Russia’s New Black Widows
The deadly and mysterious new breed of female suicide bomber.
MOSCOW — On Monday afternoon, a young woman with a green headscarf walked onto a public bus in the Russian city of Volgograd, went to the back, and sat down on the seat beside the ticket-taker. Irina Kushnir, 31, who was riding to a doctor’s appointment, could not help staring at the woman. "I noticed her immediately, right when I was paying my fare," she later told reporters in the hospital. "She had a lovely green scarf around her head. She was looking out the window, acting calm, not drawing any attention to herself."
A moment later, the woman in the pretty green headscarf would fly into the air, leaving behind the bodies of six people and sending more than 30 to the hospital with ghastly wounds. The ticket-taker would end up in the emergency ward, while the suicide bomber, Naida Asiyalova, who was a few days from her 31st birthday, would die in the explosion.
Asiyalova had grown up in the mountain settlement of Gunib, in the republic of Dagestan, a part of Russia that lies on the Caspian Sea. It’s a small and nondescript village, but renowned throughout the region as the sight of the last and the bloodiest battles fought by Imam Shamil, leader of the highlanders of the Caucasus Mountains during their wars against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. That was when Moscow first conquered the North Caucasus.
From the details of Asiyalova’s life emerging from police statements and Russian press reports, she bought her bus ticket in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, with Moscow as her destination. But well before her final stop, she exited the bus in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) and, after a brief walk, boarded the public bus and detonated her explosives.
What’s unusual about this story is that it seems to lack the biographical component that people on suicide missions usually share: the motive of revenge. Its absence seems to indicate an emerging tendency in this type of terrorism, which can no longer be defined as an act of payback for the loss of one’s home, property, or dignity; it is not a radical form of patriotism. From Asiyalova’s case and others, it seems that suicide bombings have simply become the most convenient way to conduct a war by terror: one explosion, many victims, and lots of attention from the media. The bombers themselves are little more than instruments, chosen for their weakness, for the ease with which they can be manipulated.
In 2004, during the deadly siege of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, one of the hostage takers equipped with a suicide vest was Malizha Mutaeva, a 30-year-old woman who had lost her family home to Russian airstrikes in the region of Chechnya, which neighbors Dagestan. Russian bombs had blown up everything she owned: her house, her family photographs. She had a grudge to bear. But Naida Asiyalova, who was the same age when she went on her suicide mission this week, had no apparent motive. She had lived and studied for years in Moscow, held down good jobs, and made ends meet in the Russian capital. Then one day she put a bomb in her purse and got on a bus. What possible logic could have driven her to do that?
Over my 10 years of research into female suicide bombers from these regions of Russia, the closest I have come to understanding how they are prepared for death was in 2010, during a trip to Chechnya. The man I met there, whom I will call Yusup, had served in the 1990s as an aide-de-camp to the field commander known as Khattab, one of the leaders of the Chechen resistance to Russian rule. (Yusup insisted I not reveal his real name, as he has links to the military intelligence services in Chechnya and could be punished for speaking to journalists.) Toward the end of that decade of war in Chechnya, Khattab, a native of Jordan, maintained a base for rebels and jihadists near the Chechen village of Serzhen-Yurt, on the territory of a former summer camp for young Communist Pioneers. It operated until 2002, continuing to train insurgents well after the end of the Second Chechen War, which re-established Russian rule over Chechnya in 2000.
Yusup told me how his Arab commander was able to prepare an entire brigade of troops who were not merely prepared for death but desired it. "Lots of different people came to this forest. Some were hyper, wanting to fight, to train, but there were always people who lacked a certain amount of attention at home, lacked love," Yusup said. "These were weak people, who just wanted to be respected and loved, and Khattab was a very good psychologist. He was able to spot such people and assign to them a particular instructor. The first thing that these people received upon entering the collective was love. They were called brothers and sisters, they were coddled, food was prepared for them, prayers were read with them, much time was spent in conversation with them. Then — all of a sudden — the instructor would begin asking, almost as a passing thought, whether there were strong brothers among them who would be willing to sacrifice themselves for Allah and for the sake of the common goal. And many among the weak wanted to become strong."
