Black Widows: Russia’s Female Suicide Bombers

30 03 2010

Victims of the Moscow Subway Bombings

I’ve read a few different articles about the Moscow subway suicide bombings that killed 38 people yesterday morning, but until I read this Daily Beast article on the subject, I somehow missed the fact that both of those suicide bombers were women.

Apparently, there is a group of female “terrorists” that have been responsible for a number of major bombings around Russia in the past few years.  These women are called “Black Widows” because it is believed that they are seeking vengeance for the murders of their fathers, brothers and husbands during the war in Chechnya.

Daily Beast contributor David Satter writes:

The two Chechen wars, fought in 1994-96 and 1999-2000, were almost unparalleled in their barbarity in the postwar era. The women of Chechnya regularly witnessed the abduction of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, whom Chechen tradition treats as their protectors. In some cases, they were involved in trying to ransom them from Russian custody, an exercise that usually ended with them having to pay to receive a mutilated corpse.The result was a desire for revenge and a break with the Chechen tradition that men do not send women into war. The Black Widows have participated in two-thirds of the almost 40 rebel attacks that have killed about 900 persons in Russia in the last ten years. In the words of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, they “are trying to force Russians to feel the same pain that they have felt.”

I’ve always had a hard time understanding how anyone could be so angry and full of despair and convicted in his beliefs that he would consider strapping a bomb to himself and blowing up forty people.  But hearing about what these women had to go through makes the situation a little more real for me.  If my husband or male relative was abducted and, after months of fear and desperation, I paid a huge amount of money only to have his mutilated dead body returned to me, I very well might be capable of blowing myself up in a subway at rush hour.

I think, all too often, we are quick to associate suicide bombers with the Middle East and the religion of Islam.  We think that it’s because of their religious teachings–19 virgins awaiting them in heaven!– that teenagers randomly blow themselves up in public squares, or that it’s because of the oppressive culture of the Muslim world that those people don’t mind not being in it anymore.  In reality, these people are in pain.  They have lost parents and siblings in wars and random attacks.  And the longer we keep our armies in Afghanistan and Iraq, occasionally blowing up innocent people and raiding the houses of innocent families in an attempt to catch the bad guys, the more “terrorists” we will continue to create.

Right now, as I’m writing this, MSNBC is doing a segment on whether the Chechnyan suicide bombers are linked to Al Qaeda.  Give me a break, MSNBC. Do you want to send an army over to Russia to take these people out too?  Are they now part of the Axis of Evil?  These people don’t need to be shot or imprisoned.  They need a good team of therapists, a lifetime supply of anti-depressants and a support group.

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15 responses

30 03 2010
geof

Great post, DR. Suicide bombers are created, not born, and understanding why they do what they do is the first step towards making our world a place where people don’t want to blow themselves up.

Unfortunately, certain types of people just don’t want to hear it. I think it has to do with the way information is processed, a black and white versus shades of grey approach to understanding the world. I suspect that they believe understanding the enemy is sympathizing, not just empathizing and comes dangerously close to being traitorous. Or they think some people are too naive/sissified to accept the black and white truth that some people are just plain evil. Maybe the Evil Disorder will make it into the next version of the DSM. Of course then it would be treatable as a public health issue and not a war crimes issue. Hey, at least pre-existing conditions can’t bar you from health coverage anymore!

To the war hawks: Hey dummies, what do you think Sun Tzu, kick ass warrior-philosopher, meant when he said know your enemy? Uh, how about what motivates them from a psychosocial perspective? As sad as it sounds, some interpret this to be the ability to distinguish the enemy’s uniforms from your own. Would we remember what he said thousands of years later if all he meant was, “Hey troops! Good luck out there, and make sure ya’ll are fightin’ the other side.”

30 03 2010
leverman

The Chechen wars are way too complicated to portray as good guys vs bad guys. In trying to keep Chechnya from seceding I have no doubt the Russians did commit atrocities. The rebel Chechnyans were hardly good guys. It is complicated. Many Chechen guerillas are very radical Muslims who brutally kill Russian civilians. Many are not religious at all, just corrupt drug dealers.

There were a lot of atrocities committed in our civil war. All the South wanted to do was secede, like Chechnya. Sherman’s march through Atlanta and the South was brutal. Homes were burned, Confederate soldiers were killed by the thousands and in some instances their women were raped. The Confederate army did the same to Union areas when given the chance.

Lots of women lost husbands and sons. Resentments from our civil war lasted a very long time. Some radical groups like the Klan sprung up to prolong the hate. People managed to grieve without blowing up innocents.

