Russia's New Black Widows

The deadly and mysterious new breed of female suicide bomber.

MOSCOWOn Monday afternoon, a young woman with a green headscarf walked onto a public bus in the Russian city of Volgograd, went to the back, and sat down on the seat beside the ticket-taker. Irina Kushnir, 31, who was riding to a doctor's appointment, could not help staring at the woman. "I noticed her immediately, right when I was paying my fare," she later told reporters in the hospital. "She had a lovely green scarf around her head. She was looking out the window, acting calm, not drawing any attention to herself."

A moment later, the woman in the pretty green headscarf would fly into the air, leaving behind the bodies of six people and sending more than 30 to the hospital with ghastly wounds. The ticket-taker would end up in the emergency ward, while the suicide bomber, Naida Asiyalova, who was a few days from her 31st birthday, would die in the explosion.

Asiyalova had grown up in the mountain settlement of Gunib, in the republic of Dagestan, a part of Russia that lies on the Caspian Sea. It's a small and nondescript village, but renowned throughout the region as the sight of the last and the bloodiest battles fought by Imam Shamil, leader of the highlanders of the Caucasus Mountains during their wars against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. That was when Moscow first conquered the North Caucasus.

From the details of Asiyalova's life emerging from police statements and Russian press reports, she bought her bus ticket in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, with Moscow as her destination. But well before her final stop, she exited the bus in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) and, after a brief walk, boarded the public bus and detonated her explosives.

What's unusual about this story is that it seems to lack the biographical component that people on suicide missions usually share: the motive of revenge. Its absence seems to indicate an emerging tendency in this type of terrorism, which can no longer be defined as an act of payback for the loss of one's home, property, or dignity; it is not a radical form of patriotism. From Asiyalova's case and others, it seems that suicide bombings have simply become the most convenient way to conduct a war by terror: one explosion, many victims, and lots of attention from the media. The bombers themselves are little more than instruments, chosen for their weakness, for the ease with which they can be manipulated.

In 2004, during the deadly siege of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, one of the hostage takers equipped with a suicide vest was Malizha Mutaeva, a 30-year-old woman who had lost her family home to Russian airstrikes in the region of Chechnya, which neighbors Dagestan. Russian bombs had blown up everything she owned: her house, her family photographs. She had a grudge to bear. But Naida Asiyalova, who was the same age when she went on her suicide mission this week, had no apparent motive. She had lived and studied for years in Moscow, held down good jobs, and made ends meet in the Russian capital. Then one day she put a bomb in her purse and got on a bus. What possible logic could have driven her to do that?

Over my 10 years of research into female suicide bombers from these regions of Russia, the closest I have come to understanding how they are prepared for death was in 2010, during a trip to Chechnya. The man I met there, whom I will call Yusup, had served in the 1990s as an aide-de-camp to the field commander known as Khattab, one of the leaders of the Chechen resistance to Russian rule. (Yusup insisted I not reveal his real name, as he has links to the military intelligence services in Chechnya and could be punished for speaking to journalists.) Toward the end of that decade of war in Chechnya, Khattab, a native of Jordan, maintained a base for rebels and jihadists near the Chechen village of Serzhen-Yurt, on the territory of a former summer camp for young Communist Pioneers. It operated until 2002, continuing to train insurgents well after the end of the Second Chechen War, which re-established Russian rule over Chechnya in 2000.

Yusup told me how his Arab commander was able to prepare an entire brigade of troops who were not merely prepared for death but desired it. "Lots of different people came to this forest. Some were hyper, wanting to fight, to train, but there were always people who lacked a certain amount of attention at home, lacked love," Yusup said. "These were weak people, who just wanted to be respected and loved, and Khattab was a very good psychologist. He was able to spot such people and assign to them a particular instructor. The first thing that these people received upon entering the collective was love. They were called brothers and sisters, they were coddled, food was prepared for them, prayers were read with them, much time was spent in conversation with them. Then -- all of a sudden -- the instructor would begin asking, almost as a passing thought, whether there were strong brothers among them who would be willing to sacrifice themselves for Allah and for the sake of the common goal. And many among the weak wanted to become strong."

