The phenomenon of women suicide bombers is one of the most poorly understood of the current Chechen war–mainly because it is such a genuine novelty. Male Chechen guerrillas stand in a long tradition of armed resistance and rebellion in the Caucasus, a tradition that the guerrillas consciously use as a model for their own behavior. But there is little precedent for female terrorist suicides, not from the nineteenth century or from the Soviet era or from the first post-Soviet war of the mid-1990s, or even from the first stage of the second war. Apart from a few isolated cases, such attacks have become frequent only within the last year or two.
What is it that motivates such terrorists? Is it religion, ideology or personal revenge? Are they recruited and organized by a central command, or are they essentially acting on their own? Are these women given drugs before they embark on their suicidal missions, are their bombs detonated by remote control, or are they sufficiently fanatical and resolute to trigger the explosions themselves? How accurate is the comparison to Palestinian female terrorists?
On February 3, Izvestia published a potentially invaluable document: The first detailed interview with a female suicide bomber from Chechnya who had been captured alive after failing to carry out her mission. Much about this article remains mysterious, and it should be treated with caution. There is no easy way to find out why the Russian authorities gave Izvestia correspondent Vadim Rechkalov access to their prisoner, or how much of what she told him might be deliberate disinformation from her captors. The 23-year-old woman, Zarema Muzhakhoeva, seems (not surprisingly) to be far from a stable personality, and she has repeatedly contradicted her own testimony during the months that have passed since her arrest in July of 2003. She clearly hopes to avoid a long prison sentence by retrospectively explaining her own behavior in the best possible light. Nevertheless, at least some of her words seem to ring true in the context of what we know from other sources about the night of July 9, when the bomb that she had been carrying killed an FSB explosives specialist outside “Mon CafŽ” in central Moscow. Rechkalov’s interview with her deserves careful study.
According to her own account, Muzhakhoeva was far from being a determined fanatic. On the contrary, she realized even before reaching her assigned target that she did not want to kill herself or others, and so she deliberately tried to sabotage her own mission by going out of her way to behave erratically and provocatively. Contrary to some speculations about women bombers, she had not taken any mind altering drugs. But she did believe that she was under observation by her male Chechen controllers, and that the latter had the capacity to detonate her bomb by remote control. (That latter belief apparently turned out to be false.)
Muzhakhoeva depicted herself as neither a Wahhabi or nationalist ideologue, nor as a widow driven to personal revenge for the murder of her relatives. Her husband was killed four years ago in a business dispute unrelated to the war; his family took custody of the infant daughter born several months after his death. Muzhakhoeva was then left to live with her grandparents (her mother had abandoned her when she was ten months old). Longing for her daughter Rashana, she sold her grandmother’s jewelry for US$600, then picked up Rashana from her mother-in-law’s home on the pretext of spending a few hours with her. Her plan was to flee with Rashana to Moscow and try to start a new life there. But her relatives intercepted them at the airport, beat her up, and left her disgraced, ostracized and forlorn.
What attracted her to terrorism, she told the Izvestia journalist, was the money: She had heard that a suicide bomber’s family would receive US$1,000, more than enough to repay her grandparents for the valuables she had stolen.
She spent two weeks in the spring of 2003 in a guerrilla training camp. A one-legged guerrilla leader–perhaps Shamil Basaev himself, she said–told her that it was wrong to sacrifice one’s life simply for money, that one should do this only for the sake of one’s religious faith. But she was not interested in his suggestion that she get the money she needed by staying in the camp and marrying one of his guerrillas. “I wanted to die–not to sit in the woods like a rat.”
In June she was sent to blow up a bus carrying Russian airmen at the federal base in Mozdok. According to Muzhakhoeva, it was in Mozdok that she decided that she just could not carry out such an act: “I simply came to understand that I could not push the button.” She pretended that the bus had failed to arrive as scheduled at the bus stop where she was waiting; the planned bombing was eventually carried out by another suicide bomber, killing 17 people.
She arrived in Moscow–a city that she had never previously visited–less than a week before the abortive attack in July. She had not been specifically told by her handler, who used the aliases “Ruslan” and “Igor,” that she would be sent on a suicide bombing mission, but she guessed that to be the plan. He met her at a Moscow cafŽ and drove her to the village of Tolstopaltsevo outside the city, where she lived for the next several days together with two other women bombers. They shared a small house with “Ruslan/Igor” and with “Andrei,” an explosives expert.
Muzhakhoeva’s description of the other two women is suggestive. Marem (who never gave her last name) was extremely tight-lipped, and Muzhakhoeva learned about her past only from the other woman, Zulikhan Elikhadzhieva. Apparently Marem was the widow of a rebel guerrilla, with whom she had lived in the highlands at a secret rebel base. The commander of her husband’s unit had ordered her to abort their unborn child, an order that her husband felt he had to obey. When her husband died, she found herself left without any children, and ready to become a suicide bomber.
