The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 19 July 2010

Russian 'Black Widows' and the culture of revenge

Last week the Russian security services arrested six women in Dagestan who they claim were preparing suicide attacks against the Russian heartland. It's long been established practice for North Caucasian militants to use female suicide bombers against Russian cities - the most recent example being the March attacks on the Moscow metro system. And while female bombers are not unique to the North Caucasus, the use of 'Black Widows' as the 'face' of a terror campaign is fairly unprecedented.

It's true that the majority of Dagestani and Ingushetian militants that carry-out armed attacks within the North Caucasus are male, but the face of the bombing campaign in Russian cities over the last decade has been distinctly female. In addition to the attacks on the metro, Black Widows were also responsible for the bombing of Russian passenger planes in 2004, and were present at both Beslan and the Dubrovka Theatre siege.

The motivation of these women has been largely attributed to revenge. Blood feud runs deep in the Caucasus and is not confined to the male population alone. As a result, many women whose husbands or sons are killed by the security forces end up exacting revenge. But the question that many have asked is why are women, and not men, being used to carry out the attacks on Moscow? One answer is that female suicide bombers are used precisely because the practice raises significant questions regarding their individual motives. It contains a greater 'shock' factor, which would explain why female bombers were carefully inserted into the sieges of Dubrovka and Beslan.

However, while the use of Black Widows may increase the short-term psychological impact of a suicide attack, it doesn't appear to have had a long-term effect on the resilience of the Russian people. In fact, the more that female bombers are used, the less of an impact they have. Should a suicide attack be carried out against a Russian city tomorrow then it's almost expected that the perpetrators will be female.

It's clear that a number of cultural factors are at play when a Dagestani woman volunteers for such an operation, but there is a lesson that can be taken from the use of female suicide bombers: its psychological impact is directly related to the number of times it's used. As a result, Muscovites now appear more hardened to the tactic than they were at the beginning of the decade.

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