Are Russia's 'Black Widows' rising up again?
A hardening militant ideology combined with the Russian state’s failure to tackle the political and human rights situation in the North Caucasus region has seen women swelling the ranks of militant groups.
Just hours after two deadly explosions ripped Moscow’s metro system Monday, Russian security officials said the attacks were conducted by two female suicide bombers.
The phenomenon of women blowing themselves up for the cause immediately brought back visions of the “Black Widows”, who dominated headlines during the infamous Oct. 2002 Moscow theatre siege, which left more than 130 dead following a botched Russian rescue attempt.
Dressed in black, all-encompassing veils and bandanas, the women displayed a frightening arsenal of grenades and explosives strapped to their bodies to the terrified theatre audience. Of the 41 attackers at the Dubrovka theatre, 19 were women.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack, which killed at least 38 people. But Alexander Bortnikov, chief of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), said the attackers had links to the North Caucasus, the troubled, Muslim-dominated region between the Black and Caspian seas that has been ravaged by violence since the 1990s.
Sexual violence in a society of women without male relatives
Over the past two decades, the bloody insurgency in the southern Russian province of Chechnya has engulfed neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan - as has the Russian government’s brutal crackdown.
In a bloody insurgency that has seen systemic violations of human rights, including torture, rapes, "disappearances" and summary executions at the hands of Russian forces, countless women have lost husbands, fathers and close male relatives. Rape victims find it hard to marry in a conservative Muslim society and the level of post-traumatic stress is high among women in the North Caucasus, according to aid workers.
The conflagration of factors makes women a potent recruiting force for the insurgency.
“These women often live alone with their children and relatives,” said Alexei Venedictor, editor of Echo Moskvy radio. “They have no money, no husband. There are special camps where they can train, so they can, as they say, take revenge for the deaths of their family members.”
Revenge is a potent theme among the female ranks of fighters. In an interview with the Russian news agency Rosbalt, former FSB chief Nikolay Kovalev said Monday’s attacks could have been conducted by relatives of Sayeed Buryatsky, a militant killed by Russian special forces earlier this month.
Basayev’s female fighters
Many experts believe Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev was a pioneer in recruiting women into the insurgency.
A Chechen-born separatist leader, Basayev shot into international headlines in Sept. 2004, when his fighters conducted the Beslan school siege in which more than 300 people - many of them children - were killed.
“Basayev created the Riyad al-Salikhin martyrs brigade, which trained female fighters,” explained Domitilla Sagramoso, an expert on conflict and violence in Russia and the Caucasus from King’s College London. “They conducted several attacks, including the 2004 Moscow metro attack.”
Monday’s suicide bombings were the deadliest such attacks in Moscow since the Feb. 2004 metro bombing, which killed at least 39 people.
Following Basayev’s death in 2006, there have been few high-profile attacks in major Russian cities although there are frequent attacks in the North Caucasus region that are rarely covered by the Russian mainstream media.
Salafist Islam replaces Chechen Sufiism
Over the past few years however, a new generation of militant leaders has emerged as a radical form of Salafist Islam has taken over the predominantly Sufi Islam practised in the region and kept alive during the Soviet times.
The chief suspect behind Monday’s attack, Doku Umarov - the self-styled “emir” of the unofficial Caucasus Emirate (CE) for instance - initially practised the traditional Chechen Sufi Islam, according to Russian media reports. But by 2007, he had altered his discourse with statements expressing solidarity with “brothers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Palestine” and decrying the “common enemies” of the Muslim world.
In a statement by the Caucasus Emirate posted on the Kavkazcenter website, an unofficial mouthpiece for rebels, the group addressed the “sisters who work on the path of Allah; to mothers, wives and daughters of martyrs”. The letter, which was published on March 17, called on women to “create a female group with the intention to help Jihad (sic) and the families of martyrs”.
The statement followed a video released in February, in which Umarov warned that his group would attack Russian cities and expand its operations beyond the Caucasus region, according to the IntelCenter, a US-based cyber counter-terror centre.
Despite Umarov’s ratcheted rhetoric, many Russian counter-terror experts believe his group is still largely a regional outfit, fighting for a local cause and should not be confused with global jihadist networks such as al Qaeda.
Militant leaders like Umarov tap into local issues that enjoy widespread local sympathy – particularly when they concern the traumatised female population. The ability of women to escape security dragnets is making them a sought-after fighting force in one of the world’s most troubled hot-spots.