What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous?

Almost every month for the past two years, Chechen suicide bombers have struck. Their targets can be anything from Russian soldiers to Chechen police officers to the innocent civilians who were killed on the subway in Moscow this week. We all know the horror that people willing to kill themselves can inflict. But do we really understand what drives young women and men to strap explosives on their bodies and deliberately kill themselves in order to murder dozens of people going about their daily lives?

Chechen suicide attackers do not fit popular stereotypes, contrary to the Russian government’s efforts to pigeonhole them. For years, Moscow has routinely portrayed Chechen bombers as Islamic extremists, many of them foreign, who want to make Islam the world’s dominant religion. Yet however much Russia may want to convince the West that this battle is part of a global war on terrorism, the facts about who becomes a Chechen suicide attacker — male or female — reveal otherwise.

The three of us, in our work for the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, have analyzed every Chechen suicide attack since they began in 2000, 42 separate incidents involving 63 people who killed themselves. Many Chechen separatists are Muslim, but few of the suicide bombers profess religious motives. The majority are male, but a huge fraction — over 40 percent — are women. Although foreign suicide attackers are not unheard of in Chechnya, of the 42 for whom we can determine place of birth, 38 were from the Caucasus. Something is driving Chechen suicide bombers, but it is hardly global jihad.

As we have discovered in our research on Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, suicide terrorist campaigns are almost always a last resort against foreign military occupation. Chechnya is a powerful demonstration of this phenomenon at work.

In the 1990s, the rebels kicked out tens of thousands of Russian troops who had been sent to the region to prevent Chechnya, a republic within the Russian Federation, from declaring independence. In 1999, the Russians came back — this time with more than 90,000 troops — and waged a well-documented scorched-earth campaign, killing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 civilians out of a population of about 1 million. Ordinary guerrilla tactics and hostage-taking — the keys to ousting the Russians the first time — now got the rebels nowhere. New tactics were employed and women were central from the start.

On June 7, 2000, two Chechen women, Khava Barayeva and Luiza Magomadova, drove a truck laden with explosives into a Russian special forces building in Alkhan-Yurt, Chechnya; while the Russians insist only two soldiers were killed, the Chechen rebel claim of more than two dozen fatalities seems more likely.

This was the first Chechen suicide attack and showed the many advantages of female suicide bombers. They were deadly, as Chechen female attackers generally are, killing an average of 21 people per attack compared to 13 for males. Perhaps far more important, they could inspire others to follow in their footsteps, women and men alike.

Ms. Barayeva made a martyr video, as many suicide bombers do before their attacks. While warning Russia that she was attacking for Chechen independence, she also directed a powerful message clearly meant to provoke men to make similar sacrifices out of a sense of honor. She pleaded for Chechen men to “not take the woman’s role by staying at home”; so far, 32 men have answered her call.

Just as important, Ms. Barayeva is considered responsible for inspiring a movement of “black widows” — women who have lost a husband, child or close relative to the “occupation” and killed themselves on missions to even the score. In total, 24 Chechen females ranging in age from 15 to 37 have carried out suicide attacks, including the most deadly — the coordinated bombings of two passenger flights in August 2004 that caused 90 deaths and (according to Russian authorities) the subway blasts on Monday that killed nearly 40.

The bombers’ motives spring directly from their experiences with Russian troops, according to Abu al-Walid, a rebel leader who was killed in 2004. “These women, particularly the wives of the mujahedeen who were martyred, are being threatened in their homes, their honor [is] being threatened,” he explained in a video that appeared on Al Jazeera. “They do not accept being humiliated and living under occupation.”

And female suicide attackers have one more advantage: They can often travel inconspicuously to their targets. A July 2003 investigative report by the Russian news magazine Kommersant-Vlast found that a potential female suicide bomber could easily avoid public suspicion. Just days after a Chechen suicide bomber, Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, tried but failed to blow up a Moscow cafe in 2003, one of the magazine’s journalists — wearing a niqab, tightly clutching a black satchel to her chest, and behaving in a nervous manner — was able to get a table at the same cafe without ever being questioned. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chechen women have carried out 8 of the 10 suicide attacks in Moscow.

Although we are still learning the details of Monday’s bombings, there were warnings that a major attack in Russia was coming. Twice this year one of Chechnya’s leading rebel commanders, Doku Umarov, issued video statements warning of attacks in Russia proper. “The Russians think the war is distant,” he said. “Blood will not only spill in our towns and villages but also it will spill in their towns … our military operations will encompass the entirety of Russia.” He also made clear that his campaign was not about restoring any Islamic caliphate, but about Chechen independence: “This is the land of our brothers and it is our sacred duty to liberate these lands.”

With so many Chechen suicide attacks, one could easily be forgiven for being skeptical about the prospects for a lasting peace. Yet, a closer examination of the conflict’s history suggests solutions that both sides may be able to accept.

The trajectory of Chechnya’s suicide campaign reveals a stark pattern: 27 attacks from June 2000 to November 2004, no attacks until October 2007, and 18 since. What explains the three-year pause?

The answer is loss of public support in Chechnya for the rebellion, for two reasons. The first was revulsion against the 2004 Beslan school massacre in which Chechen rebels murdered hundreds of Russian children. “A bigger blow could not have been dealt on us,” one of the separatists’ spokesmen said at the time. “People around the world will think that Chechens are beasts and monsters if they could attack children.” Second, the Russians pursued a robust hearts-and-minds program to win over the war-torn population. Military operations killed significantly fewer civilians. Amnesty was granted to rebel fighters and nearly 600 Chechen separatists surrendered in 2006 alone.

Unfortunately, the Russians then over-reached. Starting in late 2007, Moscow pressured the pro-Russian Chechen government of Ramzan Kadyrov to stamp out the remaining militants. It complied, pursuing an ambitious counterterrorism offensive with notably harsh measures of its own.

Suspected rebels were abducted and imprisoned, their families’ houses were burned, and there were widespread accusations of forced confessions and coerced testimony in trials. An investigation by The Times in February 2009 reported claims of extensive torture and executions under the Kadyrov administration, and detailed “efforts by Chechnya’s government to suppress knowledge of its policies through official lies, obstruction and witness intimidation.” There is one more riddle to explain: Why did the current wave of Chechen suicide attacks gain force in the spring of 2009 after Russia announced an end of all its military operations in Chechnya? Because the Kadyrov government’s counterterrorism measures had grown so harsh that some had actually begun to view Moscow as a moderating force in the region.

Still, the picture is clear: Chechen suicide terrorism is strongly motivated by both direct military occupation by Russia and by indirect military occupation by pro-Russia Chechen security forces. Building on the more moderate policies of 2005 to 2007 might not end every attack, but it could well reduce violence to a level both sides can live with.

Because the new wave of Chechen separatists see President Kadyrov as a puppet of the Kremlin, any realistic solution must improve the legitimacy of Chechnya’s core social institutions. An initial step would be holding free and fair elections. Others would include adopting internationally accepted standards of humane conduct among the security forces and equally distributing the region’s oil revenues so that Chechnya’s Muslims benefit from their own resources.

No political solution would resolve every issue. But the subway attacks should make clear to Russia that quelling the rebellion with diplomacy is in its security interests. As long as Chechens feel themselves under occupation — either directly by Russian troops or by their proxies — the cycle of violence will continue wreaking havoc across Russia.

Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago; Lindsey O’Rourke, a doctoral student there and Jenna McDermit, an undergraduate majoring in anthropology.