Explaining Chechnya’s ‘Black Widows’: An Organisational Analysis

By Jeff Collins


Ever since 22 year-old Khava Barayev and 16 year-old Luisa Magomadove blew themselves up at separate Russian check points on June 7, 2000 a great deal of attention has been paid to the large number of young women who have carried out suicide attacks in Chechnya’s long running conflict with Russia.[1] Labelled ‘Black Widows’ by the Russian press much of this coverage has tended to focus on the individual and societal factors underpinning this phenomenon. In particular, scholars and journalists alike have focused on the traumatization of women brought about by the loss of male family members and the prevalence of Salafi Islamic ideology in various terrorist groups as the key sources driving women into participating in suicide attacks.[2] In contrast, there has been little in the way of an organisational analysis on the use of female suicide bombers in the on-going Second Russo-Chechen War (1999-present). As such, this article argues that a combination of influences ranging from the operational advantages of using suicide attacks, to the effects of Russian counter-terrorist policies, and, finally, internal and external group dynamics within the various Chechen terrorist groups are the prime driving force behind not just the use of female suicide attacks specifically but Chechen suicide terrorism generally.[3]

By looking at the first ‘wave’ of Chechen suicide attacks that occurred between June 2000 and October 2002 this article will examine how these factors have influenced some Chechen terror groups to adopt the practice of using female suicide attackers. However, in order to best illustrate this argument, this article will first provide a brief overview of suicide terrorism and the reasons why terrorist groups adopt it. This will be followed by an examination of the specific influences underpinning the use of suicide attacks in Chechnya during the first wave. Lastly, in light of the previous two sections, this article will elaborate on the use of female suicide attackers in the Second Russo-Chechen War.

Before proceeding on, a point of clarification is required. In this article the term ‘suicide attacks’ will be defined as being, “events where the success of the operation cannot occur without the death of the perpetrator, and he or she is apparently aware of this in advance”.[4] Stemming from that, the term ‘terrorists’ will refer to meaning “non-state actors whose goal is the threat or use of violence for political ends against non combatants or civilian targets”.[5]

Suicide Attacks: An Overview

The use of suicide attacks by terrorist groups first occurred in December 1981 when a suicide bomber struck the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut.[6] Since then, and up to 2008, there have been 1857 suicide attacks.[7] Notably, the first decade of the 21st century saw a steady rise in the number suicide attacks taking place when 34 were carried out in 2000. This was to be followed by 54 attacks in 2001, 71 in 2002, 81 in 2003, 104 in 2004, 348 in 2005, 353 in 2006, and 535 in 2007.[8] Moreover, the groups using this tactic have been both secular (e.g. PKK in Turkey and LTTE in Sri Lanka) and religious (e.g. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel/Palestine).[9]

However, there exists no one single explanation that can account for this increase. At one level, an examination of the specific context in which each terrorist group operates in is required to understand the various specific reasons influencing the adoption of such a tactic. Nevertheless, a reading of the scholarly literature on terrorism suggests that there are in most, if not all, cases of suicide attacks several general underlying reasons for the use of the tactic. Zedalis, for instance, argues that suicide attacks are attractive to terrorist organisations because they are: 1) simple and low cost; 2) they “increase the likelihood of mass casualties and extensive damage (since the bomber can choose the exact time, location, and circumstances of the attack)”; 3) “there is no fear that interrogated terrorists will surrender important information because deaths are certain”; 4) and lastly, a suicide attack will have an “immense impact on the public and the media” which contributes to creating a climate of fear and helplessness.[10]