Yusup explained how at their base even the most pathetic felt powerful, a feeling they had seldom felt among their domineering elders and siblings back home. It was that feeling of empowerment which drew them back into the forest like a magnet. "If a terrorist attack is being prepared and the person carrying it out begins to feel fear or doubt, he would not be forced into it," said Yusup. "If today he couldn’t do it, another brother or sister would go, while he would continue receiving love and affection until it became more terrible for him to be thrown out of this community, to lose its respect and love, than to die. Through death, you would become a hero; through escape — a traitor and a coward. And in any case, everyone understood that you would never be forgiven if you wanted to abandon the community."
From the rough details that have emerged this week, Naida Asiyalova appears to have been one of these lonely young castaways. Having been raised mostly by her grandmother, she left her home village in Dagestan early in life to go to Moscow. She studied and worked there, often moving around, and in 2010, she began living with a Russian man, Dmitri Sokolov, almost 10 years younger than she. They had met that year at their university in Moscow and soon moved in together in the suburbs of the city. Naida, whose neighbors in Dagestan have told Russian media that she was not particularly devoted to Islam in her youth, was already wearing a hijab at the time she and Sokolov started living together.
Although the history of Sokolov’s conversion remains unclear, as do many of the details of their relationship, Russian media have reported that Asiyalova may have introduced him to radical Islam. Citing a source in the Dagestani security services, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda also claimed that Sokolov was an experienced bomb maker with links to a terrorist cell in Dagestan. But apart from these unconfirmed reports, police have only said in official statements that Sokolov’s family reported him missing last December. Less than a year later, after Asiyalova blew herself up, he was the first suspect investigators named as her accomplice. Police have since started investigating the couple’s links to a terrorist cell in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.
From my research into the tactics of such groups, their suicide missions tend to be carefully supervised. The bomber typically has two or three chaperones who watch over the operation, noting the bomber’s mood, at times managing it with medications, and making sure that the bomber does not stray from the agreed-upon route and remains calm and under control. The two women who bombed the Moscow subway system in 2010, for instance, were each chaperoned by two or three people, at least one of whom was also a woman. Security sources, speaking to the Russian press, have suggested that Asiyalova may have been kept in the dark about when the bomb would explode. Such tactics have also been used in past attacks.
One of the characters I profiled in my book, Brides of Allah, was a Chechen woman named Zarema Inarkaeva, who bombed a police station in the Chechen capital of Grozny in February 2002. Inarkaeva was among the lucky few who are known as "failed suicide bombers," the ones who survive their own acts of terrorism. As she told me during the many hours we spent together while she was in a witness protection program, Zarema eloped with her lover and ended up staying with a terrorist cell. She had a promiscuous sex life, as the jihadists she encountered felt it was normal to share sexual partners. They lived in a rented apartment in a fashion she described as "sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll." It had little in common with what you might expect of a fundamentalist Islamic commune.
Eventually her comrades grew tired of her company and decided to send her on her way — with a purse full of explosives, which she was to detonate at the police station. During our interviews, Zarema said that she felt dazed in the months before that attack, and she recalled how the men she lived with would pour substances into her soft drinks without even trying to hide it. She began having mood swings, which ranged from depression to giddy euphoria. And then, on the morning of Feb. 5, 2002, she was dropped off at the police station with a purse and told to deliver it to one of the officers.
Zarema said she did not feel she had a choice when she slavishly went into the precinct, climbed the stairs, and started asking around for that particular officer. "I remember thinking, ‘Will it be now? Or maybe now?’" Tears began to fill her eyes, but even then she did not take off that damned purse, did not take off running. And then the purse exploded, having been detonated remotely. What saved Zarema was the small presence of mind that told her to at least hold the purse not pressed against her body but to carry it at arm’s length. After a series of operations on her legs and hips, she survived. "I guess it was because I understood on some level why they had given me that purse."
Asiyalova was less lucky. She had no such moment of clarity. But much like Zarema, she does not fit the profile of female terrorists whom the press has dubbed "black widows." She was not bereaved over the loss of a loved one. Russia had not robbed her of her home or her chance at a decent life. Instead Asiyalova may simply have been weakened, physically and morally, by the turns her life had taken, and that weakness could have made her a useful if expendable weapon in someone else’s war. As the witness to Monday’s bombing recalled, the bomber stared out the window before the explosion, not drawing attention to herself, acting calm. It is as if she were oblivious, not a black widow but a blank slate.