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'Black widows' again stir fear in Moscow

The women are indistinguishable on the street or in the subway -- until they detonate their loads in the name of revenge, usually linked to violence in Chechnya or elsewhere in the Caucasus.

March 31, 2010|By Megan K. Stack and Sergei L. Loiko
  • A boy crosses himself at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow during a service for those killed in two subway bomb attacks.
A boy crosses himself at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow during a service… (Alexander Zemlianichenko…)

Reporting from Moscow — The "black widows" are back. These are their faces, charred and streaked with blood, shown in gruesome photographs circulated to the public Tuesday by investigators.

Their heads were severed, blown off their bodies by the force of the suicide bombs they detonated in crowded subway cars. Their eyes are closed as if in prayer.

The return of female suicide bombers from the Caucasus thrusts Moscow back into the grip of terror that this city had tried to leave behind six years ago. For a time, there was a pervasive fear of Muslim women who might be stalking the streets, indistinguishable until they detonated their explosives.

The black widows blew themselves up in subway stations, in the streets, aboard airplanes. They strapped suicide belts around their waists and helped their male colleagues hold terrified theatergoers hostage. And then they vanished from Moscow.

Police are hoping that somebody will recognize the faces of the two women who struck Monday and come forward. They are also looking for two women and a man who are suspected of helping to plan the subway bombings, which killed at least 39 people and injured dozens.

Investigators believe the suicide bombers were dropped off at a bustling Moscow market early Monday after traveling on a private bus line from the North Caucasus, a law enforcement source told Interfax news agency.

The bus driver identified the women from the pictures. He said they were accompanied by a man.

Buses are a popular way for criminals to enter the capital, he said, because the flow of passengers goes largely unmonitored. Two of the bombers who attacked in Moscow in 2004 arrived in the city on the same bus line.

It isn't that such women are the only militants to attack Russia, but their existence has a certain grip on the Russian imagination.

There are reports of women being drugged or hypnotized into compliance. But social pressures, religion and violence often drive them into the ranks of militants.

Chechen culture tends to link women's identities to their fathers, husbands and sons. And so it is no surprise that, in a place where so many men have met violent ends, there is an ample supply of women who feel that they have lost their motivation to live, and it's all the better if they can give their lives to the cause.

"Their husbands and sons were killed; their sisters and daughters raped," said Tatyana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, a human rights group. "It is the federal government which creates these desperate women for the underground to use as live bombs against the federal government. But those who take the hit, those who suffer in the end, are peaceful, innocent people."

There was a hope, when the second Chechen war petered out and calm returned to the streets of Moscow after 2004, that black widows would be relegated to the past.

But the violence now gripping Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan has begun to produce a new group, Kasatkina said.

"Men and boys disappear all over Chechnya and Ingushetia and Dagestan now. Women live in constant fear that their families would be destroyed. And they do get destroyed," she said.

"It is this constant, endless stress that fills the air in Chechnya that makes women lose all hope and all purpose in life except to indulge in some final expression of desperation."

megan.stack@latimes.com

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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