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.
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.