Women Who Blow Themselves Up

After two female suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway, the hunt is now on for a 21-strong "Black Widow" terror cell. David Satter on why Russia is bracing for more attacks.

03.30.10 2:53 AM ET

In the wake of the deadly double bombing in the Moscow metro, Russia is bracing for more attacks by Black Widows—female suicide bombers who lost relatives in the war in Chechnya and seek vengeance in acts of terror.

The metro suicide blasts, which left 39 dead, are believed to have been the work of two such women, who may have been avenging the killing of Said Buryatsky this month by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. A Muslim convert born as Alexander Tikhomirov, Buryatsky was the chief ideologist for the Chechen rebels, who seek independence for their republic from Moscow. One of the suicide bombers blew herself up during the morning rush hour at Lubyanka metro station, which serves the nearby headquarters of the FSB.

In the words of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Black Widows “are trying to force Russians to feel the same pain that they have felt.”

Buryatsky was apparently an inspirational leader. In his diaries, posted on rebel Web sites, he told of how he had convinced suicide bombers to take part in bombings last year. His death was considered a victory for Russian anti-terror efforts but, according to the FSB, before he died he trained 30 suicide bombers, many of them almost certainly Black Widows, who remain at large.

These women who turn themselves into walking bombs gained notoriety in October 2002 during the Moscow theater hostage crisis, when they were shown on Russian television dressed in black chadors, their bodies wrapped with bombs. At that time, many observers were shocked by the sight of the Black Widows, products of conservative, male-dominated Chechen society, announcing their intention to blow up the theater in a videotaped message.

The image, however, should not have been surprising. The two Chechen wars, fought in 1994-96 and 1999-2000, were almost unparalleled in their barbarity in the postwar era. The women of Chechnya regularly witnessed the abduction of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, whom Chechen tradition treats as their protectors. In some cases, they were involved in trying to ransom them from Russian custody, an exercise that usually ended with them having to pay to receive a mutilated corpse.

The result was a desire for revenge and a break with the Chechen tradition that men do not send women into war. The Black Widows have participated in two-thirds of the almost 40 rebel attacks that have killed about 900 people in Russia in the last 10 years. In the words of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, they “are trying to force Russians to feel the same pain that they have felt.”

The first Black Widow was Luiza Gazuyeva, a young Chechen who killed a Russian general in Chechnya in November 2001. She believed he was responsible for the abduction and murder of her husband. Inspired by her example, the rebel leader Shamil Basayev announced the creation of a battalion of religious martyrs that would be composed of both men and women.

Since then, Black Widows have participated in the most notorious terrorist acts on Russian soil. They made up half of the terrorists during the Moscow theater siege, they took part in the bombing outside a Moscow rock concert in which 20 died, the bombing of a commuter train in Yessentuki in southern Russia that killed 44, and an attack outside the National Theater in Moscow. In August 2004, female suicide terrorists brought down two passenger airliners en route from Moscow, and on the evening of Aug. 31, 2004, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the vestibule of Moscow’s Rizhskaya metro station, killing 10 people and injuring 50 others.

After the 2004 terrorist acts, the security situation in Chechnya underwent a change. The republic was handed over to Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel, who with the support of two of Chechnya’s most influential clans and Russian military and financial aid, established his own reign of terror, overseeing thousands of abductions and summary executions. The result, however, was a hiatus in terrorist attacks outside the North Caucasus region, and the residents of Moscow and other major Russian cities gave President Vladimir Putin and Kadyrov credit as the terrorist threat seemed to recede.

The solution, however, now appears to have been short-lived. Russian support for corrupt and brutal leaders like Kadyrov in the republics of the North Caucasus breathed new life into the Islamic terrorist movements that were supplied by a growing pool of female volunteers. A female suicide bomber blew herself up at a bus stop in Vladikavkaz in November 2008, and in July 2009 there were six suicide attacks in the North Caucasus, some reportedly carried out by women.

Monday’s metro attack was very likely ordered by Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader who considers himself emir of the North Caucasus Islamic State. He warned last month in an interview on a rebel-affiliated Web site that the “zone of military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia… The war is coming to their cities.”

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David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).