror and a consultant in the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism. “It’s a tactical innovation for terrorist groups, as women are able to penetrate potential targets that men may not be able to access so easily, and it gets more media attention in the process.”

The phenomenon first grabbed headlines in 1991, when a female member of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, code-named Dhanu, killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally in southern India. According to witnesses, Dhanu approached Gandhi flourishing a sandalwood garland, bending down to touch his feet in a traditional gesture of respect. Seconds later, she, Gandhi and sixteen bystanders were torn to pieces by the six grenades strapped under her sari.

When it comes to politically motivated violence against civilians, photos of Dhanu’s severed head shatter the notion of women as the kinder, gentler sex. Her method suggested that women have a real advantage when it comes to infiltration.

The Tamil Tigers, however, are not regarded as an appropriate model for the female terrorists in Russia. Instead, Palestine’s female bombers—the “Army of Roses” that Yasser Arafat called on in a 2002 speech—loom in many Russian minds as the more chilling example. By recognizing them as potential combatants, Arafat’s speech was widely seen as embracing a more “liberal” attitude toward women in Palestine. A more likely motive for his appeal was to confound Israeli efforts in profiling suicide attackers—male border guards are often reluctant to submit Muslim women to rigorous body searches.

Regardless of Arafat’s reasons, Wafa Idris answered the call. In January 2002, she set off a bomb in a Jerusalem shoe store that injured over a hundred people and killed an elderly man and herself. (Some news reports suggest Idris may have been a courier and that the explosives went off accidentally.) Elevated to cultlike status, Idris went from infertile divorcee to political pin-up, earned legions of followers and transcended her allegedly shameful past in a single act. Today, teenage girls plaster posters of her on their bedroom walls and sing along to songs recorded in her honour.

BLACK WIDOWS

From 1994 to 1996, during the first outbreak of Chechen fighting (which stopped when Russians troops withdrew after a 1996 peace agreement), there were no attacks against civilians by women. In the fall of 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops back into Chechnya; in the five years since the second war began, it is estimated that Chechen women have been responsible for at least 60 percent of the bombing attacks in Russia.

It started with twenty-two-year-old Khava Barayeva—a relative of notorious Chechen field commander Arbi Barayev—driving an explosive-laden truck into a military base in Alkhan-Yurt, a town to the southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital, in June 2000. She killed sixty soldiers. Then, in May 2003, two women masquerading as journalists blew themselves up in a crowd of Muslim pilgrims in Iliskhan-Yurt in order to kill Kremlin-friendly Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov. They failed and killed at least sixteen people instead. (Chechen rebels succeeded in assassinating Kadyrov in May 2004.) Less than a month later, a female bomber obliterated herself and eighteen other people on a bus transporting Russian civilians and military personnel on the outskirts of Mozdok, in a region of Russia that borders Chechnya.

Random bombings by women that once seemed unthinkable in Moscow have now become commonplace. In this glittering capital—and the New Russia of McDonald’s, cell phones and Mexx—there is no haven from the madness of the Russian–Chechen conflict. In Moscow’s ornate metro stations, I notice that my translator alertly checks around the floor for unattended packages before getting onto a train.

There’s great irony in this, as some of the stations—buried deep underground—were intended by Stalin as air-raid shelters, not bomb targets. There’s an irony, too, in that toughened Muscovites have learned to shrink not from the average woman on the street, but from that quintessential Russian icon: the babushka. The “plump” woman sitting across from you on the train—women wearing explosives often look overweight and wear bulky clothes—could be packing enough C-4 to destroy half a kilometre of tunnel.

KNOW YOUR ENEMY

Everywhere I look in Moscow, smartly dressed young women walk the streets, or sit long-legged in cafés, or step into shops wearing amazingly high heels. Watching them, I recall being shown private snapshots of Muzhakhoyeva as a beaming girl in sunglasses, wrapped in a bright orange headscarf—nothing like the woman who reportedly screamed, “I didn’t hate [the Russians] until now, but now I do. And when I come back, I’ll blow you all up,” as her verdict was read and she was dragged from the courtroom. What happened to her? What has led to the sudden spawning of such deadly creatures?

Much thought has been devoted to examining what drives Arafat’s Army of Roses to its singular purpose, but comparatively little is known about the Chechen situation. Tracing the identities of Chechen bombers, along with their personal histories and motivations, is made more difficult if one relies exclusively on the Russian media. What little information is gleaned from each attack gets spun by the heavily state-controlled press into relentless anti-Chechen sound bites. To confuse the carved-out profile the Kremlin supports, for example, Muzhakhoyeva’s husband died in circumstances unrelated to the war, and she in fact hails from Ingushetia, a republic that borders Chechnya.

