Reporting from Moscow after the 29 March Moscow train bombings, Tony Halpin described the female suicide bombers, known as Black Widows, as women who martyr themselves to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.
"These women are willing," wrote Halpin, "even eager, to become martyrs, driven by a desire for revenge on Russia after witnessing the deaths of children, husbands or other relatives in the two Chechen wars of the 1990s."
The above description of the "Black Widow" is being parroted in virtually all Western media. Unfortunately, it reveals a shameful ignorance of the phenomenon. Even worse, it is an embarrassing and troubling wholesale adoption of one of the terrorist's primary weapons of asymmetric warfare -- propaganda.
It would be easy but tiresome to dig through the cases, read through the profiles, and disprove the myth. Thankfully, several strategic analysts have already done the footwork and written quite exhaustive reports on the subject.
Terrorism analyst Yossef Bodansky has a chapter in his phenomenal book Chechen Jihad (HarperCollins 2007) devoted to "The Black Widows".
Bodansky writes concerning the jihad in Chechnya: "Conventional wisdom holds that this sudden and unprecedented upsurge in female terrorists [through 2003-2004] was the result of the horrific conditions created by the war in Chechnya. Having lost all, or virtually all, of their male relatives to the Russians, the logic went, these women had nothing left to live for; taking revenge against their tormentors was the only salve for their despair. Sympathetic European sociologists and psychologists studying the phenomenon concluded that the Widows were driven by despair born of extreme violence toward either the women or their families, and that their relative isolation left them feeling deprived of any perspective or alternative. According to this argument, the Islamists weren't responsible for motivating these young women into suicide -- only for providing them with an 'opportunity for sacrifice' and revenge."
"Yet," Bodansky continues, "this popular explanation is contradicted by the evidence in several ways."
As Bodansky notes, the first Chechen nationalist rebellion (1994-1996) produced more civilian casualties but no suicide bombers at all. The phenomenon of suicide bombers in Russia, including female suicide bombers, belongs exclusively to the second Chechen war (commencing 1999) which is an Islamic, not a nationalist, struggle.
Bodansky also notes that female suicide bombers defy stereotypes. Some have been poor while others have been middle class. Some have been raped and tortured by Russian soldiers while others have been raped and tortured by mujahedin. Some have been motivated by jihadist ideology while some have been simply depressed young women desperate for a way out.
According to Bodansky, in late 2002 Chechen commander Shamil Basayev commandeered a corps of Arab expert terrorists who had been trained in the Iraq war theatre to develop a training programme for would-be-martyrs in south-eastern Chechnya. In his book, Bodansky provides extensive detail of how networks have been run and how operations have been enacted.
Debra D. Zedalis makes the same observations in her 2004 report for the Strategic Studies Institute. Despite the exasperating political correctness of Zedalis's report -- entitled FEMALE SUICIDE BOMBERS -- it too notes that female suicide bombers (Palestinian and Chechen) defy simplistic definitions for some have been widows while others have never been married, and some were unemployed while others were professionals. She quotes Gregg Zoroya who says that there are "few differences between a man and a woman carrying out such a mission. It may be a surprise, but motivations are the same: they do believe, they are committed, they are patriotic, and this is combined with a religious duty."
Bodansky's profiling of three Chechen female suicide bombers reveals some tragic personal motivations.
(1) On 24 June 2003, Luiza Asmayeba (22) was wounded in a shootout with Russian police before she could detonate her device. Before she died she told the authorities that she had been repeatedly raped and impregnated by Chechen mujahedin and saw martyrdom as her only escape. An autopsy confirmed that Luiza was pregnant.
(2) Zulikhan Yelikhadzhiyeva (according to reports, an educated, cultured, modern girl) and her step brother Zhaga fell in love and ran away together. Zulikhan, however, was subsequently kidnapped by one of her half-brothers, a mujahed, who scolded her, telling her that her actions had brought shame on the family and condemned her to hell. He then convinced her that the only way she could restore the family's honour and secure her place in heaven with all the promised rewards and pleasures, was to become a martyr -- "a shakhida on the path of Allah" (according to a letter she wrote to Zhaga). Zulikhan blew herself up in the Wings concert attack of 5 July 2003.
(3) Zarema Muzhikhoyeva (23) surrendered to Russian police on 9 July 2003 after failing in her attempt to blow herself up in central Moscow. Her husband had been murdered in a business dispute. Her childless brother-in-law then took her daughter from her. After her relatives caught her trying to escape with her daughter, they beat her and said it would be better if she were dead. So Zarema went to meet Shamil Basayev (now deceased), who was at that time the commander of the Chechen mujahedin. He promised her, that if she were to become a martyr, he would give her family enough money to raise her daughter. And so Zarema offered herself as a suicide bomber.
