Are Russia’s Black Widows Spreading?

Obscured by the attacks in Paris a day later, the January 6th suicide bomb attack in Istanbul was nonetheless a significant one. It was not the first terrorist attack to be carried out by a Russian woman, but it was the first terrorist attack to be carried out by a Russian woman in Europe. Since 2000, coinciding with Russia launching the second Chechen war in late 1999, suicide bombings have been a prominent tactic used by Russia’s insurgency, and so-called “black widow” female suicide bombers have been integral to this.

Little is known about Diana Ramazova, the Istanbul suicide bomber, at the moment. Reports from Turkey suggest that she was from Dagestan, the largest republic in Russia’s troublesome North Caucasus region. As Chechnya has been slowly “pacified” under the tyrannical rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, Dagestan has become ravaged by Islamist insurgency and is now the most violent region in Russia.

Female suicide bombers were central to the North Caucasus insurgency during the early 2000s. Between 2000 and 2005, all but five of the 27 Chechen-linked suicide bombings in Russia included women.

The first “black widow” was Khava Barayeva, sister of the notorious Chechen warlord Arbi Barayeva, who was killed by Russian special forces in 2001. On June 6, 2000, Barayeva and Luiza Magomadova drove a truck bomb into a military building in Chechnya, killing themselves and two police officers. Thereafter, female suicide bombers, dressed in their black hijabs, were prominent in both the Dubrovka Theater siege in Moscow, in October 2002, and the Beslan school hostage siege in North Ossetia–Alania, in September 2004.

Since then, the role of female suicide bombers in the insurgency has seesawed. In the aftermath of Beslan, insurgency became less active, and effectively lost its momentum following the death of Shamil Basayev, leader of the Chechen rebel movement, in 2006. In 2007, the “Caucasus Emirate,” an Islamist insurgency movement based in the North Caucasus and headed by Doku Umarov, emerged, and “black widows” subsequently carried out a string of attacks. In March 2010, for example, two women blew themselves up on the Moscow Metro, killing 38 people. In 2014, however, following a change in the leadership of the Caucasus Emirate, the insurgency renounced the use of female suicide bombing.

So is the Istanbul attack evidence that Russia’s “black widows” are spreading? For at least a decade, there have been suggestions that the North Caucasus insurgency is part of the global jihadist movement. In the past, this has not stood up to any scrutiny. It is true that the nationalist cause that inspired Chechen fighters more than 20 years ago merged into a broader Islamic one, but North Caucasians have fought almost exclusively to liberate their own region from Russian rule. Until recently, that is.

Since November 2014, six prominent members of the North Caucasus insurgency have retracted their allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate and pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. In February 2014, two Chechen females were arrested in France on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks and having ties to the North Caucasus insurgency. Sapiyat Shemileva, one of the two, was sister of Khamzat Shemilev, the former rebel emir of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, who was killed in 2010. Over the past two years, meanwhile, at least four different insurgent formations led by Chechens have appeared in Syria. Estimates suggest that as many as 1,500 Chechens and other North Caucasians are fighting there.

Taken together, these developments suggest that the North Caucasus insurgency is dividing between those wishing to maintain a nationalist jihad in the North Caucasians and those wishing to reorient toward the transnational cause.

For both the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State, Turkey has geostrategic importance. Although it initially escaped the latter’s attention—it served as the main entry point for weapons, resources, and foreign fighters entering the Syrian civil war and has been widely criticized for turning a blind eye to the growth of militant Islamist groups during the early stages of the war—it recently emerged as a target. In August 2014, Islamic State militants threatened to “liberate” Istanbul. The Caucasus Emirate, meanwhile, has a number of important operatives—including Akhmed Umarov, who is a brother of Doku Umarov and was accused of masterminding the militant attack in Grozny on December 4, 2014—in Turkey, some who are said to help transport North Caucasians to and from Syria.

The suicide bombing in Istanbul received little attention in the West. But the West should take note. For jihadists from the North Caucasus, already active in the Middle East and Central Asia, may be bringing their struggle to Europe.

Andrew Foxall is the director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based international affairs think tank.

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