GROZNY, Russia — Medna Bayrakova remembers the day a middle-aged woman showed up at her door and asked to speak to her 26-year-old daughter. They shut themselves in the bedroom for half an hour, and then her daughter left, saying she was walking the visitor to the bus stop.
An hour later, Zareta still hadn't returned and several men in camouflage knocked at the door of the family's ravaged apartment in this ruined Chechen capital.
"We have taken away your daughter. She has agreed to marry one of our men," one said.
Bayrakova protested. "She's a sick girl. She has tuberculosis. She was coughing up blood only this morning."
"We will cure her," they replied quietly.
The next time Bayrakova and her husband saw their daughter's face, it was 24 days later -- separatist Chechen rebels had seized Moscow's Dubrovka Theater, along with 800 hostages. Zareta's unmistakable dark eyes were visible above a black veil on the television screen. Her fingers were clasped below a belt of powerful explosives.
There was one last view, this one a postmortem photo taken after federal agents gassed and stormed the theater in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2002, leaving all 41 hostage-takers and 129 of the captives dead. This time, Zareta's face was swollen and bruised -- barely recognizable.
"They asked me, 'Is it your daughter?' " Bayrakova said. "But the face was all smashed. She looked all beaten up. And then I passed out."
In strapping the explosives belt to her waist that fall day in 2002, Zareta Bayrakova joined the cult of the "black widows," the female suicide bombers who have left much of Russia on wary watch for the mysterious, dark-eyed woman in a long fur coat who is believed to recruit them.
A nationwide alert has been issued for a middle-aged woman with a hooked nose and dark hair popularly known as "Black Fatima," who has been identified as a recruiter for the women known as shahidas, or martyrs. The woman reportedly has been seen lurking on the edges of terrorist bombings during a decade of tensions between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russian troops pulled out of the republic after a disastrous 1994-96 war, and the mostly Muslim region exercises self-rule.
Seven women have launched suicide attacks against Israel, the first one in January 2002. By that time, Russia had already recorded two such attacks, and since then their numbers have grown. More than three dozen Chechen women -- roughly half of the suicide bombers -- have launched or attempted attacks against Russian targets since the second Chechen war began in 1999. Russian authorities say many appear to be dazed and under the influence of drugs; some would-be bombers have reported that they were forced by relatives in the Chechen resistance into attempting such attacks.
Most recently, on Dec. 9, a young woman blew herself up in front of Moscow's historic National Hotel, killing six people. An older woman in a dark coat and fur hat reportedly was seen slipping away from the scene. On Dec. 5, suicide bombers blew up a commuter train in the southern region of Stavropol, killing at least 44 others and injuring more than 150. Authorities said three women and one man were involved in the attack.
Nearly 150 people died in black-widow attacks last summer -- so named in the Russian media because many of the female perpetrators have lost husbands, brothers and fathers in the war in Chechnya.
Abu Walid, a Saudi national who is one of many Arabs who have joined the Chechen militants, is believed to be the commander of the rebels' eastern front in Chechnya. He recently explained the use of female suicide bombers in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network.
"These women, particularly the wives of the moujahedeen who are martyred, are being threatened in their homes. Their honor and everything are being threatened," he said. "They do not accept being humiliated and living under occupation. They say that they want to serve the cause of almighty God and avenge the death of their husbands and persecuted people."
Sergei Ignatchenko, spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service, said Arab militants "have abused the idea of Chechnya's independence to suit their own ends."
Chechen commander Shamil Basayev is said to have trained a force of up to 50 black widows for suicide attacks against Russian targets. Basayev claims to have masterminded several recent terrorist operations, including the Dubrovka Theater siege and the bombing at the National Hotel.
Meanwhile, the political leader of the separatists, Aslan Maskhadov, has repeatedly disavowed any connection with terrorism and even accused Russia's secret services of staging the Dubrovka siege for "propaganda purposes." But Russian security officials provided The Times with a videotape, dated Oct. 18, 2002 -- a week before the siege -- in which Maskhadov appeared to be referring to upcoming actions by Chechen rebels.