Yusup explained how at their base even the most pathetic felt powerful, a feeling they had seldom felt among their domineering elders and siblings back home. It was that feeling of empowerment which drew them back into the forest like a magnet. "If a terrorist attack is being prepared and the person carrying it out begins to feel fear or doubt, he would not be forced into it," said Yusup. "If today he couldn't do it, another brother or sister would go, while he would continue receiving love and affection until it became more terrible for him to be thrown out of this community, to lose its respect and love, than to die. Through death, you would become a hero; through escape -- a traitor and a coward. And in any case, everyone understood that you would never be forgiven if you wanted to abandon the community."

From the rough details that have emerged this week, Naida Asiyalova appears to have been one of these lonely young castaways. Having been raised mostly by her grandmother, she left her home village in Dagestan early in life to go to Moscow. She studied and worked there, often moving around, and in 2010, she began living with a Russian man, Dmitri Sokolov, almost 10 years younger than she. They had met that year at their university in Moscow and soon moved in together in the suburbs of the city. Naida, whose neighbors in Dagestan have told Russian media that she was not particularly devoted to Islam in her youth, was already wearing a hijab at the time she and Sokolov started living together.

Although the history of Sokolov's conversion remains unclear, as do many of the details of their relationship, Russian media have reported that Asiyalova may have introduced him to radical Islam. Citing a source in the Dagestani security services, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda also claimed that Sokolov was an experienced bomb maker with links to a terrorist cell in Dagestan. But apart from these unconfirmed reports, police have only said in official statements that Sokolov's family reported him missing last December. Less than a year later, after Asiyalova blew herself up, he was the first suspect investigators named as her accomplice. Police have since started investigating the couple's links to a terrorist cell in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.

From my research into the tactics of such groups, their suicide missions tend to be carefully supervised. The bomber typically has two or three chaperones who watch over the operation, noting the bomber's mood, at times managing it with medications, and making sure that the bomber does not stray from the agreed-upon route and remains calm and under control. The two women who bombed the Moscow subway system in 2010, for instance, were each chaperoned by two or three people, at least one of whom was also a woman. Security sources, speaking to the Russian press, have suggested that Asiyalova may have been kept in the dark about when the bomb would explode. Such tactics have also been used in past attacks.

One of the characters I profiled in my book, Brides of Allah, was a Chechen woman named Zarema Inarkaeva, who bombed a police station in the Chechen capital of Grozny in February 2002. Inarkaeva was among the lucky few who are known as "failed suicide bombers," the ones who survive their own acts of terrorism. As she told me during the many hours we spent together while she was in a witness protection program, Zarema eloped with her lover and ended up staying with a terrorist cell. She had a promiscuous sex life, as the jihadists she encountered felt it was normal to share sexual partners. They lived in a rented apartment in a fashion she described as "sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll." It had little in common with what you might expect of a fundamentalist Islamic commune.

Eventually her comrades grew tired of her company and decided to send her on her way -- with a purse full of explosives, which she was to detonate at the police station. During our interviews, Zarema said that she felt dazed in the months before that attack, and she recalled how the men she lived with would pour substances into her soft drinks without even trying to hide it. She began having mood swings, which ranged from depression to giddy euphoria. And then, on the morning of Feb. 5, 2002, she was dropped off at the police station with a purse and told to deliver it to one of the officers.

Zarema said she did not feel she had a choice when she slavishly went into the precinct, climbed the stairs, and started asking around for that particular officer. "I remember thinking, 'Will it be now? Or maybe now?'" Tears began to fill her eyes, but even then she did not take off that damned purse, did not take off running. And then the purse exploded, having been detonated remotely. What saved Zarema was the small presence of mind that told her to at least hold the purse not pressed against her body but to carry it at arm's length. After a series of operations on her legs and hips, she survived. "I guess it was because I understood on some level why they had given me that purse."

