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.
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.”