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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

“Black Widows”: Chechen female suicide bombers. The reasons (Part 1)

Dzennet Abdurrahmanova, Chechen suicide bomber
in Moscow metro, and her husband
(Image: The Wall Street Journal)
After two years of relatively calm situation with terrorist attacks on the territory of Russia and active security measures in the framework of preparation to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games-2014 hosted by Russia in Sochi, two recent blasts occurred in the city of Volgograd became a shocking reality for Russians: the threat of terrorism is still alive and strong. Some even claim it could disrupt security during Olympic Games.


Volgograd, located on the South of Russian Federation close to the volatile Northern Caucasus region, city of Soviet military glory (Stalingrad battle 1942-1943), was hit by two explosions at the end of 2013. Massive bomb detonated on 29 December in the hall of Volgograd railway station killing 17 people, injuring dozens and destroying the building from inside. According to investigation, the blast, which was designated as terrorist attack, was carried out by two suicide bombers, man and woman, allegedly of Caucasian origin. On the next day after this blast another bomb ripped the trolley-bus in Volgograd. This blast took the lives of 34 people and left many injured. The second explosion was also carried out by the suicide bomber, claim Russian police and security forces. It’s worth mentioning that Volgograd has already faced similar bomb attack in October 2013, when female suicide bomber blew herself up in the bus. Recent Volgograd bombings are believed to be organized by the same group, as the methods and type of explosives were identical. Russian authorities and FSB accuse Northern Caucasian Islamist militant group Riyad-us Saliheen headed by the leader of pan-Caucasian mujahideen Dokku Umarov, who is being called “Russian Bin Laden” and has earlier warned about terrorist attacks to be carried out in Russia ahead of Sochi-2014.

Volgograd bombings though stand in the long line of numerous terrorist attacks carried out by suicide bombers in Russia heartland in Northern Caucasus as well.

Volgograd railway station, where theb terrorist attack occured
(Image: The Guardian)
Insurgency in Northern Caucasus is a direct result of the two Russia led wars in the region. Both Chechen wars have been actually the struggle of local people for independence from Russia and preserving national and cultural identity of Chechen people. But the unprecedented level of violence and disproportionate use of force by Russian military and security forces during the both wars and especially the second one have resulted in rapid radicalization  of Chechen people. This period was also marked by spread of radical Islam in the region with many Wahhabi communities organizing and/or supporting numerous rebel groups operating on the territory of Chechnya. Terrorist activities were among the key methods of Chechen rebel fighters since the second half of the Second Chechen War and after it.

Suicide bombings became an effective method of fight used by Chechen rebel groups, controlled by separatist leader Shamil Basayev and Saudi born ideologist Ibn Al-Khattab. It’s worth mentioning, that despite the fact, that the most publicized and covered by media attacks happened in Russian cities including Moscow, the majority of the attacks took place on the territory of Chechnya and the neighboring North Caucasian republic and targeted mostly military and security forces’ facilities. The majority of bombings occurred in the period of 2000-2004, but terrible terrorist attacks took place later too. This period was marked by the new phenomenon faced by Russian and Chechen community – female suicide bombers, female shaheed. This phenomenon became a part of mass consciousness of many Russians, it brings fear and panic as it seems to be impossible to protect yourself from such attacks. This phenomenon is also related to many stereotypes and controversies.

What defines a suicide bomber? What is behind the decision to become shaheed (martyr)? What are the possible reasons and who are the people, who decide to end their lives in this way?

Numerous studies of the issue conducted by many researches and scientists have shown conflicting results about what defines a suicide attacker. Criminal Justice Professor Adam Lankford identified classic suicidal risk factors by the terrorists and bombers, such as depression, psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress, mental disorder, other mental or health problems, serious physical injuries, drug addictions, suffering from unexpected death of the loved ones and other personal crises. These findings are also supported by the prominent psychologist Ariel Merari.
Volgograd trolley-bus bombing
(Image: CNN)

Russian psychologist Natalia Semenova, who worked with the victims of Moscow Theatre siege (2003) and studied the issue of the potential suicide terrorists, has supported the aforementioned theses and also added that the tactics being used during the work with the candidates for being suicide bombers are the same as the tactics of the so called “totalitarian sects”. Person being in a hard life situation, probably with personal tragedy and psychological crisis, with no future, no chance for changes and often lack of life experience and person, who needs someone to lead, could easily become a victim of the bombers’ recruiters. When such a person appears in the organization, she/he starts to feel being an important part of organization’s life and structure, there is warm and friendly environment around, so the psychological state of such person allows to manipulate with his/her will and consciousness in order to achieve needed results and convince the person to take this fatal decisions thinking that it really has a big meaning. And this moment is very important, when we are talking about female suicide bombers in Chechnya.

Chechen female suicide bombers, often being called as “Black Widows”, mostly fit this model. They’ve received this name as in the most cases these women have actually lost their husbands during the two Chechen wars and the insurgency period following the military conflicts in the region. Though not all of the Chechen female suicide bombers were widows, this term applies in Russia to all of them.