Asiyalova was less lucky. She had no such moment of clarity. But much like Zarema, she does not fit the profile of female terrorists whom the press has dubbed "black widows." She was not bereaved over the loss of a loved one. Russia had not robbed her of her home or her chance at a decent life. Instead Asiyalova may simply have been weakened, physically and morally, by the turns her life had taken, and that weakness could have made her a useful if expendable weapon in someone else's war. As the witness to Monday's bombing recalled, the bomber stared out the window before the explosion, not drawing attention to herself, acting calm. It is as if she were oblivious, not a black widow but a blank slate.



Rising Up and Rising Down

In Syria's little town that could, the death and resurrection of the witty, profane campaign to show the world the tragedy of civil war.

KAFRANBEL, Syria — The Syrian revolution's heart -- not yet ravished by the regime or Islamist extremists -- beats on in the northern town of Kafranbel, where a group of dedicated activists has captured the world's attention through witty posters and banners that reflect the state of the revolt since spring 2011. And even as the Syrian narrative has increasingly focused on the extremists or an international plan to dismantle the Assad regime's chemical stockpiles, the artists of Kafranbel have been engaged in their own struggle -- to win back the support of residents of their own town.

The 40-year-old Raed Faris and his partner, 33-year-old Ahmad Jalal, are the creative duo behind the banners. Faris -- a tall man with a booming laugh -- writes the banners, while Jalal, quiet and shy, draws the cartoons. Together, they spend their time brainstorming, researching, and connecting with others on how to display Syria's tragedy to the world.

The banners express sophisticated geopolitical analysis in the simplest of forms. They are often inspired by iconic pop culture references: Faris and Jalal have used a Pink Floyd album cover, the Titanic movie poster, and even The Lord of the Rings to describe what is happening in Syria. No side in the crisis was spared -- not the Syrian regime and its allies, not the Western powers and the United Nations, not the exiled Syrian opposition, and not even the radical jihadists who eventually came to live among the activists.

Kafranbel's messages traveled the world. A large collection of the posters and banners was smuggled out of Syria to protect them from being destroyed, and they were displayed as exhibitions across the United States and Europe. One poignant banner -- carried in front of the White House last spring on the second anniversary of the revolution -- adapted and adopted Martin Luther King Jr.'s timeless words: "I have a dream, let freedom ring from Kafranbel."

Banners like this one -- along with the famous response to the Boston Marathon bombing -- drove home the universal and historic nature of the Syrian struggle. Kafranbel's artists consistently made these connections to show that Syria's war was not an event isolated by time or geography.

What made Kafranbel's messages unique was their relentless insistence to reach out to the world. The banners expressed empathy and solidarity: "You are not alone; we suffer with you." But another message was always embedded: "Do not leave us alone. Do not forget about us."

But the world read the banners, and did nothing. Eventually, Kafranbel -- and by extension, Syria -- were disappointed by their global audience.


Recently, Kafranbel has gone beyond banners to something more sophisticated: "The Syrian Revolution in 3 Minutes" is the latest video produced by the town's activists. It's an elaborate production set on a rocky hill. The activists are dressed up as cavemen, complete with bushy wigs and brown sacks wrapped around their waists. Each group's affiliation is marked by flags: the Syrian people, the regime, the international community, a fat Arab sheikh in a white robe, and an American in a bright red, curly wig.

A large group comes out of the cave to protest. They don't use words, but gesture angrily and lift a single banner drawn on a dirt-brown, ripped parchment. The regime cavemen attack with rifles. They set off a bomb. The people fall to the ground in a heap of dead bodies.

The Arab, the American, and the United Nations stand to the side watching, doing nothing.

The people emerge from the cave to protest once more. The regime men spray them. They are gassed. They die. The American bystander "tsks" in disapproval and takes away the bright yellow canister of chemicals from the regime cavemen.

The people emerge from the cave to protest for a final time. They yell and gesture. They are bombed again. They die. The regime men look timidly toward the three figures, who give a thumbs-up in approval, overlooking the heap of bodies. The message is clear: It's only the chemical attacks that the world cares about, not the dead Syrians.

And what exactly is on this threatening poster lifted by the protesters in Stone Age Kafranbel? It shows a drawing of a cave, its opening blocked with bars. But a single bird escapes, flying away to freedom.