Cronin argues along similar lines, but takes a more expansive view than Zedalis. For example, on the influence of ‘simplicity and cost’ Cronin suggests that terrorist groups – by using suicide attackers – are hoping to gain both politically and financially; politically, by ‘out-bidding’ rival terrorist groups (noted terrorist scholar Mia Bloom’s thesis) through gaining leverage over them, boosting morale, increasing group cohesion and attracting more recruits.[11] Financially, suicide attacks are cost-effective (Hamas has stated that it only costs $150 in materials to equip and dispatch a suicide bomber) and can generate revenue from external sources (e.g. the death of an 18 year old Palestinian suicide bomber led to a Saudi Arabian telethon that raised, reportedly, $100 million).[12] Finally, Richardson suggests that suicide attacks are nothing more than the latest (and most violent manifestation) of yet another tactic in terrorism’s arsenal, all aimed at achieving at what she calls the three ‘Rs’: revenge, renown, and precipitating a reaction.[13] In this sense, she argues, the use of suicide attacks by terrorist groups bares some similarity to the tactic of airline hijackings in the 1970s – then a global, and popular, form of terror.[14] Altogether, a number of these arguments help explain the reasoning underpinning the use of suicide attacks in the Second Russo-Chechen War.

The Chechen Case

In contrast to the second war the First Russo-Chechen War (1994-1996) saw Chechen insurgents conduct “relatively few traditional acts of terrorism and no suicide attacks ….”[15] So what influenced the use of suicide terrorism in and around Chechnya in the second war? The answer has to do with two inter-related factors: the internal-group dynamics of the Chechen resistance movement and Russian counter-terrorist policies. Unlike during the first war, the Chechen resistance movement was fractured into two broad camps.[16] At one end were the secular-nationalists, who, although Sufi Muslims (the ‘indigenous’ sect of Islam in Chechnya), were moderate in their political outlook. They were led by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his State Defence Committee. At the other end of the spectrum, and in the minority, were the Salafist preaching radicals led by such figures as Shamil Basayev, Movladi Udugov, and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.[17] They led an assortment of groups, but the two main organisations at the center of the first wave of suicide attacks were the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR), under the command of Arbi Barayev, and the Islamic Battalions (IB) led by the Ahkmatov brothers.[18] Markedly, these splits occurred before the outbreak of the Second Russo-Chechen War in the autumn of 1999.

When the second war did occur its opening stages were fought largely on conventional grounds. In an attempt not to be humiliated again, as they were in the first war, the Russians attacked with overwhelming military force. By the spring of 2000 they had captured the main cities of Chechnya, including the capital Grozny, and most of the outlying countryside. With the resistance still split and the Russians inflicting heavier losses the radicals began to adopt a more “protracted guerrilla warfare” campaign.[19] It was at this point that some of the radicals came to the conclusion “that terrorism was the most effective option remaining to them for impacting events and drawing attention to their cause”.[20] As such, and in line with the arguments of Zadilis, Cronin, and Richardson recited earlier, Chechen suicide attacks, at one level, “grew out of [a] radical desire to intimidate and influence an audience more effectively”, or, what Richardson would term ‘renown’.[21]

As such, the first wave of suicide attacks began in June 2000 and lasted until the Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow in October 2002.[22] During this period attacks were directed at three types of targets: 1) military and government installations, 2) individual leaders, 3) and civilians.[23] Coordinated suicide truck bombings became a favorite tactic of the SPIR and IB groups, an example of which occurred on July 2, 2000 when six suicide truck bombs detonated their cargo in a coordinated attack against Russian military targets, killing 33 people and wounding another 81.[24]