For the most part we all moved on. Suicide bombers who blow up innocent civilians are part of religious, extremist hate groups. Your article is way too understanding of them for me. The Russian men, women and children on that subway were brutally murdered. Nothing that happened to any of these women justified that. Using the same logic surviving family members from Pearl Harbor can go blow themselves up in Tokyo subways and survivors of Hiroshima can blow themselves up in NY subways.

Hundreds of thousands of people from many countires died horrible deaths in WW2. Their families mourned without blowing up civilians. These people do not need therapy, they need morals. I understand that they may have been driven to hate by what happened to their loved ones; that does not remotely justify their actions.

I alos think its a mistake to compare the Iraq war (which I opposed) and the Afghan war (which I supported). Afghanistan harbored the perpetrators of 9-11. There was never any doubt about that. Very few countries questioned our right to go into Afghanistan and root these guys out.

I absolutely agree that the war in Iraq makes more terrorists, not less. I also think its time to leave Afghanistan now, the returns of our efforts there are diminishing.

I would finally add that I absolutely think Al Qaeda is part of an axis of evil. They have hijacked the Muslim religion and their version of it is quite evil. There are right wing Christian groups just as bad, but fortunately not as well organized and financed.

30 03 2010
geof

Leverman, you infer meaning from Rambler’s words. Only the author can say what is implied.

Katie: How should the perspective of people who commit evil acts be protrayed? Certainly from their perspective it was justified. An anthropologist, a psychiatrist, or a journalist must understand and make explicit the internal viewpoint of the subject.

I gather that both of you don’t like the presentation for some reason. It seems too close, too empathetic, correct? Why too close? Isn’t being socially and spiritually close how we humanize others, and how we decide that they deserve to live? Exactly what suicide bombers and their ideology doesn’t do.

30 03 2010
geof

oops, this should be posted below katie.

30 03 2010
districtramblings

Leverman, nowhere in my post did I say that these suicide bombings are justified. I’m saying that none of us knows what it feels like to have a relative’s mutilated body mailed to us after he was kidnapped in front of our faces. It could cause you to act out in any number of ways, and while it’s never OK to kill anyone as retribution for any kind of atrocity, it’s at least somewhat understandable when you learn of the pain behind it. We need to look at these people as traumatized victims who have lost the moral capacity to care about other human beings, not evil religious leaders that are randomly conspiring to murder the world.

30 03 2010
leverman

Your article implies these suicide bombers are somehow less responsible for their actions because of what happened to them, or thats how the article read to me.

I think these woman, like most suicide bombers, if not evil in their own right are manipulated by evil, religious zealots to blow themselves up amidst innocent civilians to create terror. The women are no different to me than the 9-11 pilots who evidently had lost their moral capacity to care about others as well.

For whatever its worth, if the spouses and parents of the Russians killed in the subway attacks strapped bombs on their backs and blew themselves up at some Chechnyan market in retribution, I would consider them just as evil.

The vast majority of Chechen women who lost spouses and children in the Chechen wars have not acted out their grief by slaughtering innocent people. I do not think these suicide bombers were guided by random religious zealots trying to murder the world. I do think they were manipulated by a specific group of religious zealots who are intolerant of other beliefs and will kill people for playing the wrong music, creating a cartoon or failing to wear a scarf.

I have no problem with msnbc or anyone else exploring a link between Al Qaeda and these bombers. A link between Al Qaeda and Chechen rebels has been suspected for many years. Suicide bombers attacking civilian targets is a well known Al Qaeda tactic:

“Al-Qaida has established a presence in the North Caucasus, like they did in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Europe,” Ignatenko told The Associated Press. The militants’ links with al-Qaida also are recognized by other experts on terrorism.

http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2010/03/30/news/a1_–_russia_blast_0330_19th.txt

Why shouldn’t the link be explored? I think these grieving women are likely manipulated by religious extremist groups. Don’t you? Someone is helping them make bombs and learn how to use them.

I guess how we see “evil” can depend on semantics. Someone who molests and kills children may have been molested as a child. He is no less evil to me. Most victims of molestations do not become killers. Similarly, women who blow up commuters are evil women, at least in the way I would use the word. Now if they went and blew up a general suspected of war atrocities, I get that. Blowing up innocents is evil. I understand how they might be driven to that, but 99% of the spouses who lost husbands have managed to grieve without committing evil acts.