Every Thursday evening in Kafranbel, the activists meet in the media center to create the banners for the Friday protest. The "ideas" headquarters is a wide balcony overlooking olive tree orchards, lined with potted plants, cushions, and a large red carpet draped across the wall like a curtain. It is a tranquil space, divorced from the war zone surrounding it. The sound of stray missiles in the distance is collectively pushed to the back of everyone's minds.

One Thursday in June, I visited the town to witness the creative process and participate in the Friday protest. Faris picked up our group from the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish border. The two-and-a-half-hour drive went by quickly: My eyes were glued to the window, watching my homeland's landscape pass by. The towns were dotted with destroyed buildings and children playing on the streets. Passing by the ghost towns along our journey, I thought about the dozens of Syrians I had met the week before in the Atmeh camp along the Syrian-Turkish border who had told me they were from these very places. Now they sleep in tents while their homes remain empty.

The main square in Kafranbel is a site of destruction, a grim and sad reminder of the regime's brutality. But unlike some of the ghost towns in the north, Kafranbel is crowded with people -- a mix of residents and displaced Syrians. A man rolled out dough for bread in a tiny space between two buildings, one of which was a hollowed-out shell filled with rubble. These scenes are the new "normal" in liberated Syria.

In the media center, small groups of people huddle together over laptops. There is a tangle of wires across the floor, as a central electrical outlet powered by a generator charges smartphones and computers. The town is disconnected from electricity for days at a time and land lines have been disconnected for months -- but here, notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp constantly chime and ring on mobile devices. Some are Googling news events for inspiration, others are researching the Sopranos logo as an idea for a poster, and still others are discussing how to criticize the Syrian National Coalition's recent elections in Istanbul.

As dusk falls, the carpet that had shielded the balcony from the sun is pulled back, the floors are cleared and cleaned, and wide reams of white fabric are rolled out. The groups outside begin to finalize the text for the Arabic and English banners. Jalal does not work with any particular group, but concentrates on listening to the discussions. He doesn't draw his cartoons here -- instead, he goes home well past midnight to draw alone. He returns on Friday mornings with his completed posters, ready to be unveiled at the protest.

Discussions revolve around frustration: frustration with the out-of-touch political opposition, frustration with local corruption, frustration that the revolution has taken so long. Activists who started with one big idea -- toppling an entrenched regime through the sheer force of the people's will -- have slowly narrowed their scope of work. The grand scheme seems to have shrunk to delivering a single food basket for a displaced family, writing an article, or drawing a banner. As both regime and extremists chipped away at the revolution's legitimacy, the activists are left alone to recapture the Syrian people's wavering faith and support.

As the calligraphy artists begin to transfer Faris's messages onto the banners, the atmosphere outside relaxes. Activists and visitors lounge on pillows on the balcony. An FSA general stops by for tea. Bowls of fruit are served. Faris plays a Fairuz song on the oud and a young Syrian-American woman sings along. A muted boom sounds in the distance. Here, despite the despair, hope still seems possible. The revolution still seems alive.


Kafranbel's first banner, raised in April 2011, declared: "Freedom arrived from the fingernails of the children of Daraa." It's a reference to the schoolboys who wrote revolutionary slogans on their school walls, igniting the regime's rage. The security forces' torture of the boys -- which included ripping their fingernails out -- sparked protests in this southern Syrian city and marked the beginning of the revolution.

Kafranbel was still occupied by the regime then, and the banners placed the activists in grave danger from security forces. At the beginning, they used to burn the banners after the protests out of fear. Sometimes, they threw them in the river.

As the popularity of Kafranbel's posters grew, so did the protests. The witty banners became the pride of the town. People emerged by the thousands to protest during the summer of 2011 and 2012. But then something changed: As the town was continuously shelled and targeted for its open dissent -- and as the revolution continued, with no end in sight -- many of the residents fled to refugee and internally displaced persons camps. The number of demonstrators dwindled as well, down to a few hundred and then a few dozen this summer.

