On December 29 and 30, 2013, two suicide bombings occurred in the city of Volograd, Russia, killing 34 people, along with injuring 62 others. In the immediate days after the attack, several hundred were detained in efforts to find connections to the suspected bombers. Believed to be the work of anti-Moscow separatists, immediate reports were blaming the attacks on suspected “black widows” – women who have lost husbands or loved ones at the hands of Russian authorities. While the bombers have not been identified, Russian authorities now believe it was done by two men who entered the country from the North Caucasus, the latest in the ongoing Chechnya conflict.
The initial focus on women brought back memories of previous attacks in recent Russian history. The first so-called Black Widow attack occurred in 2000 when Kava Barayeva drove a truck of explosives into a building with Russian special forces, killing 27 people. In October 2002, Chechen militants held hostage 700 people attending a performance at the Moscow Dubrovka theater in Nord-Ost. The world watched the event unfold, culminating with Russian forces storming the theater after releasing an unknown gas, killing 129 hostages. Among the 41 militants killed, 19 were women.
While women have always been a part of conflicts, the increased presence of women in deadly attacks has alarmed many. The simple mention of the world terrorist generally brings images of men inciting terror into their targets. When the perpetrator takes on a female form, questions regarding their actions have led experts to unexpected answers.
Anat Berko is an authority on terrorism from Israel and a researcher for the National Security Council. She spent 15 years interviewing convicted Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails. Her findings are detailed in her book “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.” She attributes women’s vulnerability to recruitment for suicide attacks to cultural traditions in Muslim society. Cultural attitudes toward women influence how and why terrorists groups use women. With strict rules governing their movements and interactions in public, these groups see women as a useful tool for suicide bombings as they are less likely to raise suspicions.
Berko’s book claims that taboos around sex govern much of the recruitment and eventual participation. She reports that women admitted in interviews that guilt around sexual desires and dreams of sex in paradise are enticing. Sexual exploitation is a common tool used by men handlers, who use the resulting shame to intimidate women into carrying out attacks. She also points out that female bombers are not held in the same regard as their male counterparts, as their effectiveness is deemed a threat to the cultural norm of male dominance in Arab society.
In the end, however, Berko says these are desperate women feeling trapped by the circumstances of conflict and their daily lives. Poverty and otherwise desperate conditions make many Palestinians vulnerable to promises of happiness in paradise. For many of these women, it’s a way to escape.
The theme of desperation was also found in Cindy Ness’ 2008 book “Female Terrorism and Militancy: Agency, Utility, and Organization.” In a chapter focusing on the attacks by Chechen women, she claims that many women suffer from post-traumatic symptoms resulting from the long-standing conflict with Russia. Female suicide bombers were identified as suffering from depression, guilt and aggression, among several other things. The single most common identifier was feelings of social alienation and isolation.
It is not unreasonable to assume that these women, like men, support the causes they are fighting. The second Black Widow attack by Chechen Elza Gazuyeva in November 2001 was a direct target on the men she blamed for her husband’s death. Nevertheless, it is surprising to many when women take their support to the extreme of carrying out a suicide bombing.
While their numbers remain small, these recent examinations into this relatively secretive world have shown that the circumstances and motives that cause women to become terrorists are profoundly different than their male counterparts.