This appalling exploitation of vulnerable, grieving and abused young women is sanctioned at the highest levels of Islam for the sake of mass murder. Zedalis's report for the Strategic Studies Institute provides excellent insight here.
According to Zedalis, Islamic leaders' attitudes have changed over time as women suicide bombers proved their worth as highly strategic tactical weapons. Zedalis notes that in early 2002, after Fatah started using female suicide bombers, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (now deceased), who was at the time the spiritual leader of Hamas, categorically renounced the use of women as suicide bombers for reasons of modesty. However, in January 2004 after the first Hamas female suicide bomber struck, Sheikh Yassin supported the act saying it was a "significant evolution in our fight. The male fighters face many obstacles. Women are like the reserve army -- when there is a necessity, we use them."
Zedalis also notes: "Saudia Arabia originally refused to legitimize female suicide bombings as martyrdom; however, in August 2001, the High Islamic Council in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa encouraging Palestinian women to become suicide bombers."
Also: "Lebanese Muslim cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah declared, 'It is true that Islam has not asked women to carry out jihad (holy war), but it permits them to take part if the necessities dictate that women should carry out regular military operations or suicide operations."
Zedalis concludes that: "Terrorist organizations use women as weapons because they provide:
• Tactical advantage: stealthier attack, element of surprise, hesitancy to search women, female stereotype (e.g., nonviolent).
• Increased number of combatants.
• Increased publicity (greater publicity = larger number of recruits).
• Psychological effect." [Embarrassing the enemy as much as shocking the public.]
Zedalis quotes one commander in charge of training future suicide bombers as saying, "The body has become our most potent weapon. When we searched for new ways to resist the security complications facing us, we discovered that our women could be an advantage." And another who boastfully described the Palestinian female suicide bomber as the "Palestinian human precision bomb".
"Finally," writes Zedalis most ominously, "many organizations deliberately are targeting women for strategic purposes because female suicide bombers receive more media attention. Research has shown that 'public perceptions of the level of terrorism in the world appear to be determined not by the level of violence, but rather by the quality of the incidents, the location, and the degree of media coverage.' So the media provides both an advertising and recruitment tool for terrorist groups. Analysts noted that, when the first Palestinian female bombing occurred, the 'news was given great prominence . . . far more than any male suicide bomber would have received. Women who kill or threaten to kill are hot news. It is a reaction that knows no state or religious boundaries.'"
Furthermore, it is quite ridiculous and even sexist to insist that men kill for ideology while women only kill for love. Women kill for a whole lot of reasons, including ideology and reward, especially when the reward involves assurance of salvation with pleasures in heaven, material reward for family on earth, and fame and glory -- for suicide bombers are heroes in Palestinian society. Their faces adorn the streets, while sport grounds, schools and community centres are named in their honour.
(See also: Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?
Edited by Yoram Schweitzer. Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, August 2006)
Justice demands truth
The propaganda surrounding the Black Widow myth ensures that neither the jihadists nor their ideology are never held accountable. The myth clearly serves its purpose as a means of Islamist propaganda, encouraging us to direct our anger at Israel and Russia, when we should be directing abhorrence, disgust and indignation at the mujahedin who exploit and abuse these vulnerable young women, and the esteemed dictators of Islam who sanction such inhumanity.
"Black Widows" -- or as they should be known: female suicide bombers -- are victims indeed, but not of Israeli or Russian aggression. They are victims of disgusting and inhumane Islamic deception and exploitation. If anything exposes the gulf between Islam and Biblical faith it is this! For the God of the Bible commands: "You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child." (Exodus 22:22 ESV) AND "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:27 ESV)
God exhorts his people through his prophet Isaiah to "plead the widow's cause" (Isaiah 1:17 ESV), and so we must reject the myth of the Black Widow and hold the dictators of Islam and their minions accountable for their murderous terrorism and for their appalling abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable. Furthermore, it can be guaranteed that when the strategic, tactical and shock value of female suicide bombers wears off, children will be next. Indeed, vulnerable children are already being exploited and "sacrificed" for their propaganda value in both the Palestinian and Chechen theatres.
by Elizabeth Kendal
For background on the Chechen Jihad see:
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB 030) 11 Nov 2009
NORTH CAUCASUS (southern Russia): Church Struggles Amidst Terror