It has been four and a half years since Khava Baraeva carried out the first suicide bombing in Russia, yet the threat of suicide terrorism shows no sign of subsiding. After the wave of suicide bombings that shook Russia in 2003 ended, many observers thought that Russia’s bout with suicide terrorism was over. But in August and September 2004, these experts were proven dreadfully wrong when female suicide bombers struck in Moscow, Beslan, and the skies over southern Russia. These incidents show that the Kremlin has still not come to grips with the causes of suicide terrorism much less how to confront it.
The Russian human rights group Memorial recently announced that 396 civilians had been abducted in Chechnya in 2004. This number is slightly less than 2003, when the figure topped 460, but still frighteningly large. Similarly, following this past summer’s suicide attacks, young women have increasingly become the target of cleansing operations in the North Caucasus (see Interfax, October 7, 2004). These gruesome facts shed important light on the foundations of suicide terrorism in Russia and the reason it has not subsided.
Since 2000, Russia has witnessed no less than 25 separate incidences of suicide terrorism, the vast majority of which have been perpetrated by women. Most of these women have been direct or indirect victims of Russian “counter-terrorist” operations in one way or another. They have lost husbands, fathers, brothers, and/or sons either in the Chechen war or in federal “mop-up” operations. Thus, it is not hard to see why many experts have concluded that Chechnya’s “Black Widows” are driven to suicide terrorism by a fatal mix of despair, hopelessness and grief.
The Kremlin has tried hard to refute this theory and broadcast its own version of why suicide bombers strike. The Kremlin’s theory – exemplified in the well-publicized case of Zarema Muzhikhoeva, who was captured by Moscow police in July 2003 as she attempted to carry out a suicide attack at a downtown café – holds that suicide bombings are orchestrated by religious extremists who coerce and blackmail women into carrying out the attacks. In interrogations and testimony since her capture, Muzhikhoeva has claimed that she was manipulated and intimidated by a team of Chechen handlers who encouraged her to find the “true road to Allah” by blowing herself up. Although her statements have often been contradictory and she has admitted fabricating certain parts of her story (in a February 3, 2004 interview published in Izvestia, Muzhikhoeva admitted that she had made up the entire story of a “Black Fatima,” who was recruiting young Chechen women to be suicide bombers), the Kremlin has seized upon Muzhikhoeva’s case as an archetypal example and has gone to great lengths to publicize her confessions. In April 2004, Muzhikhoeva was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian court and an appeal filed on her behalf was rejected in September.
The Kremlin’s “Muzhikhoeva scenario” for explaining all Chechen suicide bombings is misleading on several fronts. First, it fails to take into account instances of seemingly spontaneous revenge seeking, e.g., Luiza Gazueva, who in November 2001 killed herself and a military commandant who had personally killed her husband during an interrogation. Second, the theory overstates the role of radical Islam in Chechen suicide bombings. While terrorist recruiters most certainly use religious fundamentalism as one component in their basket of tools for recruiting, it is probably not the primary motivator for most female suicide terrorists. It is merely one among many. This is evidenced by the fact that only in the instance of the Dubrovka theater hostage taking did the suicide terrorists publicize their deeds with reference to Allah. Similarly, extremist Wahabbism enjoys no appreciable base of support in Chechen society and only a handful of Chechnya’s suicide bombers were known to come from Wahabbist families. While it is true, of course, that many of Russia’s documented suicide bombers have turned to religious fundamentalism before carrying out their deadly act, it is not difficult to see how the conditions of the war in Chechnya could have played an underlying factor in their motivation.
This brings us to the final and most significant flaw in the Kremlin’s preferred explanation for suicide terrorism. Moscow’s version fails to acknowledge the root causes of why Chechen women are vulnerable to being swayed by Islamic fundamentalism and ultimately being recruited into terrorist networks. The horrendous circumstances of the war in Chechnya and human rights abuses perpetrated by Russian forces in the region have sowed the seeds of rage, desperation and hopelessness that make Chechen women more susceptible to manipulation by terrorist recruiters. This is the lowest common denominator of Chechen suicide terrorism, a fact that the Kremlin seems disinclined to recognize.
The salience of this fact was borne out in the most recent suicide bombings to rock Russia. On August 27, 2004, Izvestia reported that Aminat Nagaev, one of the suspected suicide bombers who blew up a Tu-134 over southern Russia on August 24, was seeking revenge for her brother who was killed in a federal “mop-up” operation. Days later, on September 2, Aminat’s sister, Roza, was named as the chief suspect in the bombing at Moscow Rizhskaya Metro station, which killed ten people. It was later revealed that in addition to her brother, Roza Nagaeva’s son had also been a victim of a “mop-up” operation. According to Memorial, Nagaeva paid a bribe to Russian soldiers for her son’s return in August 2000. The boy had been severely beaten and tortured with electricity. After this information on Nagaeva’s relatives came to light, Russian medical examiners reversed their earlier opinion and claimed that the perpetrator of the Rizhskaya bombing was not Roza Nagaeva (see Regnum.ru, November 20, 2004). It seems that the Kremlin is unwilling to publicize those tragic cases of suicide terrorism that do not correspond to its preferred version.
Chechen suicide terrorism has indigenous roots and its goals are strategic in nature. Thus, those who plan and implement suicide terrorism are analytically distinguishable from those women who actually carry out the attacks. Russia’s actions in the region have radicalized a large part of the resistance, which now sees suicide terrorism as a last resort to achieve their goals. But even more perniciously, Russia’s brutal tactics in prosecuting the war have done much to radicalize the Chechen populace and thus increase the potential pool of suicide bombers. Utter despair and a pervasive sense of injustice lay at the core of suicide terrorism in Chechnya, where an entire generation of women without hope for the future has been created. As the last four years have shown, this is a dangerous breeding ground for the type extremism that spawns suicide bombers. If Russia wishes to dam the flow of suicide bomber recruits, then it should make sure that Memorial has no cause to announce hundreds of civilian abductions in 2005.