As finishing touches were being put on the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia in late January, local and regional police issued warnings of terrorist threats in the area. Authorities distributed leaflets to local businesses and hotels warning people of at least three women with ties to Islamic militants, known as ‘black widows’, present in the vicinity of Sochi and aiming to carry out terrorist attacks during the Games. At least one, identified as Ruzanna Ibragimova, a 22-year old widow of a rebel fighter killed by Russian security forces in the republic of Dagestan in early January, was believed to be in Sochi itself.
Black widows have gained notoriety for their role in Russia’s struggle to control the North Caucasus.
The republic of Dagestan, where these women are from, is located about 500 km east of Sochi and borders the republic of Chechnya, where fighting between Russian security forces and Islamic militants has been ongoing for the past several decades. While the initial violence was confined to Chechnya, it has spread to Dagestan and other areas of the North Caucasus in the last ten years, claiming at least 700 lives in the past year alone. While terrorist attacks are common in the region itself, they are more rare in the rest of Russia and gain widespread media attention. The media has also noted that many of the more recent suicide bombings were carried out by women.
The term “black widows” refers to women from the North Caucasus, who turned to radical Islam and terrorism in order to avenge husbands or other male relatives killed by Russian troops during the protracted fighting in the region, including the two Chechen wars. Although female suicide bombers are not an unknown phenomenon and can be seen in other conflicts, “black widows” have gained notoriety for their role in Russia’s struggle to control the North Caucasus. One of the earliest attacks to attract attention to the phenomenon was the 2002 hostage crisis in the Nord-Ost Theatre in Moscow, where 19 of the 41 attackers were women. In 2004, two women bombed two Russian airplanes, killing a total of 79 people. Later the same year, women participated in the school hostage crisis in the town of Beslan. In 2010, female suicide bombers were blamed for twin blasts on the Moscow metropolitan system that resulted in 40 deaths in one day.
All of these women were believed to be relatives of fighters killed in clashes with Russian security forces in the last 15-20 years. Cindy Ness, a prominent scholar on women’s role in terrorism, was cited by Slate magazine in that “most studies of Chechen female suicide bombers have found that they tend to be women who have experienced serious personal trauma and are then exposed to recruitment from jihadist military groups. As the term Black Widow would suggest, many have lost close family members over the last two decades of violence since war first broke out in Chechnya.” A survey conducted by psychologists Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova, published by the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University in 2006, found that “the path to terrorism nearly always begins with individuals who due to their traumatised psychological state are attracted to radical groups and seek out the jihadist ideology as they grapple with their rather extreme and violent losses.”
However, several more recent attacks attributed to female bombers indicate that the women responsible did not lose any male relatives in the fighting. Nadia Asiyalova, a 30-year old woman responsible for blowing up a bus in the city of Volgograd on October 21, 2013, killing 5 people and injuring numerous others, does not fit the established pattern. Based on reports, she seemingly lacked the common motive for the attack – revenge. She had moved to Moscow from Dagestan to study and had maintained several stable jobs. As far as it was known, Ms. Asiyalova had not lost any male relatives in the conflict. This case, along with several others, points to a new and alarming trend in regional and global security – the use of suicide bombings as the best and most convenient strategy to carry out terrorist activities. This can be described as terrorism for the sake of terrorism, not terrorism for the sake of a higher purpose. The female bombers are often chosen for their supposed weakness and the ease with which they can be controlled.
So far, Sochi has not seen any security incidents and one can only hope it remains that way. Whether nothing has happened due to the diligence of security forces or because the terrorist threat was simply used to elicit fear rather than foreshadow an actual attack remains unknown. The presence of female suicide bombers, either close to the Olympic village or 500 km away, however, is highly alarming, not only because of the immediate threat to those partaking in the Games, but also because of the threat it poses to regional security as a whole. Russia’s attempts at controlling the North Caucasus have been marred by violence and as long as the conflict remains unsettled, terrorist attacks remain a threat to common citizens’ everyday lives.