Khava Barayeva and Luiza Magomadove, the first Chechen
suicide bombers
(Image: Zulikhan Lifejournal)
The both Chechen wars led by Russia and Russian attempts to stop insurgency in Northern Caucasus were the most violent in Europe in recent years in terms of ongoing military and civilian casualties and massive human rights’ violations and abuses. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that every Chechen family has lost at least one its member, often many members or even the whole family. Some of them were killed during the military operations, some killed by security forces and MVD (Russian interior security forces) on the charges of being rebels and members of the separatist groups (mostly it happened without any court), some disappeared, some detained and brutally tortured. Chechnya has the whole generation totally traumatized by this war experience. Russia led aerial bombardments of the whole cities and villages, killing thousands of civilians, unbelievable brutality of security forces and terrible cleansings remained unpunished, as nobody was held accountable for the numerous human rights’ abuses despite the decisions of the European Court. The war and the following purges could be considered as being the real genocide against Chechen people, so it’s not surprising, that the level of hatred towards the occupiers and radical moods was on the rise under current circumstances. We could add to this list of reasons also features of mentality and strict local traditions, combined with radical Wahhabi Islam, spread in the region.

Many women, who have really lost their husbands, children, relatives and experienced the times of war and systematical purges committed by Russian security forces and later by so-called Kadyrovets (army of the current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov), became the suicide bombers carried out numerous terrorist attacks in and outside of Chechnya.

The reasons for becoming a suicide bombers could be very different, but there are some psychological features helping to identify the potential bombers, thinks Nadezhda Tarabarina, Russian Doctor of Psychology, Head of Department of post-traumatic stress of Institute of Psychology of Russian Academy of Sciences. She states that many of the terrorists are young (average age of Chechen suicide bombers is 16-26 year-old), in addition to that these are the people with not so strong psychological conditions and often with very hard life circumstances. They often have lost their beloved ones, and this is one of the driving motives for them, as the act of suicide bombing could be either their revenge or their way out of life where they have nothing to live for. Often these women decide to choose the way of shaheed believing that after this act of self-sacrifice they will meet in heaven their beloved ones, whom they’ve lost. It’s worth mentioning, that this motive could be also defined as one of the most decisive along with revenge and psychological traumas, caused by war experience.

Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, failed suicide bomber
(Image: Infox Ru)
In some cases act of suicide bombing could be a way for a woman to prove to her family or to her community that she is worth being respected as she made this sacrifice for the fight of her people. This motive occurs often by the young women who experienced hard life situations and appeared to be abandoned by their families and society as they are ashamed (Chechen society is very strict and traditional). The future suicide bombers of this category are being convinced that their act of self-sacrifice will eliminate their sins, and Allah will send them to heaven as martyrs.

As for the pure ideological and religious reasons behind this decision, these reasons appear to be rare among Chechen “Black Widows” and could apply to some girls raised in radical Wahhabi families or influenced by radical Islamic teachings. But even these reasons are usually combined with the personal matters being the main driving factor for these women.

Talking about Chechen female suicide bombers it’s necessary to note, that these deeds are often being committed for their beloved ones, as often family members, husbands and men, the girls are in love with, send them to these missions (as it was in the case of Khava Barayeva, first Chechen female suicide bomber). Unfortunately it became a Chechen reality in the war time. And this is also very important moment: decision is not usually taken by the girls and women, but is influenced by other persons and comes as a result of many reasons, mostly personal ones and wish to take revenge.

Psychologist Nadezhda Tarabarina also stresses importance of the fact, that these girls and women are being influenced and psychologically manipulated, as even a very strong personal reason or pain caused by the loss is hardly believed to be the only one reason. Psychological portrait of the potential suicide bomber includes strong suggestibility, these persons are being influenced easily through using of psychological manipulation and attempts to convince the woman, that she must take a revenge or that she will commit a great deed, help her people or help to stop the war by carrying out the act of suicide bombing.

Thus manipulation is the most probable reason, thinks psychologist. Manipulation could be applied through different means, very often it can include drugging and usage of psychotropic substances paralyzing the will of a person and making it vulnerable to manipulation and infusion. Very often the “Black Widow” carries out the attack under the psychotropic substances as well, states psychologists. Her information is based on the forensic analyses.

Another important add to the portrait of the average Chechen suicide bomber is that she doesn’t carry out the attacks herself, she is always being accompanied, and even the bomb is usually detonated remotely, so the “Black Widow” simply doesn’t have choice and chance to escape, if she has made this step.
Female suicide bomber during Moscow theatre siege
(Image: NTV TV snapshot)

Hard life circumstances, losses of the family members and beloved ones, psychological traumas, stress and personal matters, revenge are usually the main reasons for these women to become the bombers. In addition to that the belief that there will be meeting with the dead relatives and beloved persons in heaven, where shaheed should appear, is also very important moment in case of Chechen female bombers.  According to experts the most important factor in forming of the suicide bomber is psychological one (not religion, nationality of traditions), combined with the massive ideological work and manipulation.


These moments are very important to be marked, as “Black Widows” are usually portrayed by media, especially in Russia, as cold-blooded religious fanatics killing innocent people, and there are a lot of misconceptions, stereotypes and propaganda regarding this phenomenon in media, especially Russian. Of course the deeds committed by the “Black Widows” are terrible and cannot be tolerated, but one should try to understand the deep reasons of the phenomenon in order to find the right solution and to not only eliminate or at least to minimize the cases of suicide terrorist attacks, but to also save the possible future bombers and hundreds of lives.

Extended version of an article originally posted on Islamist Gate.