Unsubstantiated rumours have spread of a mysterious figure—Black Fatima—who lingers near the bombing sites. Although given considerable credence and publicity by Muzhakhoyeva’s initial confession (in which she claimed to have been trained by a mysterious woman named Lida who gave her spiked orange juice), the story of Black Fatima bears all the hallmarks of a ghost tale: bent on avenging her lost beloved, this fur-clad woman recruits and trains Chechen women for homicidal tasks. There are also well-documented tales of how the women are lured into the trade: reports suggest they are kidnapped by extreme radical fundamentalists, often raped or seduced by their comrades to smear their honour, then placed into safe houses, living under a heavy barrage of ideological pressure and plied with drugs and opiates to commit their missions unwaveringly.

Looking for answers, I turn to Paris-based journalist Barbara Victor (author of Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers) who outlines for me the “fatal cocktail” of circumstances that create a female suicide bomber in a Palestinian context. “It’s a combination of living under an occupying force, a dismal economic future, a fervent nationalistic belief instilled in Palestinians since they are children and absolute hopelessness,” she says by phone. “Above all, it’s also a religion that teaches that life is merely a preparation for the splendour of the afterlife with Allah, and the best thing one can do with one’s life is to end it by committing a suicide attack against civilians and the Occupation.”

It may be convenient to see Chechen women as falling prey to the same “fatal cocktail”—their nationalism is just as fervent, their economic conditions just as extreme—but not everyone agrees that the Black Widows are the radicalized sisters of the Roses. “Understanding Chechen female suicide bombers within the context of radical Islam maybe makes it easier to understand but it isn’t necessarily correct,” argues Cerwyn Moore, an international-relations expert at Nottingham Trent University, who has travelled to the North Caucasus to unravel the recent spate of attacks.

Moore also touches upon the misconception that violent women must be insane or led into their actions at the behest of plotting, powerful men, rather than choosing the violence themselves. “When the information about Zarema Muzhakhoyeva came out, it supported one profile of the female suicide bomber as a radicalized, drug-induced, brainwashed woman—but I think some of these attacks clearly aren’t orchestrated by loose cannons,” he says. “They’re very well organized and very well orchestrated, and clearly the women involved know exactly what they are doing.”

Attributing to men the responsibility for female acts of horror springs from very basic misconceptions about gender, as Patricia Pearson, author of When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, points out to me. “It’s hard to see women being just as evil, just as violent and just as cruel as men,” she says. “Time and time again, there’s often a tendency to assign the blame to some Svengali-type male figure who has misled the woman involved, even though he may or may not exist.”

To complicate motives further, disturbing evidence exists that bombers are being robbed of their free will. Muzhakhoyeva claims that she could no longer retreat from the mission because she believed she was not the only one holding a detonator. Suicide bombs are reputed to involve double detonators, so the bomber may not be in ultimate control of where or when the blast takes place. Handlers and observers are said to hover around a target; if anything goes amiss, they detonate.

After the school siege in Beslan, reports began to trickle out that the female hostage-takers were blown up prematurely because they were wavering due to the young ages of the hostages. This points to the potential—and troubling—lack of female self-determination when it comes to the timing of their own death. If detonating oneself, for some, is the ultimate political statement of desperation, then the power equation of who’s bombing the bomber has yet to be addressed.

INVALUABLE COMMODITIES

“There is a widely held view among researchers that terrorist organizations often work like corporations,” says Nabi Abdullaev, a graduate of Harvard’s University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and reporter for the English-language Moscow Times. Franchising and branding different elements of their organizations helps terrorist umbrella groups to make a name for themselves, recruit supporters, pay the bills and continue to grow.

“Big warlords like [Shamil] Basayev claim responsibility for the female bombing attacks so they’ll get all the media coverage,” he adds, noting that there are advantages beyond the sexy front-pager. “If the targets are soft, they don’t have to spare a trained fighter, which is usually a man, to carry out a suicide bombing. It’s easier to use someone less valuable for the insurgency.”

Women have redefined the face of the Chechen struggle by becoming invaluable commodities for a political faction desperate for attention. And in a country where famed gun designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, an ex-Soviet army hack, has sold his name to a German vodka company, the effectiveness of using female violence to garner buzz for the Chechen cause cannot be overlooked.

Even enterprising music executives have capitalized on the image of the female suicide bomber. Created by the producer behind Tatu (a faux-lesbian pop duo), controversial female vocalist Nato defiantly combines Middle Eastern iconography—she wears a Muslim headdress reminiscent of the women hostage-takers in the Dubrovka theatre siege—with tank tops that offer what one reporter described as “respectable cleavage.” In Russia, the frisson of fear that accompanies female suicide bombings seems to carry a highly eroticized charge.

For the women carrying out the attacks, however, the charge could not be more different. Anne Nivat, veteran French war correspondent, lived undercover in Chechnya for six months at the beginning of the second war. Nivat prides herself on knowing the Chechen situation well—she filed stories from Grozny with a satellite phone strapped to her stomach, while Russian shells were dropping around her. She is dismissive of those who say that female suicide bombers are simply a publicity gimmick. “These women are driven by despair, they know they have lost everything,” she says over a cigarette in a Moscow sushi bar. “They have lost a husband, a cousin, a brother, a father, a son and they have nothing more to lose, they understand that the war is far from being over and they think it is easier to die. What would you do?”