On the Friday that I visited Kafranbel, we assembled in a narrow side street, in a few tight rows. The protest had not been announced to the town and was being held before the Friday prayers instead of afterward, which was the traditional time. We chanted for about 20 minutes. We posed for photographs with each banner. Faris documented the protest for Arabic satellite channels and social media, but the entire experience felt like an act on a stage. We were defiant and well-intentioned, but we were hiding -- not just from the regime's bombs or the extremists' watchful eyes, but from the town itself.

What we didn't know on that carefree day in June was that this would be one of the last protests in Kafranbel for some time. For six weeks this summer, Kafranbel went silent.

The people of the town had been coming to Faris for months. They begged him to stop creating the antagonistic banners and organizing the protests that had attracted international attention. They blamed the protests for the regime's air raids that were devastating the town.

This is the twisted logic that plagues people in Syria. Facing continuously escalating violence, many civilians have directed blame toward the revolution. Obviously, you can't blame the Syrian regime for being vicious and relentless -- that's just what it is, and always was. It was the revolution that should have known its limits: In many Syrians' eyes, the revolution had brought death and destruction, invited unwanted extremists, and steered the country to the point of no return. Returning to silence, they reasoned, was the way to end the nightmare that had been unleashed on their country.

Faris tried to compromise. He moved the protests to an inconspicuous side street, away from the main square. He banned children from attending the Friday protests and changed the set time of the gathering. Nothing stopped the residents' complaints. And so after a protest on July 15 that featured a banner dedicated to Trayvon Martin's family, he stopped.

"Without popular support, we can't do this anymore," Faris said. At first he was angry -- especially when the air raids did not stop. On July 27, during the holy month of Ramadan, the bombs fell at sunset while the town broke its fast. Several people were killed in the now-silent town. And still the people blamed the protests.

"While I search for your mistakes and you search for mine, while we search for someone to blame, we realize that we have lost because we no longer trust each other," Faris wrote on his Facebook page on July 31. "Our revolution needs us all. Let us search for each other, for victory is nothing but grasping each others' hands in solidarity."

After a few weeks, Faris's anger waned. The time off had given him time to reflect. He stopped focusing on what the world wanted to hear and see. Instead, he began to listen to the town, and worked on a plan to regain his lost legitimacy.

One August evening, activists set up screens, projectors, and sound systems in five different public spaces across Kafranbel. For two hours, news was broadcast on the screens -- a report from Al Jazeera, a compilation of YouTube videos, and a special local news broadcast produced by the media team. Men stopped on the street to watch. They pulled up chairs and lined the sidewalks. Some had not watched the news for months. Others had not seen the YouTube videos at all.

After two years of projecting Kafranbel to the world, Faris had brought back the world into Kafranbel.

The media team started to put together the broadcasts every day. They compiled videos of the early protests, of the banners shared around the word, and stories about Kafranbel's martyrs. Faris and his team ignored calls from journalists who asked for new banners and cartoons. They didn't even create artwork or organize a protest after the horrific Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the eastern Damascus suburbs.

After a few weeks of these outdoor events, people requested that the protests and banners return. They regained their pride in their town's defiance. And so on Aug. 30, Kafranbel reclaimed its revolutionary role.

Isolationism -- which many Syrians view as President Barack Obama's foreign policy with regards to their home country -- works both ways. Many activists inside and outside Syria realize that there is no longer a reason to convince the world to action. No one is coming to save Syria.

The collective message of Kafranbel's body of work is the opposite of isolationism. It's an awakening to the world after decades of neglect and forced isolation by the Assad regime. Sadly, Syrians have realized their costly awakening has come to an unwelcoming world.

Over the last two and a half years, Kafranbel's banners projected the same message over and over: "Listen to us. Watch us. Respond."

The message is slightly different now. Children and men alike proudly walk the streets of Kafranbel. They chant for their brave town. They are no longer hiding on side streets or standing on a stage for the world. Instead, their message is: "We are here. We are not going anywhere. Watch us if you wish."

The simple yet powerful "Stone Age Kafranbel" video is a case in point. The scene is timeless -- beyond history, geography, and language. Whether scrawled on parchment or scribbled on poster board, whether viewed on YouTube or etched onto cave walls, the call for freedom is the heart of revolution. And it now pulses through a small, once unknown Syrian town that both found and was found by its voice -- Kafranbel.