Nevertheless, the Russians were able to respond with an intensified counter-terrorist campaign that by all accounts, over time, neutralized the ability of the SPIR and IB to launch attacks. As Moore and Bernard-Wills recount, during the period in which the first wave of suicide attacks were occurring, June 2000-October 2002, the SPIR and IB’s “ability … to counter the federal forces had diminished”.[25] In pursuance of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, Russian counter-terrorist policies manipulated the inter-clan rivalries and schisms within Chechen society, awarding patronage in exchange “for [the] loyalty of [the] Sufi Qadiriyya tiriqa [i.e. the resistance]”.[26] Other methods the Russian authorities used included: arresting men of fighting age; the “use of fixed and mobile checkpoints”, that offered a level of flexibility that enabled authorities to respond quickly to the latest intelligence; target hardening in order to disrupt and displace the attacks; killing bomb makers; disrupting communications within the organisations; and destroying the infrastructure of the insurgency.[27] So effective were these measures that by the end of 2001 defections within the groups accelerated and top leadership cadres were being routinely killed – including eventually the head of the SPIR, Arbi Barayev.[28] In the end, it was the remnants of these two groups, weakened and desperate, that launched the final act of the first wave of attacks, the three day siege of the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, October 2002. It has to be made clear that this was intended to be a suicide mission, not an attack, as the terrorists had a number of goals in mind: to generate money from Middle East donors; to garner news coverage; to undermine Russian society’s sense of security; and, of course, to obtain a ceasefire in Chechnya.[29]

In keeping with the reasons why suicide attacks are adopted by terrorist groups we find that the Chechen groups pursued such methods because, like other groups (e.g. Hamas), they were: “cheaper and easier to plan and execute … [with] an increased likelihood of mass casualties and damage”;[30] they had a greater psychological and strategic impact on the public and media; and, on some level, the attacks helped attract supporters, recognition, and funding (especially from the Middle East).[31] Finally, in relation to Russian counter-terrorism efforts, suicide attacks remained “the most effective method of reaching hard and profile targets in and around Chechnya” and in addressing the asymmetric relationship with Russia.[32] In fact, as Reuter notes, this method has been so effective in this area that in the current conflict there have been “no significant conventional terror attacks … against military or government installations … just suicide attacks”.[33] Alas, it cannot be forgotten that Russian successes in furthering the schisms between resistance factions while at the same time pursuing military operations wore down the operational capabilities of the terrorists to the point where suicide attacks became an attractive way to resist; which, of course, highlights the issue of female suicide attackers.

Female Suicide Attackers

The Chechens were not the first to use female suicide attackers. That tragic distinction goes to the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party who, in 1985, had 17 year- old Sana’a Mehaydali drive a truck bomb into an Israeli military checkpoint in Lebanon.[34] So what motivates a terrorist group to use female suicide attackers? Scholars generally attribute their usage to two basic reasons: tactical and strategic. Tactically, “women can reach targets easier [as they] arouse less suspicion”.[35] For example, Zedalis writes that women provide a tactical advantage to terrorist groups for they are “stealthier in attacking”, they have an element of surprise, and male security personnel are hesitant to search women (especially in conservative societies like Chechnya).[36] Bloom makes a similar point, stating that “the use of the least likely suspect is the most likely tactical adaptation for a terrorist ground under scrutiny”.[37] This, at one level, demonstrates the tactical superiority of suicide attacks over guerrilla warfare and, crucially, can highlight the “strength of the organisation”.[38]

Finally, on a strategic level, female suicide attacks tend to have a “greater psychological impact on [the] target audience”, and therefore generate more publicity and attention (as exemplified by the media coverage on a ‘successful’ female suicide attack such as the double female suicide attack on a rock concert in 2003 and the metro-bombings in 2010, both in Moscow).[39] Interestingly enough, on a recruitment level, it has been argued that female suicide attackers can aide in mobilising “greater numbers of operatives and shame men into participating”.[40]


In conclusion, this article has attempted to draw the reader’s attention to female suicide attacks, and suicide attacks in general, that have been carried out by Chechen terrorist groups since 2000. In the final analysis, it can be said, organisationally, that the reasons why female suicide attacks are prevalent in Chechnya today is that they are a response to a combination of effective Russian counter-terrorist policies (killing, arresting, and detaining men of fighting age for example) and internal divisions within the resistance movement. In turn, faced with a desperate situation and desiring renown, funding, and recruits, a number of terrorist groups adopted suicide bombing, and female suicide attacks specifically, as way to re-assert themselves in the face of overwhelming Russian military superiority and to counter a pro-Kremlin Chechen government.

