08.26.134:45 AM ET

Inside the Minds of Russia’s Black Widows

In the Caucasus region, women are losing husbands and sons to the Islamic insurgency against Russia—and becoming radicalized by their own grief. By Anna Nemtsova.

On January 4 last year, local Dagestani bureaucrats brought 42-year-old Zuleikha Karnayeva a picture of the biggest love of her life: her son Khan, whom she’d sent to go study Arabic in Cairo a year prior. In the photo, Khan had the same plump cheeks she loved to kiss, the same childish smile. But he was also wearing camouflage and had a Kalashnikov in his hands. The officials told her that Khan was not, in fact, a student in Egypt, but a mujahid fighting against the Russian Federation—and a target of the federal security services.

Karnayeva’s heart flew into her throat. “That day, I lost my sense of life entirely,” she says. Where once she had enjoyed wearing short tops that exposed her midriff, and even shorts,  she now adopted a uniform of long skirts and a black hijab, and joined the conservative and broadly persecuted community of Salafi Muslims in Russia. She looked for Khan all over banned Internet websites for Muslim warriors. Once, she found him in a video addressing Russian Muslims to stop taking bank credits and paying state taxes. She watched the video blog by her “beloved little boy” hundreds of times, until it vanished from the Internet. Police came by and searched her house for explosives every couple of weeks.

On May 6 of the same year, men in black masks and camouflage gear evacuated all the houses on Dostoyevsky Street, where Karnayeva lived. They arrested her husband, who had returned home after an absence of many years and a stint in jail. About an hour later, Karnayeva heard an explosion. The officials had incinerated the front section of her house (including a workshop where she made plaster piggy-banks to sell at market) as part of a “counterterrorist operation.” Two other houses were blown up in the neighborhood that week as part of the law-enforcement push. Karnayeva was left with half a house, floating in the debris of her “meaningless life.”

Karnayeva’s story is sadly common in the Caucasus Mountains, where the spread of Islam and violence has changed the traditional flow of women’s lives. Where girls once anticipated an existence defined by an arranged marriage—or, in rare instances, a bride abduction—and devotion to her family and the entire clan of her inlaws, in recent years, husbands and sons have left in droves for “the forest,” to join the guerrilla troops of the insurgency. Many have disappeared or died, leaving behind heartbroken mothers and wives. Often, the women convert to more conservative forms of Islam, in search of some spiritual connection with their dead or missing loved ones. Police have marked hundreds of Salafi women as “terrorists” who sympathize with and help the insurgency—and the authorities are not always wrong. In the last 12 years, 46 women have turned themselves into suicide bombs in Russia, committing 26 terrorist attacks (some attacks involved multiple women). Most of the bombers were from Chechnya and Dagestan.

After two young Dagestani women blew themselves up on the Moscow metro in 2010, police released the images and names of 22 “black widows,” women so desperate that they might commit suicide attacks, and accused them of helping terrorists. After their names appeared on the list, the women’s lives became even darker. People pointed at them in the markets; employers turned them away; teachers hated their children. And some of the women continued to blow themselves up, often targeting officials. In the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the crackdown on Islamic extremists has become particularly aggressive. This spring, in a preemptive move, officials blew up the homes of several of the widows, just as they did Karnayeva’s home.

While the motives of the black-widow bombers remain poorly understood, a common thread throughout is the intense loneliness and heartbreak that forms a daily feature of these women's lives. In the Caucasus, the topics of love and sexual frustration are taboo subjects, too shameful to discuss even with close girlfriends. Women are supposed to faithfully bottle up their desires inside and keep their frustrations secret. One human-rights activist, Kheda Saratova, has been interviewing women in an attempt to explore the inner traumas that could push a Muslim woman to join the radical militant movement. “They only speak about routine problems at home, but never issues in relationships or their sexual life—they fear public humiliation,” she says. For women whose husbands are in jail, missing or dead, and who are ostracized by their society, no culturally sanctioned outlet exists to air their grief.

As a young woman, Karnayeva never thought she’d become a social outcast. Like most girls in the Caucasus, her family arranged her marriage, to a man named Asadula. He had rough, unshaven cheeks that hurt her gentle skin, but he allowed her to wear Western clothing instead of the traditional long skirts and headscarves.

The couple drifted apart soon after Karnayeva gave birth to three children, one right after the other. All Asadula did was shoot heroine and stay high; all Karnayeva did was work hard at home, cooking her kids’ favorite hinkal dumplings and chudu sweets with pumpkin filling and sculpting her plastic piggy banks for sale—the only source of family income. She worried that her drugged husband would beat her or the children.

