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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
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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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