'Black widows' caught up in web of Chechen war

Los Angeles Times/February 7, 2004
By Kim Murphy

Grozny, Russia -- Medna Bayrakova remembers the day a middle-age 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. Some witnesses said the bomb that exploded yesterday in the Moscow subway was carried by a woman, but officials did not confirm that information.

Nearly 150 people have died since last summer in black-widow attacks - so named in the Russian media because many of the female perpetrators have lost husbands, brothers and fathers in the war in Chechnya.

A nationwide alert has been issued for the mysterious, dark-eyed, middle-age woman with a hooked nose and dark hair popularly known as "Black Fatima," who has been identified as a recruiter for the women. She reportedly has been seen lurking on the edges of terrorist bombings during a decade of tensions between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Chechen terrorists have attacked rock concerts, subway stations and commuter trains full of students. At the National Hotel, horrified witnesses described seeing severed heads and limbs strewn on the sidewalk. Others waited in fear for the next strike.

"We were immediately told on the radio that we should stand here and watch very, very carefully over the people who come here, because there was information that there are three other suicide bombers," Yevgeny Petrov, 23, a security guard, said as he anxiously watched passers-by Dec. 9 at a Moscow shopping center across the street from the National Hotel, where seven people had died in a suicide bombing by a woman that morning.

"So I am standing here breaking my eyes over everybody who comes in here," he said. "They told us they are women, and they will be constantly talking on the phone, as if somebody is hypnotizing them. Or we should look people in the eye, because their eyes will be weird, as if they are drugged."

"It's very scary. How can you uncover a terrorist if she looks like everybody else?"

After the hotel bombing, a composite drawing was distributed, purported to be a likeness of Black Fatima. By then, everyone in Moscow knew who she was, mostly thanks to Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, 23, a would-be black widow who last July set out to blow herself up at a restaurant on Moscow's Tverskaya Street.

Muzhikhoyeva was stopped by security guards, but her bomb later detonated accidentally and killed a Russian policeman trying to defuse it.

Muzhikhoyeva, whose husband was killed fighting the war while she was pregnant with their daughter, told her interrogators that she had been "a virtual slave" to rebels who convinced her that it was her religious duty to go to Moscow and detonate a bomb.

Investigators told the Moscow paper Kommersant that a woman Muzhikhoyeva knew as Lyuba Black Fatima took her to a house near Moscow and visited her frequently during the next week. She told police that Lyuba often gave her orange juice that made her dizzy and gave her a headache.

On the last day, she said, Lyuba gave her more juice, handed her a rucksack containing a bomb and showed her how to set it off.

In a jailhouse interview published recently in the newspaper Izvestia, Muzhikhoyeva said two Chechen men prepared her for the task and dropped her off near the cafe. After being confronted by three men, she said, she went back on the street.

She said she had already decided not to pull the switch but feared that her trainers would set it off by remote control. "I was walking along, waiting for death," she said.

Finally, a police officer approached and ordered her to drop her bag.

"I carried out the command and stepped away from this terrible bag," she said.

Alexei Zakharov, who heads Moscow's Research and Applied Science Center and specializes in the psychology of extreme situations, has interviewed would-be black widows in Russian custody and said many have reported having been drugged. All, he said, demonstrated signs of mental trauma.

The fact that they often are actual widows is telling, he said, because of a sense that they have become a burden on their husbands' families.

Zakharov says he has seen evidence of brainwashing techniques, in which religious phrases in Arabic are recited repeatedly. "They're gathered in large auditoriums, and they repeat a combination of sounds whose meaning they have no idea of. At the same time, they're making very rhythmic body motions. That, in fact, is one of the simplest and most primitive entrancing technologies."

But not all the female bombers are widows or have been coerced.

Also killed in the Dubrovka Theater siege were Fatima and Khadzhad Ganiyev, who died with unused explosives belts strapped around their waists.

A few days after the Dubrovka standoff, the Ganiyev family says, Russian troops arrived in their western Chechnya village of Asinovskaya and without so much as a knock on the door, blew up their house.

Sulumbek Ganiyev, a former builder, says he is alive today only because he and his wife were watching television next door.

"We are not to blame. Before the war, all the children were at home. The Russians took them away from us," Ganiyev said recently.

He said the family's first encounter with Russian troops was in October 1999, not long after the beginning of the second war, when soldiers entered the village and shot the Ganiyevs' five cows, tied two of the carcasses to their vehicle and left.

In July 2000, he said, troops entered their home at gunpoint, stole their videocassette recorder, lambs and chickens, and threw a grenade into the cellar where goods for the winter were stored.

Not long after, two sons, Rustam and Hussein, began fighting for the rebels. Russian soldiers came to the door in June 2002 and grabbed son Tarkhan, then 21, and daughters Fatima, 23, and Raisa, 17. Ganiyev remembers daughter Khadzhad, 14, shouting defiantly, as her three siblings are being led away: "Are you really brave, when you take away girls?"

For three agonizing days, the family knew nothing. Finally, Ganiyev said, he was able to negotiate a $1,000 ransom for his children's release. But when they came home, he says, they were different.

"After that, the girls understood that they will never be in peace," he said.

"They were very angry," added his wife, Lyuba. "Otherwise, could you expect them to go to Moscow and take this death?"

"They tortured the girls with electric current," Ganiyev said. "They put a metal spiral on their fingers and attached it to a current source, and they shocked them until they passed out."

Lyuba Ganiyev tried to explain what drove Fatima, a law student, and Khadzhad, who had hoped to become a gynecologist, to join the terrorists in Moscow - and Raisa, who eventually turned herself in to Russian authorities, to nearly follow them.

"After they beat them for three days, they had had enough. They came back and said, 'We are now in shame. They held us for three days. We can't live like this anymore.' It's not that they were crying. We never saw them crying. They were just sitting down, depressed."

On Sept. 29, 2002, Fatima and Khadzhad left home, saying they were going to Dagestan to see their nephew. They never returned. Their parents next saw them a month later in television footage of the Dubrovka siege.

"They didn't tell us," Ganiyev said. "If we had known, we wouldn't have let them. I would have broken their legs to stop them."

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