Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 43

As the specter of female suicide bombers has entered the known repertoire and tactics of the domestic terrorist attacks carried out within the Russian Federation, more efforts are being made to analyze and understand the processes of recruitment, training, indoctrination and motives underlying their use as a powerful tool in the hands of those orchestrating acts of terrorism. Early indications reflect a growing awareness of the sophistication of the enemy that confronts Russia and dispels certain presuppositions that could be advanced about these individuals. Russian intelligence personnel are increasingly required to sift large quantities of information and assess the root causes of female participation in suicide bombings, reportedly questioning individuals and their associates involved in failed attempts to carry out attacks, in order to facilitate the formation of a profile of those involved. With the events in Beslan in September 2004 fresh in the minds of Russian security personnel, a renewed effort to drive anti-terrorist legislation through the State Duma, and unease about the prospect of new attacks all contribute to a sense of urgency in reaching provisional conclusions. Itar-Tass on October 28 quoted Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel as claiming that terrorists may be planning attacks inside Russian territory similar to Beslan.

At the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, the terrorist leader known as Polkovnik (“The Colonel”) reportedly personally blew up two female martyrs with the aim of intimidating his subordinates. They were apparently already laden with explosives strapped to their bodies and may have refused to act as suicide bombers, thus provoking their leader to kill them personally.

Terrorists have thus made use of a deadly new tactic in their campaign strategies. They plant bombs on women and send them to targets; some in turn are clearly willing participants in these events, placing explosives in belts and handbags. Yet, it is equally clear that the battleground lies in the mind, and these young women have been skillfully utilized by their handlers, who prime them for their work as suicide bombers. Russia’s security and intelligence bodies have no idea just how many such women are wandering through the North Caucasus or elsewhere within Russia.

Some general observations may be noted, though these must be understood with the caveat that they can only be based upon second hand information and occasional direct interviews with those who have failed to carry out an attack. It appears in the reported views of Russian intelligence officers that everything depends upon the psychology of the individual. In this sense, the traditional lines of investigation are displaced, since ethnic origin appears to be secondary; for instance, suicide bombers in Russia can be Russian or Tatar. Those recruiting potential suicide bombers are looking for male and female recruits, exposing them to ideological and political propaganda.

A component of this propaganda is an appeal to religious fundamentalism. A person committing suicide commits a grave sin, but if the suicide is part of a “jihad” against infidels, the perpetrator is convinced they will go to heaven. This is a powerful tool, and lends an air of uncontrollable fanaticism. But there are other key aspects involved. According to Sergei Ignatchenko, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) press relations center, one method in use is that before a meal, a female suicide bomber will declaim a verse from the Koran, burning the sheet she has read from. Ignatchenko claims the paper is laced with powerful narcotics.

It is widely reported in Russian media that female bombers are being recruited throughout Chechnya. Many of these volunteer, while other are taken from their families for a fee of around US$1,500. Terrorists can be paid US$10,000 to US$20,000 for each female suicide bomber recruited, with deposits being made in foreign bank accounts.

In spring 2004, one particular legal case exemplified some of the challenges facing Russia’s intelligence services in gathering reliable information in this area. On April 5, 2004, the Moscow City Court handed down a guilty verdict in the case of a woman who had decided to become a martyr. Zarema Muzhakhoyeva was just 24 years old. On the evening of July 9, 2003, she entered a café in Moscow. The female terrorist was successfully apprehended. But a FSB bomb disposal expert died while making safe the explosive device hidden inside her handbag. Her case illustrates, in the opinion of Russian intelligence officers, the phenomenon of female suicide bombers and their training and utility in the campaigns of terror in which they are used.

According to the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GUBOP) Center “T”, Muzhakhoyeva had gone through a split marriage, fallen on very hard times personally, when she fell in with people who in time became her handlers. These first persuaded her to remain in their company by promising to help reunite her with her daughter, from whom she had become separated. Later, long periods of religious indoctrination followed, with experienced psychologists and recruitment people apparently handling Muzhakhoyeva.

Muzhakhoyeva then seems to have spent at least two months in a terrorist training camp, where Ruslan Sayev allegedly became her main handler. Her task was to blow up a bus full of Russian servicemen in Mozdok, but she never carried out the attack, claiming she felt unwell. Sayev then decided to use her in the attack on the Moscow café, which also ultimately failed. Eyewitnesses reported in court that a very nervous Muzhakhoyeva appeared several times outside the café, approaching the window, where she had been ordered to blow herself up. A vigilant policeman spotted her, and made an arrest. In court, her testimony fluctuated several times, though she consistently said that she did not really want to carry out the bombing, but went along with her handler Sayev out of fear. Russian special services killed Sayev in the fall of 2003.

Muzhakhoyeva’s case teaches Russian analysts a great deal about the phenomenon of female suicide bombers. An important factor in her case was Sayev’s attention to his potential martyr, which included regularly taking her to dinner, buying gifts and doing his best to make her feel important, even going as far as allowing her some level of participation in selecting the target. Such cases are a vital element in reaching a better understanding of the methods and motivations of female suicide bombers, but there are other factors that need equal attention and priority.

The Muzhakhoyeva case revealed that the process of putting a female suicide bomber in place for an attack is long and detailed. It involved three clear layers of actors: the recruiters, handlers and strategists. Each of these interconnected levels need analysis, for the task of understanding how these women are used is imperative. But still more vital is the necessity of knowing more about the handlers and, finally, about the individuals orchestrating the violence: their aims and overall strategy require penetration by intelligence services. The operation from recruitment to execution, albeit bungled in this instance, required substantial movement of money and the alleged involvement of businessmen in facilitating recruitment. In seeking to deal with female suicide bombers Russia is not alone, and it may well benefit from sharing and discussing the experiences of other countries in coping with this brutal facet of international terrorism.