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Who Are the "Black Widows" Threatening the Olympics?

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As we approach the 2014 Sochi Olympics, law enforcement officials and security experts are concerned about the prospect of so-called “black widow” terrorists, a group of female suicide bombers. But who are they? Where did they come from? How did they get such a terrifying moniker?

First, a bit of geography. Sochi is one of Russia’s southernmost cities. Because of its subtropical climate and vast, beautiful beaches along the Black Sea, the city is a popular destination for Russians on summer vacation. Think of it as their Fort Lauderdale. And wouldn't the Winter Olympics be fun in Fort Lauderdale?

Sochi is located near the Caucasus Mountains. There’s been war or insurgency in the Caucasus region (which stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea) for nearly three decades now, and the region has seen some of the most shocking terrorist attacks in modern history.

The political, economic, and cultural forces at work in the region are extremely complicated, but here are the broad strokes of the last several years. East of Sochi is Chechnya. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya declared itself a sovereign nation. This didn’t go over well in Moscow, which had organized a federation of republics and constituent entities. The Russian Federation argued that Chechnya couldn’t just willy-nilly throw together a government and invent a country, and refused to accept any such effort. Meanwhile, the legacy of Soviet control and a general exodus of non-ethnic-Chechens left Chechnya socially and economically crippled.

The whole thing resulted in the First Chechen War, which Chechnya more or less “won,” except for its tens of thousands of casualties and its obliterated infrastructure. In the war’s aftermath, the vaguely independent Chechnya became a lawless zone of kidnapping rings and gunrunning. All the while, Islamic fundamentalism there flourished. After Chechen separatists killed hundreds of people in a series of terrorist attacks on apartment buildings and a shopping mall, Russia said enough is enough and mounted an invasion. So began the Second Chechen War.

After bitter fighting, Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was ground into dust. Meanwhile, Russia bombed the hell out of nearby mountain ranges with thermobaric weapons. After a decade of fighting and thousands of casualties on both sides, Russia won.

The insurgency has not stopped, however, and has bled into nearby Dagestan. The brutality of insurgents can reach an unimaginable scale. For example, in 2004, on the first day of school—called Knowlege Day—a group of extremist Islamic separatists using paramilitary tactics took control of a school in the small Russian town of Beslan in North Ossetia. The details are too horrific to recount here. Eleven hundred people were taken hostage, including nearly 800 children. Three days later 186 of the children were dead, 330 hostages total. Nearly everyone sustained injury. Chechen terrorists don’t play around, and everyone understands this—especially those responsible for security in Sochi, which is uncomfortably close to the violence (about 250 miles).

Three weeks ago, suicide bombers went on a tear in the city of Volgograd, with one detonating on a bus and one at a train station, killing 34. Following the attacks, a video was posted on an extremist website in which the bombers offer this warning: “We've prepared a present for you and all tourists who come [to Sochi]... If you will hold the Olympics, you'll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that's been spilled.”

This is where we get to the black widows. While the details vary, the general consensus is that militant groups recruit widows of men killed by the Russians in the two brutal Chechen Wars, and in battles elsewhere in the Caucasus region. The widows are trained as suicide bombers and sent into areas to seek their revenge. Because they don’t fit the young, male stereotype that security experts have come to expect of a terrorist, black widows are more effectively able to blend into a crowd and infiltrate an area. (By way of makeup and fashion, women also have a greater advantage when it comes to disguising themselves.) The first known black widow struck in 2000.

ABC News

This week, Russia’s federal security service released wanted posters of four black widows thought to be involved in a plot to disrupt the torch relay or the Olympic Games. Likewise, posters of the plot masterminds have been distributed. Though Russia has promised a “ring of steel” around Sochi that consists of 40,000 security personnel, the wanted posters suggest a fear that the ring has been breached. Because Russian spies have reportedly had little luck penetrating small, regional terrorist cells, the Volgograd video warning is not to be lightly dismissed.

Somewhere in the throngs of the biggest event in the world, there are four black widows, each acting independently, each driven by revenge. If there is sound intelligence behind those wanted posters, four versus 40,000 present perilous odds indeed.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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