30 03 2010
katie

I have to agree with Leverman here. While you may not say the word “justify,” that is what you’re doing. Although I do agree with you that it’s important to attempt to understand a group as part of international relations.

30 03 2010
Liz

As Geoff said, these evil terrorists were created, not born, and many more will continue to be created unless the “non-evil” rest of the world can trace their development and address the root of their dehumanization. I feel that using the world evil separates these individuals and their histories from the rest of the world, which is counter-productive. With the exception of psychopaths, a 1-5% of the population with a clinical incapacity to process empathy or morality, these terrorists were a product of their environment. Perhaps through the international system they have been forced to face a reality that is fundamentally incompatible with their known world. Before television and international commerce, these pockets of traditionalism were able to continue unchallenged, but that is no longer a reality. So, there are two options: continue to polarize and dehumanize and foster a growing group of people who do not fit in to the western idea of modernity, or attempt to investigate the fundamental barriers that prevent these terrorists from valuing modern society.

30 03 2010
CB

Okay, so we agree that genocidal/suicidal people are not born anti-social, they become that way due to traumatic events in their lives, a form of severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. So…knowing that, are we supposed to empathize with their situations (aww, poor Hitler..nobody understood him) or are we right to expect that they figure out a way to deal without endangering the rest of us who are just trying to take the subway? I don’t get it, guys. Innocent people paid with their lives here. That could have been you or someone you love.

30 03 2010
districtramblings

“Expect that they figure out a way to deal?” I’d like to see you figure out a way to deal after your husband is mailed to you in pieces.

30 03 2010
CB

Horrible things have happened to them. I’m not minimizing what they’ve been through at all. I’m just saying that when they’ve reached the anger point where they are ready to take their own lives and a few innocent others with them, they have crossed the line of normal human socialization. You said in your last paragraph that they don’t need to be locked up or shot, and I’m not for shooting anyone, but I definitely think that they need to be institutionalized, for the safety of the rest of us.

30 03 2010
Liz

No matter whether you lock everyone up, terrorism will continue to be a problem until you address the source through increased education and economic opportunities in these underdeveloped areas. People who have to be at work every day do not have time to join extremist groups. It is only in areas with high unemployment and very young populations (often due to high death rates of adults after civil wars, etc) where these movements get started. My point is to attack the cause, not the effect, because we are fighting a losing battle. Which means that if we leave Afghanistan too early, then the whole thing will have been pointless, because that is exactly how Al Qaeda was formed in the first place due to lack of follow-up after the defeat of the Russians in the 1990s.

1 04 2010
geof

Heart of the matter. You cut to the quick. I wonder if DOD and State had hired locals in Iraq instead of Halliburton and KBR at the outset, the insurgency might have found itself short of available young men.

And excellent point about Afghanistan after the Soviets were kicked out. Movie recommend: The Beast, based on a play called Nanawatai, about a Russian tank crew that gets lost in Afghanistan. Beautiful landscapes, haunting soundtrack, and interesting characterizations of the tank crew and the local Mujaheddin.

30 03 2010
leverman

DC, hundreds of thousands mothers had their sons come home in body bags from WW1, WW2, Korea and Vietnam. Many wives lost their husbands in 9-11. I am sure the grief for all of them was horrible but they managed without forming black widow groups to blow up innocent civilians.

If a widow from 9-11 traveled to Saudi Arabia and blew herself up in the middle of a bunch of Saudi men and women on a bus I would feel the same way. I am one hundred percent feeling sorry for the Arabs on the bus and zero percent feeling that anything that happened on 9-11 lessened the responsibility of the person who blew themselves up and took innocent lives.

I would bet the majority of Chechen’s who lost loved ones in the war sees these subway bombings as evil acts. I will not argue the point with you that these women who blew themselves up were not particularly vulnerable to being indoctrinated by extremists that what they were doing was justified. I am sure they were. Their acts are nevertheless too hateful and immoral to merit any sympathy from me.

I concede I might feel differently if my spouse was killed in such a conflict. you might just as well feel differently if your family had been on that subway.

30 03 2010
CB

Weren’t you relieved when those DC snipers that terrorized the city for several weeks were finally caught and locked up? I felt particularly sorry for the younger one, who clearly was being led astray by the older one. He was only 16. I’m sure there were some horrible events in his childhood that led him to be vulnerable to the brainwashing he underwent, but do we take the chance of giving him “a team of therapists, a life-time supply of anti-depressants and a support group” or do we lock him up so that the rest of us can resume making runs to Home Depot without worrying about getting taken out in the parking lot?

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