One photograph has transformed the way many Russians look at terrorism. It shows one of the two women who allegedly bombed the Moscow subway: a cherubic teenager smirking as she waves a pistol in the air. The image of the stereotypical jihadi the masked or bearded zealot holding a Kalashnikov or wearing an explosive vest suddenly morphed into a more ambivalent yet still terrifying menace.
Experts say this was exactly the aim of the groups that supposedly recruited Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who, along with Maryam Sharipova, attacked two Metro stations in Moscow. Around the world, organizations like al-Qaeda are realizing that women can be far more effective than men at penetrating security checkpoints, making their attacks deeper and more lethal. Almost as important, a female face makes it harder to dismiss radical Islamism as simply evil. "We all have mothers. We all tend to idealize women as nonviolent," says Anne Speckhard, who chairs a NATO expert group on the psychological and social aspects of terrorism. "When they commit acts of terror, people start asking themselves, 'What would make a woman go there and do that?' This is already a huge propaganda victory." Speckhard adds, "If you put a woman into the role of carrying out violence if you make her look like she's bereaved, she's suffering you suddenly get your message across much more effectively."
This applies in particular to the terrorists known in Russia as the Black Widows, a name that plays on their alleged desire to avenge the deaths of their husbands (or other relatives) at the hands of Russian security forces working in the North Caucasus. In recent years, they have taken part in several vicious attacks in Moscow, including the bombings of two passenger planes in 2004 that killed 89 people. Abdurakhmanova, named by police as one of the two suicide bombers who struck the Moscow subway system on March 29, killing at least 40 people, seems to fit the mold. Her husband was a leading militant in the Russian region of Dagestan and was killed in a shoot-out with police on New Year's Eve. Sharipova, a schoolteacher, was also married to a militant Islamist in Dagestan.
Yet it was by no means a simple act of revenge, say Speckhard and other experts, insisting it is wrong to imagine the Black Widows as loyal widows seeking justice. (Sharipova's husband is believed to still be alive.) The women are in reality the products of a sophisticated process of indoctrination with deep roots in the North Caucasus, where a less conservative form of Islam has meant insurgents have few qualms about using women in their attacks. "The women who take part in terrorism do it not out of their own desire or willingness but because they are manipulated. They are given no other choice," says Yulia Yuzik, who has interviewed scores of Black Widows and their relatives in the Caucasus for her book Nevesty Allakhy (Brides of Allah).
Yuzik says the recruitment process usually begins when a loved one collaborates with insurgents and then gets killed or persecuted by Russian forces. The family is often ostracized by other members of their community, who are desperate to avoid persecution themselves, Yuzik says. "The community that welcomes you after that is the Islamist one. There you find self-respect. You are called a sister. You go to pray with them, socialize with them, and you integrate into these groups based around Islam. That in itself serves as a kind of counterforce to the security regime, a way of expressing grief and frustration."
Extremists within the community, however, can then begin to turn these emotions to the ends of terrorism, usually after an order comes down from insurgents in the mountains to prepare a suicide bomber. There are dozens of these Black Widows in the making at any given time, Yuzik says, so the Moscow subway bombings cannot simply be connected to the death of Abdurakhmanova's husband. Rather, she happened to be at the right point in the process of indoctrination when the order came down. "Once the Islamist community begins insisting you martyr yourself, they do not let up. They will pursue you forever, and you have nowhere else to go. That is the trap."
Women in such circumstances, says Speckhard, tend to be recruited because they are in search of "psychological first aid." Working most often over the Internet, the recruiters play the role of a father to women left vulnerable by abuse or other trauma. "To an extent it does help them. It's like a drug. It's short-lived. It gives you relief, but it's not a solution. And just like a drug addiction, it often ends tragically," says Speckhard, who has interviewed more than 300 perpetrators of terrorism, their victims and their loved ones for her book Talking to Terrorists.
The ease of finding such women over the Internet, and their usefulness to terrorist groups, suggest that the role of women in jihadist movements will continue to grow. Even ultraconservative groups like al-Qaeda, which had long avoided recruiting women, have come around to the tactic, says Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell: Women and Terror. In Russia the problem is particularly acute, as more than 50% of the country's suicide attacks have been committed by women, compared with about 30% globally. Far more than those of male bombers, their attacks also speed the flow of new recruits and money into the terrorist organizations. "The women come forward and shame the men into participating," says Bloom. "They appeal to masculinity, to the manly urge to protect women, and that fills up their ranks and their coffers."
All of this presents a daunting set of challenges for law enforcement. More heavy-handed efforts to clamp down on them, like the ones being employed by Russia in the North Caucasus, now seem to be doing more harm than good, by multiplying the sense of mourning and hurt that then become potential hooks for recruiters. Any solution must now reckon with the fact that the war on terrorism has become more than a matter to be dealt with by force.