By 2003, Asadula had vanished completely. Soon, she received news that a Moscow court had convicted him to three years in jail; a little later, she learned he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even her parents regretted arranging the marriage. Karnayeva lost extreme amounts of weight. She “turned into a hardworking robot,” she says, marching through identical days of hardship. At night, she worked as a waitress at other people’s happy weddings.

In Karnayeva’s village, conservative Muslim girls see the martyrdom of their men in the war against Russia in a radically positive light. “He died defending Islam from aggressors and became a Shakhid [martyr] last night, that is the happiest news for me,” said a smiling Anzhela Dolgatova, a skinny young woman from Makhachkala, in an interview on May 19 of last year, one day after her husband, Mansur Mansur Nedal, was killed in a special operation.

(A source at a local security agency confirmed to The Daily Beast on background that shortly before the special operation, Nedal was seen in the company of Tamerlan Tsarnayev, the deceased suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings who visited Dagestan for a few months last year. Special services now keep a close eye on Dolgatova, placing her in the ranks of widows considered a suicide-bomb risk.)

Muslim teen girls romanticize love with fundamentalist Islamic warriors. Living deep in the underground, the mujahideen need their women’s love to fuel their fight to establish a sharia state independent from Russia. The romance of a martyr is often more attractive than marriage to the secular men—often drunk and violent—who stay behind in the villages. When an insurgent husband is killed, the widow often remarries another future Shakhid. In some cases, a Dagestani woman has been a war widow twice or three times over before she turns 25.

“For me, I see no attractive men out there besides those in prison or fighting in the woods,” says Nadira Isayeva, a 33-year-old reporter and editor. She speaks from experience. For six years, Isayeva—the winner of the 2010 International Press Freedom award—has been involved in a virtual love story. She left her home in Dagestan soon after an anonymous blogger published her personal and wildly erotic email exchanges and SMS correspondences with her sharia husband, Abdulkhalim Abdulkhalim, an inmate in a Siberian prison nicknamed “The White Swan.” Even from Egypt, where she now lives, Isayeva says that Russians—“often too ignorant and unforgiving”—continue to ostracize her.

While marriage to a martyr might seem romantic at first, the black widows often find themselves marginalized after a husband’s death—which further propels them toward radical Islam in a vicious cycle. Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the project director for International Crisis Group, interviewed a number of Dagestan’s young women soon after suicide bomber Madina Aliyeva blew herself up outside the police station in Makhachkala, injuring 15 officers. By her 25th birthday, Aliyeva had been married twice, and twice widowed during counterterrorist operations against her husbands. “Persecutions, both official and public pressure, push many lost young women further towards radicalization,” Sokirianskaya says.

Left without any support from their deceased husbands or from the state, the women often band together as sisters in trouble. Back on Dostoevsky Street, Karnayeva—labeled as a “terrorist’s mother”—lives in her ruined house alone. Her new friends, four other mothers whose sons have gone missing in the woods, come here to cry together. “All my tenderness and passionate mother’s love was given to my only 18-year-old boy,” says one of them, a widow named Kalimat Zakaryayeva. Recently, the group experienced yet another nightmare when they were invited to a morgue to identify the body of a young man. He appeared to be Isa Kadyrov, the 21-year-old son of one of the women.

“Women’s despair is at the core of all our troubles today,” says Magomed Shamilov, a civil activist and leader for the police professional union. “From troubles, our women turn into furious wolves, even more dangerous than alpha-male leaders of a pack of wolves.” Four years ago, Shamilov suggested that the government should bring all the lonely women in Dagestan together, to form a sort of civil society where they could choose their own leaders and programs. But the idea faded away—and not many men in the Caucasus welcome a women’s movement.

But at least one hysterical outburst by a Dagestani woman attracted the attention of the world this year. Zubeidat Tsarnayeva, the mother of the two brothers suspected to be behind the Boston Marathon terror attacks, spilled out her life story to dozens of foreign reporters. She blamed FBI interrogators for “intimidating” the family by constantly questioning them when they lived in Boston. She blamed Americans for humiliating her for her hijab, and blamed her husband for not understanding her despair. “I really hated him back in the U.S.,” she admitted, in an interview that took place in her bedroom in Malhachkala last May. At a press conference last April, Tsarnayeva described her dead son, Tamerlan, as “the biggest love in [my] life” and said that she would be happy to die now with the words ‘Allahu Akbar’ on her lips.