Meet the female terrorists keeping Putin up at night

It’s the (wo)man hunt of the century. Russian officials, increasingly fearful of a terror attack during the upcoming Sochi Olympics, are scouring the city for a potential female suicide bomber who is thought to already be in the winter resort. Ruzanna Ibragimova, the main suspect, is a so-called Black Widow – a woman willing to kill herself, and others, to avenge the death of a loved one.

Ibragimova, whose militant husband was killed last year, is far from alone. Russian security forces are searching for a pair of other female militants because of concerns that they'll try to hit targets in Sochi or in Moscow and other major cities. The Russian soldiers and police officers have good reason to worry: Black Widows have killed hundreds of Russian civilians and security personnel over the past 14 years. The most recent attack came in October 2013 when Naida Asiyalova, the wife of a wanted militant, blew herself up on a bus in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, killing six other people. Yulia Yuzik pointed out in Foreign Policy that Asiyalova may be a new kind of “Black Widow” – not motivated by revenge, but a mere instrument for a “convenient way to conduct a war by terror.”

Robert Pape, Lindsey O'Rourke and Jenna McDermit of the Chicago Project on Terrorism and Security (CPOST) wrote in a New York Times op-ed that militants began using female suicide bombers after the outbreak of the second Chechen war with Russia in 1999. As the usual guerrilla tactics and hostage-taking proved ineffective, they turned to Black Widow attacks. “New tactics were employed and women were central from the start,” they wrote.

Last summer, Foreign Policy contributor Anna Nemtsova estimated, in an article for the Daily Beast, that 46 female suicide bombers carried out 26 attacks in Russia over the last 12 years. Adding the Volgograd attacks, that number today is 27 or 28 (a December attack on the Volgograd train station was also cautiously attributed to a female bomber). According to the CPOST database, female suicide bombers killed 389 people and injured nearly 1,000 more between 2000 and 2011. Over the past three years, that number has risen to more than 400.

Here are some of the deadliest attacks carried out by Russia’s veiled terrorists:

1. In 2010, Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, the teen-age widow of a militant leader killed by Russian security forces and 28-year-old Mariam Sharipova, the wife of an insurgent leader, carried out a pair of large-scale suicide bombings inside Moscow’s subway. Doku Umarov, a top militant leader, later posted a video claiming that the attacks were acts of revenge against Russian security forces.

Casualties: 39 dead.

2. In 2004, Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Aminat Nagayeva carried explosives onto two Russian planes in 2004. The subsequent explosions brought down both planes, killing the passengers and crew. Nagayeva’s brother disappeared years earliers after being captured by Russian forces.

Casualties: 90

3. In 2003, Larisa Musalayeva blew herself up at a religious festival in Grozny in what was probably a failed attempt to kill Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov.

Casualties: 18 dead, 46 wounded

4. In 2002, Alina Tumriyeva and her father and brother drove two trucks, one of which was filled with explosives, into a government building in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Her half-brother died fighting the Russians in 2000.

Casualties: 72 dead, more than 200 injured.

5. In 2000, two Chechen women, Luiza Magomadova and Khava Barayeva, drove a truck loaded with explosives into a building where Russian special forces in Chechnya were stationed. Barayeva’s uncle, a Chechen warlord, had been killed in 1999.

Casualties: 2 – according to the Russians; 27 – according to the Chechen side (which experts see as more likely).

Hanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a researcher and freelance contributor for The New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications.

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