The rash of deadly bombings that have struck Russia in recent days have understandably provoked safety fears ahead of the upcoming Sochi Olympics, but outsiders might also be wondering why so many of those committing the country’s worst acts of terrorism are women.
Female suicide bombers are hardly an unknown phenomenon in conflicts ranging from Israel-Palestine to Sri Lanka, but the role of the “Black Widows,” as they’ve been dubbed in the press, seems particularly prominent and high-profile in the long-running insurgency in the North Caucasus.
A female bomber is believed to have carried out Sunday’s bombing at the Volgograd railway station as well as a bus bombing that killed five people in the same city in October. Female bombers are also believed to have carried out the attack on the Moscow Metro that left 38 dead in 2010 and took part is Russia’s two worst modern terrorist attacks: the 2002 Nord-Ost theater siege and the 2004 Beslan school attack.
The first Black Widow attack was in 2000, when Khava Baraeva “drove a truck filled with explosives into a building housing Russian special forces in Chechnya.” In August, journalist Anna Nemtsova wrote in the Daily Beast that “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.”
Most studies of Chechen female suicide bombers have found that they tend to be women who have experienced serious personal trauma and are then exposed to recruitment from jihadist military groups. As the term “Black Widow” would suggest, many have lost close family members over the past two decades of violence since war first broke out in Chechnya.
We don’t yet know much about the motivations of those who carried out this week’s attacks, but it’s clear that there are factors behind the brutal terrorism in this region that aren’t going to be eliminated by a pre-Olympic security crackdown.Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate.