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Unraveling Chechen "Black Widows"

By Nabi Abdullaev, Moscow

Female suicide bombers and the massive hostage-takings by the Chechen separatist rebels, which also included women willing to die to kill, were perhaps the most formidable terrorist strategies with which anti-Russian insurgents were attempting to press Russian government in concession.

Nearly impossible to profile, these female suicide bombers have proved unstoppable and one of the most destructive weapon in the Chechen rebel arsenal. These Black Widows - as they have been dubbed by sensationalist journalists - have helped the Chechen insurgency to assert itself as one of the hottest fronts of the global jihad in a short period when the bombings began in 2000 and until the latest terrorist operation involving the "Black Widows" - the seizure of the crowded school in the Russian town of Beslan in September 2004.

But the female suicide bombers became the Chechen rebels weapon of choice after the October 2002 hostage-taking raid on a Moscow theater. Nineteen of 41 attackers were the masked females, clad in black and carrying belts laden with explosives. Journalists dubbed these improvised explosive devices as "belts of shahids (martyr in Arabic). Including the 129 hostages who died in that raid and 331 dead hostages in the Beslan drama, Chechen female suicide bombers were involved in 22 of 27 suicide attacks that claimed the lives of 726 people.

Prof. Richard Pape of the University of Chicago has calculated that a global average of 13 people have been killed in single suicide attacks between 1998 and 2001. Compared this with an average of 33 people killed in a suicide attack perpetrated by female Chechen rebels - meaning that Chechen suicide bombers were beating the world's average by a factor of larger than two and a half.

Profiling the black widows

Just as with female suicide bombers across the world, Chechen female suicide bombers did not have a single, clear profile. They were not necessarily young, although a majority of those whose identities have been established were younger than 30. Not all of them were religious before disappearing from their homes only to resurface for attack. Not all of them have lost close relatives in the fighting against Russian troops or in the brutal purges of Chechen civilians by Russian security services. The identified suicide bombers have not been living in abject poverty, nor were they known to have been raped or otherwise tortured and humiliated at the hands of the Russian military - with the exception of the first black widow identified, Luiza Gazuyeva, who blew herself up with a Russian officer in 2001, after he told her he had killed her husband with his own hands.

The common opinion shared by many liberal Russian and Western commentators was that the desperation and psychological trauma wrought by the brutalities of the Russian military assault and the mopping-up operations were the major factors pushing Chechen women over the edge. Based on that theory, the proposed recipe for limiting suicide attacks was for Russia to soften its policies in Chechnya and begin seeking a truce with those referred as "moderate" Chechen rebels.

Despair versus organization

However, the "trauma" explanation for the suicide bombings does not hold water: the first Moscow's military onslaught on Chechnya in 1994-1996 was much more brutal and indiscriminate, and there were no suicide bombings during that campaign. Also, female suicide bombers never struck after the Beslan raid, and would be hard to believe that despair and trauma of would-be Chechen suicide bombers disappeared after that attack.

Conflicts like the crisis in Chechnya create thousands of aggrieved people, only a handful of whom opt to channel their despair into suicide terrorist attacks. The fact that the attacks by Chechen female suicide bombers come clustered in time, or happen well outside Chechnya, or are integrated into bigger terrorist operations, like the hostage-taking raid in Beslan, indicate that there is an organization behind the attacks, which capitalizes on the bombers grievances and channels them strategically.

It is the existence of the organization, rather than existence of grievances, that determines the occurrence, scope, and pattern of suicide attacks. The grievances and casualties the Chechen civilians suffered in the first military conflict of 1994-1996 were of no lesser scale than those in the second war, which has dragged on since 1999. However, there were no rebel suicide bombings during the first war, though this kind of terrorist warfare proliferated in other aggrieved regions of the world. One probable explanations is that during the first conflict, the Chechens were led under nationalist banners and by only a very few, primarily foreign, Islamist elements.

In the second Chechen war, the operational initiative in the Chechen resistance was hijacked by jihadists, with infiltration of the cause by Arab insurgents - who import effective terrorist tactics from other jihad fronts - increasingly becoming a defining characteristic of the Chechen cause. The use of the female suicide bomber is one such tactic.

Religious motives rule

The logistics of suicide bombing is very simple and does not require special expertise or intelligence sharing with other terrorist organizations that have advanced their techniques. The most critical aspect of preparation for a suicide attack seems to be the indoctrination of the future suicide bomber.

There is scant evidence of how the suicide bombers are psychologically prepared for the attacks, and what evidence is available indicates that religion is used as the inspirational, motivational, and legitimizing base for the attacks. In one such example, the 19 female suicide bombers that participated in the raid on the Moscow theater in 2002 recorded a video statement before their mission, which was broadcast by al-Jazeera television and then posted on the rebel website In the lengthy speeches by the women, all clad in black Arabic garb, the word Chechen appeared only once. In all other instances, the women framed their future mission as a retaliatory act against Russian President Vladimir Putin for his war on Muslims.

