By Rashika Rakibullah
On Oct. 21, a 30-year-old female suicide bomber named Naida Asiyalova stepped onto a bus in Volgograd, Russia with a bomb strapped to her chest. It detonated just minutes after, killing six passengers and seriously injuring 30 others. The tragic event is most untimely, as Russia has recently begun preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics which will be held in February of next year. The bombing has brought international attention to the continued prevalence of terrorism—especially carried out by women—along the country’s southern border. Inconveniently for the Russian government, Sochi, the location of the Olympics, is also in southern Russia and relatively close to Chechnya and Dagestan, the areas from which most suicide bombers originate. To make matters worse, Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov announced in July that rebel leaders will use “maximum force” to disrupt the event. As this could very well mean utilizing more women like Asiyalova in future attacks, Russian officials must examine why some women are driven to such desperate measures and how to best address the issue.
Due to its fragmented geography and history, terrorism and insurgency in Russia is unique among countries that frequently have to deal with the phenomenon; the country is comprised of various ethnic and religious groups, each with its own distinct culture. Russia’s southern border consists of six “constituent republics,” known collectively as the North Caucasus; those who live in this region differ greatly from their fellow compatriots. They are ethnically diverse but, unlike the rest of the country (who adhere to Russian Orthodox values), mostly adhere to Sunni Islam. As a result, they have been fighting for independence from the Russian Federation since 1991. Chechnya succeeded for a brief period from 1996 to 1999, but the Federation regained control of the territory during the Second Chechen War in May of 2000. Notably, female terrorists known as shahidka, the Russian word for female martyrs, have been a vital aspect of this violent separatist movement.
After weathering months of intense criticism over its anti-LGBT stance, the Russian government now also faces the challenge of re-evaluating and improving its counter-terrorism strategies as the nation readies itself for the Games. The state has already begun establishing harsher anti-terrorism measures, including a recent bill stipulating that families of those who carry out terrorist acts would be responsible for the financial compensation of the victims of those acts. In Dagestan, authorities have reportedly started collecting saliva samples from religious women in case it might be needed to identify suicide bombers in the future. Additionally, Putin has ordered madrasas (religious schools) and some charities in Dagestan to be closed, and the homes of widows in the area to be bombed. Unfortunately, these are all either short-term or misguided policies. If the government truly wants to curb the separatist insurgency, and specifically the rising incidence of female suicide bombings, it will have to dig deeper and adopt strategies that address the root causes of female terrorism.
Asiyalova’s bombing is the latest in a long string of terrorist acts carried out by women in Russia, the most recent of which injured 18 people earlier this year in May. The growing phenomenon is deadly: according to some estimates, female suicide bombers have claimed 780 lives and orchestrated 20 attacks since the summer of 2000. Bombings orchestrated by women can be seen in two waves: the first from 2000 to 2004 and the second from 2010 to the present. During the first wave, which took place directly after the Second Chechen War, female bombers were often the widows or relatives of men killed by Federation forces during the war. These women had been stripped of everything they had: their homes, their families, and their husbands (who were also their only source of income in the male-dominated society of the North Caucasus). They blew up buses and trains, and carried out attacks at concerts and festivals. They also participated in attacks—such as the 2002 Dubrovka Theatre hostage crisis that claimed 130 lives—alongside male terrorists. The government responded with harsh and heavy-handed measures, and by 2004 the violence had been temporarily quelled.
In 2010, however, another wave of female suicide bombers began with the Moscow subway bombings that killed 40 people. In this second wave, the motives of the suicide bombers are more difficult to identify. Unlike their predecessors, they are not always the vengeful widows of those killed by the Federation’s force. Asiyalova, for example, received an education and held decent jobs; apart from being married to an insurgent who survives her, she had no other significant ties to the separatist movement. What drives women like her to engage in terrorism? This is a question the Russian government must grapple with if it hopes to create effective anti-terrorism strategies in the region.
One answer could lie in the culture of the North Caucasus. Human rights are not necessarily well-protected anywhere in Russia, but the treatment of women in places like Chechnya and Dagestan is particularly egregious. The region is deeply religious and very conservative, and women’s rights are rarely protected. Harmful practices such as bride-kidnapping and child marriage are not only condoned but embraced as traditions. The area in general has been ravaged by years of political instability, violence and corruption; women have suffered greatly as a consequence. Alongside this toxic environment for women is the glorification of militant fighters as martyrs and honored heroes, born out of a combination of fundamentalist Islam and age-old traditions. Given these circumstances, it may be possible that participating in the separatist movement is the only way women are allowed to express their agency and gain a respected position in their society—albeit after their death.
Another possibility is that female suicide bombers are not entirely willing, active participants in their missions. As survivors of bombings attest, female bombers are often accompanied or closely followed by one or two men. Their purpose may be to ensure that the woman goes through with the mission and does not deviate from the plan. Often these men are the ones to detonate the bombs, not the woman herself, to prevent cold feet. Further evidence can be found in the testimony of “failed suicide bombers”—those who manage to somehow survive their own attack. From their accounts, it is clear that at least in some cases, female suicide bombers are not even aware of when the bomb will go off. Rather than being motivated by revenge, it is possible that some women, already vulnerable due to societal factors, are so indoctrinated by the rhetoric of separatist leaders that participating in a suicide mission is not really an informed decision they make for themselves. Given the poor perception of women in southern Russia, it would not be surprising if separatist leaders view female suicide bombers as tools to further their agenda.
Whatever the case may be, it is vital for Russian officials to determine the root causes of female terrorism and establish measures that directly address them. Recently, President Putin took a step backward by relieving the leader of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedo, from his position. Magomedo had taken a moderate approach toward dealing with Dagestan’s separatist leaders, established a dialogue, and allowed the opening of madrasas and a commission to assist in the reintegration of former rebels into society. Rather than continuing that work, Putin has chosen a broad “hard-line” approach as Russia gears up for the Olympics. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work.
Photo by Bohan Shen