Zulikhan, as talkative as Marem was silent, said that she herself had been persuaded by a male relative serving with the guerrillas to volunteer as a suicide bomber; in Muzhakhoeva’s words, such a recruitment “is considered a great achievement among Wahhabi men.” Zulikhan was not willing to kill or die anonymously: It was crucial to her that the world should know about her self-sacrifice by name, and she successfully defied the order from “Ruslan/Igor” to surrender her passport before setting off on her mission on July 5–the bombing of a rock concert in suburban Tushino.
Seeing the results of that mission on television–“a mountain of dead bodies”–apparently brought home to Muzhakhoeva the full reality of what she had volunteered to do. “For the first time,” she told Rechkalov, “I saw how it would look. If I tell you that I felt sorry for all of them you won’t believe me. To be honest, I felt sorrier for Zulikhan than for the others, she was the only one of the dead whom I had seen alive that very morning. To be completely honest, I felt sorriest of all for myself.”
Muzhakhoeva said that if she could have escaped from her handlers she would have–“but Igor constantly reminded me that his people were observing the house. I was afraid that they would catch me and kill me. The detective asked me, ‘How could you, as a suicide bomber, be afraid of death? Where’s the logic?’ But there are various ways to die. If I blow myself up it all happens in an instant, painlessly, and I arrive in paradise and become a houri. But if I get caught while trying to run away, then I have disgraced myself and can only guess how they will deal with me. In short, I decided to give myself up with the bomb, to hide from them all in prison. Though they might be able to find me even in prison…”
On July 7 “Igor” and “Andrei” took Muzhakhoeva on a reconnaissance drive around Moscow; they drove past the university, the Novy Arbat shopping district and the Ministry of Foreign Relations. She said that they did not share many details with her but simply showed her various possible targets, including Mon CafŽ, which Igor said was always crowded with politicians and businessmen. On July 8 they told her that her mission would take place the next day. They had her make a videotape for which they dressed her in a long-sleeved black dress and traditional “khidzhab” scarf, covering most of her face, and gave her a prepared text to read about her forthcoming attack “against the infidels in the name of Allah.” They told her that they would send the videocassette to her friends and relatives, and would also use it to recruit others. They called her a “hero,” but avoided words like “death” and “terrorist act.”
Muzhakhoeva said that it was indeed important to her that her relatives see that video, so that they would know “that I had died and had cleansed myself of my shame, that I was a good woman and would not trouble them further.” (Note that this contradicts her statement that she had already decided that she could not kill herself; but of course the mind of such a desperate, downtrodden woman could easily be filled with contradictory thoughts.)
On July 9 Igor and Andrei gave her a “shakhid [martyr’s] belt,” filled with explosives and attached to an “on-off” switch. Andrei told her that Zulikhan’s bomb had failed to explode, so he was giving her four detonators instead of only two. She feared that the two men might be able to read her real thoughts, “but I was much helped by our traditions which forbid looking directly into a man’s eyes.”
Just before they set off, Igor reminded her again that she would be under constant observation by his people. If she should be captured, he promised that she would be provided with a good lawyer. He then had her change clothes so that she would look like a stylish, casual young Moscow woman–in jeans, sunglasses and a baseball cap. “I had never worn a baseball cap. I gazed into a mirror and really liked the way I looked; I had never dressed that way. For a few seconds I was simply happy…”
Igor dropped her off near the hotel Rossiya just off Red Square, where she hailed a taxi just as instructed. But she then (as she claims) tried to arouse the driver’s suspicions by reciting verses from the Koran; she was afraid simply to tell him the truth, for fear that he was one of Igor’s men. She continued to try to behave suspiciously after reaching Mon CafŽ, hoping that one of its security guards would accost her. (She had been instructed not to go inside the cafŽ, and feared that her handlers would detonate her bomb by remote control if she were to do so.) When two men finally came out and asked her what was in her bag, she said “explosives.” They called the police, who ordered her to put the bag on the pavement and handcuffed her. They took her away and soon handed her over to the FSB. Only on the next day did she learn that the bomb she had left behind did indeed kill one person, an FSB officer who was trying to disarm it.
Muzhakhoeva seriously undermines stories about “Lida.” She is the woman who, according to sensational newspaper articles in July, was coordinating the activities of various “black widow” terrorists in Moscow. This “Lida,” Muzhakhoeva now says, she simply invented out of whole cloth. She also now says that she was lying earlier when she said that she had tried to detonate her bomb but that it had failed to work. She claims that she feared that her state-provided lawyer was actually a Chechen agent who would be reporting her words to Igor and his fellow conspirators, so she lied. She wanted Igor to think that she had actually tried to carry out her mission.
It is noteworthy, however, that Muzhakhoeva’s narrative is favorable to the FSB, whose officers, she says, treated her courteously (unlike the city police, one of whom she says hugged her lasciviously while she was handcuffed and then picked her pocket). Her fate now of course depends far more on the FSB than on the city police, and one cannot avoid wondering what other parts of her account might be designed to win the former agency’s favor.