[1] Cunningham, K., ‘The evolving participation of Muslim women in Palestine, Chechnya, and the global jihadi movement’, in (ed.) Ness, C. D., Female Terrorism and Militancy: Agency, Utility, and Organisation, Routledge, 2008, p. 91. The number of female suicide attackers varies by source but one of the most common figures, as of 2008, states that 46 out of the 110 suicide bombers dispatched by Chechen militants were women (please see Speckhard, A.’s citation below).

[2] One of the most prolific writers in this area has been Anne Speckhard. Please see: Speckhard, A, and Akhmedova, K, ‘Black widows and beyond: Understanding the motivations and life trajectories of Chechen female terrorists’ in (ed.) Ness, C. D., Female Terrorism and Militancy: Agency, Utility, and Organisation, Routledge, 2008, Ch.6

[3] A number of writers, including Moore and Bernard-Wills and Reuter (see citations below), argue that Chechen suicide attacks have occurred in three waves: 2000-2002, 2002-2004, 2008-present. In each wave there are different group dynamics at play – hence suicide attacks in Chechnya are not a linear phenomenon carried out by one set of actors but a product of complex internal (group) and external (Russian ‘normalisation’ policies for example) factors (please see Moore, C. Contemporary Violence: Postmodern War in Kosovo and Chechnya, Manchester University Press, 2010). Due to space limitations this analysis will just focus on the first wave.

[4] Cronin, A., ‘Terrorists and Suicide Attacks’, Congressional Research Service,  2003, p. 2

[5] Ibid.,

[6] Moghadam, A., ‘Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks’, International Security, Volume 33, Number 3, 2008/2009, p. 48.

[7] The latest information available to the author lists the number of suicide attacks up to 2008 (Moghadam, p. 48).

[8] Moghadam, p. 48

[9] Zedalis. D.D., ‘Female Suicide Bombers’, Strategic Studies Institute, June 2004, Accessed March 13, 2011, p. 2, Available at <http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB408.pdf&gt;

[10] Zedalis, p. 7

[11] Cronin, p. 10

[12] Cronin, p. 10

[13] Richardson, L. What Terrorists Want: Understanding The Enemy, Containing the Threat, Random House, 2007, p. 106

[14] Richardson, p. 106

[15] Reuter, J., ‘Chechnya’s Suicide Bombers: Desperate, Devout, or Deceived?’, The Jamestown Foundation,  August 23, 2004, Accessed March 12, 2011, p. 5, Available at <http://www.jamestown.org/programs/recentreports/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37410&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=933f6b8438be9e848b3d6ae0c57c5d3b&gt;

[16] Moore, C. and Bernard-Wills, D. ‘Russia and counter-terrorism’, in (ed.) Siniver, A., Counter-Terrorism post 9/11: Comparative Dynamics and Responses, Routledge, 2010, p.150; Hughes, J. Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, p. 157

[17] Moore and Bernard-Wills, p. 151

[18] Ibid., p. 151

[19] Reuter, p. 5

[20] Ibid., p. 18

[21] Ibid., pp. 18-19

[22] Moore and Bernard-Wills, p. 151

[23] Reuter, p. 7

[24] Ibid., p. 7

[25] Moore and Bernard-Wills p. 151

[26] Ibid., p. 151

[27] Ibid., p. 153

[28] Ibid., p. 151

[29] Ibid., p. 151

[30] Reuter, p. 19

[31] Ibid., pp. 19-20

[32] Ibid., p. 19

[33] Ibid.,, p. 19

[34] Bloom, M. Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 143

[35] Reuter, p. 26; Myers, S.L., “Female Suicide Bombers Unnerve Russians,” The New York Times, August 7, 2003

[36] Zedalis, p. 7

[37] Bloom, p. 144

[38] Ibid., p. 144

[39] Reuter, p. 26

[40] Bloom, p. 144


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