However, the act of female suicide bombing is not a purely religious phenomenon, and there are several secular extremist organizations that practice it, such as the Kurdish Workers' Party (now known as Kongra-Gel) or the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. The choice of religion for the indoctrination of executives and the legitimization of attacks becomes clearer when it is considered that the group that claimed responsibility for the series of bombings in Russia was called Riyadus Salihin (Gardens of Pious in Arabic) - a group created by the leader of the Islamist wing of the Chechen resistance, Shamil Basaev. Just as religion easily evokes cosmic scenarios when individual lives cost little compared to grandiose causes, Basaev - if he wishes to continue to enjoy support for his perceived vast constituency - needs to propel religious motives in his fight.

Strategic deployment

The benefits of the Chechen rebels use of female suicide bombers is cheap but sensational warfare. The media, so essential to terrorist groups, is sucked in by the drama of self-sacrifice for a cause, with the centrality of women having a force-multiplying effect on the viewers consciousness. In Russia, where a bloody history has helped people to develop a considerable psychological resilience towards images of violence, one would have to go as far as killing oneself in order to be taken seriously. Several dozen female suicide bombers - virtually unstoppable by law enforcers who still stick to an obsolete profile of a terrorist as of a young dark-complexioned male - have performed extremely well in terms of affecting the public sentiment in Russia, compared with the overall decade-long war in Chechnya where thousands civilians and soldiers perished without, indeed, instilling serious public fears about the Russian government's ability to protect its citizens. In what could arguably be called a new innovation in suicide bombing, Chechen rebels have been including their black widows in larger commandos for more complex missions, like the latest hostage-taking raid in Beslan. Such inclusion was intended to dramatically decrease the opportunities of the government to handle hostage crises, doing away with the possibility of negotiating ransoms, safe retreats, or other concessions that may appeal to the self-interests of a commando's members. The inclusion of female suicide bombers also cements the terrorist group, providing its leader with an efficient tool to deter dissent within the commando that might arise when the self-interests of its members come into conflict with the group's mission.

Why women?

There were several explanation as to why Chechen terrorist attack planners have opted for such a high ratio of women 47 of 110 - in their suicide bomber ranks, which is well above the proportions in any other terrorist groups. Some observers point at the low social status of widows and single women in Chechnya, the main pool of recruitment for suicide attacks. In the meantime, Chechen insiders claim that the social status of Chechen women has grown considerably in the past several years as they have become the primary breadwinners in Chechen families and the only ones able to more or less safely approach Russian and local security officials with demands to free their abducted male relatives. Other experts stress the fact that women are more emotional than men and can be more easily indoctrinated. This contradicts the notion of the larger social responsibility of women as of family-keepers in traditional patriarchal societies like Chechen. But more pragmatic reasons seem to provide more plausible explanations for the predominant, and increasingly exclusive use by Chechen rebels of women as living bombs. Protracted guerilla life in Chechnya better suited men, a fact making women comparably more expendable combat assets than men. But what is more important, the use of women who were almost immediately given by the ominous title of black widows by Russian media has proved to be paying off.

Other groups, including terrorists in Palestine, resorted to deployment of women as suicide bombers after Israeli security forces made it all but impossible for male terrorists to get onto the Israeli territory. In Chechnya, women were deployed for terrorist attacks from the very beginning, in what suggests that it was from the very beginning a tactics on which terrorist leaders placed their bet.

Black Widows immediately have become a high-value franchise, and it would be strategically unwise for rebels to jeopardize its integrity. Making men perpetrators of suicide attacks would be then a step back in how terrorists shape their threat and how the public perceives it. Media reports highlighting the publics fear of these new warriors have been numerous in as attack went on, with Russian travelers several times refusing to board a plane along with women dressed in Muslim garb.

Dismantling the threat

By the time of the latest and deadliest cluster of attacks by the female suicide bombers in August-September, 2004, which included blowing up two air-borne civil jets with 85 people on board and bombing of a Moscow metro station, in which 10 civilians were killed, that was followed by the Beslan raid, federal troops have shifted from large-scale mopping-up operations to much less indiscriminate seek-and-destroy operations. This shift in tactics not only resulted in less abuses of the civilians, whose grievances could be exploited by the terrorists, but also allowed to concentrate intelligence and combat resources against Arab fighters and strong-head radical Islamists in the ranks of the Chechen rebels. These individuals were seen as bearers of the ideology, strategy and tactics that pushed female suicide bombings on the forefront of the Chechen terrorism. They were also the force that did not allow compromise within ranks of the Chechen rebels, preventing many from leaving the insurgency and getting the amnesty from Moscow.

In a matter of several months after the Beslan raid, Arab fighters based in the Northern Caucasus were kept on the run, many of them were destroyed in sting operations or left the region, perhaps, to participate in fighting on other fronts of what they perceive as a global jihad.

In some case, Russian federal troops resorting to the tactics used by their Israeli counterparts: they demolished the houses of the families of the suicide bombers. Moscow has also boosted the development of the loyal Chechen statehood, and first of all in helping it to establish, perhaps, brutal but effective police control over the territory of the volatile republic. This effort, which strongly suppressed any separatist and jihadist sentiments within social groups in Chechnya, have not allowed the glorification of the suicide bombing to develop into an inspirational motivation for new suicide bombers, as it had happened in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, where suicide bombing has become an elitist phenomenon for the radical movements.

Nabi Abdullaev is a Dagestani journalist and researcher working with The Moscow Times daily. He holds a degree in public administration from Harvard University, where he studied terrorism and international security.