In some unusual cases, suicide bombings may be motivated by financial considerations, as extremist groups supposedly fund the bomber’s families after their death. In a country where a glass of wine in a train-station bar can run the equivalent of twenty dollars, the gaps between rich and poor are often stratospheric. Terrorism specialists like Barbara Victor, however, are quick to point out that cash incentives alone do not a suicide bomber make: “If a woman’s doing it solely for the money, then she’s not going to follow through.” But in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, Muzhakhoyeva stated she did do it for the money. Caught trying to kidnap her daughter who was in the care of her dead husband’s relatives and having stolen eight hundred dollars of jewelry from her aunt, Muzhakhoyeva said the key to her recruitment as a bomber was the funds that would restitute her honour in the eyes of her husband’s family.

RUSSIA’S DIRTY WAR

Russia is in the later phases of what critics call a “dirty war”—forced disappearances, torture, and summary executions. “What is happening now in Chechnya is a new face of war, different from what was happening there before. What is happening there is worse than the war,” claims Sasha Petrov, the director of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office. Petrov has toured the region tirelessly during both wars to collect testimonials from Chechens about Russian military operations. As he slumps back on a black leather couch, documents detailing atrocities are stacked around his office. These include tales of rape, random massacres and kidnappings of suspected militants during what are known as “mop-up” operations.

The Russians have used this mop-up policy to target the civilian population at large. Often conducted under the guise of a passport inspection, soldiers descend on a town and detain large numbers of Chechen civilians, usually men. The soldiers typically engage in theft, abuse and vandalism. The detainees frequently have no connection to the independence movement. They are taken away, beaten and usually released only if the family pays a bribe.

The two phases of Russian fighting have shown marked differences: the high-level bombings of the first phase have given way, in the second phase, to more low-level violence, with sporadic massacres and mop-ups. Chechnya’s softer sex is, in retaliation, seeking softer targets—targets less vexed by security and therefore easier to reach. And Russians are retaliating in turn: now Chechen women are going missing, never to be seen again.

Experts like Cerwyn Moore argue that after military subterfuge sweeps, in cases where family members are left behind, female suicide bombings increase—suggesting that the remaining few are propelled to more drastic action.

“When you know a war is going on, you know there are different rules of conduct and behaviour, but now people say that, in Chechnya, there are no rules. They’re waiting for someone to come and take away their brothers, father, mothers—and I can say we’ve now seen more cases of abductions of women than before,” Petrov explains to me. “A certain level has been passed, and now there are no usual norms, no reference to normal rules of wars accepted by the majority of the people. Rules like leaving women and children alone, it’s way past that.”

A CHECHEN MARY POPPINS

Yet the question remains: what could drive a woman to strap on a death device?

Perhaps the closest I came to understanding this was not in Moscow but in a phone discussion with a Chechen refugee living in New York City. Aset Chadayeva fled Grozny in 2001. A pediatric nurse in Chechnya, she now proudly calls herself the “Chechen Mary Poppins” and works as a nanny in Manhattan.

Chadayeva’s three brothers were all arrested during mop-up operations and imprisoned in the basement of a nearby factory, only escaping when the family could scrounge enough money to purchase their freedom. (Chechen ethnologists assert that the sister–brother bloodline is as strong an impetus to violence as the husband–wife connection.) Having lived with her brothers’ psychological and physical deterioration and witnessed a February 2000 mop-up massacre in a suburb of Grozny, in which at least sixty people were killed, Chadayeva discusses her reactions with me.

“We had this hand grenade at our window, sitting there for a whole winter, and when I heard the Russians were coming, I taped it to my body under my left breast, because I knew if they started taking away women it would be the end of me, and I didn’t want to end by being raped and dying in this way,” she says. “For four days, I slept, I worked. The grenade was a part of my body, a part of my body—and if they touched me, I swear to God, I’d have pulled the ring.”

GOING HOME

The dinner at Mon Café is over and I’m standing in my hotel reception area. A crowd of Russians and expats are glued to the television. Aslan Maskhadov, a figure that political analysts regard as the more moderate of Chechen leaders, has been killed during a Russian raid on his hideout in Tolstoy-Yurt, a village north of Grozny.

The deputy prime minister of Chechnya, interviewed on state television, dedicates the killing to the women of Russia—a gift to commemorate International Women’s Day. It’s an offering I’m sure Ida Kuklina of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, one of the largest human-rights group in Russia, would reject. “Our terrorists are born in Chechnya by policy of our federal government,” she’d said to me, complaining of the unpaid military service that is a thorn in the sides of young Russian males. “We take our rights as mothers and use them to protect our children.”

I turn to go to my room. Behind me is a nervous murmuring I don’t need a translator to understand: revenge attacks are anticipated.

(Read the rest of Issue 15)