They were two Chechen “Black Widows” with dark hair, Caucasus features, not older than 25. They were trained by al-Qaeda Arabs, led by Abu Hanifah, in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, alongside a bunch of Chechens and Uzbeks who came from Turkey – all part of a long-range al-Qaeda plan to wreak permanent havoc across Central Asia and the Caucasus.
They crossed from the Pakistani tribal areas to Balochistan, and then to Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran – profiting from a deal between al-Qaeda and the anti-Tehran Sunni group Jundallah. From Iran it was easy to cross to Azerbaijan – already in the Caucasus – and then to southern Russia. On Monday, silently, anonymously and out of the blue, the two Chechen Black Widows turned into suicide bombers and became shahidas (“martyrs”) in the Moscow subway, killing 39 people and wounding 64.
There’s only one problem with this thrilling, Bourne conspiracy-worthy plot straight out of a Robert Ludlum thriller. The Moscow-AfPak connection doesn’t make sense.
I make the bomb, you blow up
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri may well have drawn a complex road map to take over Central Asia/Caucasus, using Chechnya to bring the fight also to Russia. But radical Islam does not necessarily embrace shahidas. In 2008, al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, tacitly stated women should not join jihad action. In 2009, his wife, Oumayna al-Zawahiri, in a letter to her “Muslim sisters”, explained that if they did they should necessarily be assisting “a male companion”.
The “male companion” clue is corroborated by Moscow subway security cameras – they have identified a man suspected of being involved in the suicide bombings. If the Black Widows were not trained in AfPak, they obviously had to be trained by Chechens. And that would have been the work of charismatic master ideologue, Said Buryatsky, born Alexander Tikhomirov.
Buryatsky was killed by a Federal Security Service (FSB – the former KGB) commando in the Republic of Ingushetia on March 2. So the suicide bombings could have been an act of revenge. Buryatsky was the number two to notorious Doku Umarov, who has tens of thousands of supporters and wants to reign over a still-to-be-born trans-North Caucasus emirate. Last year, Moscow solemnly declared the end of counter-terrorism in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous region in the Russian Federation, and proclaimed victory. All the rebel Chechen jihadis seemed to be six feet under.
Not so fast. Last month, Umarov warned all Russians on video that “this war will return to their homes”. It did – in central Moscow. And returned not only to homes, but boldly enough, to the Lubyanka metro station – which sits right below FSB headquarters.
For the Kremlin and the FSB, Buryatsky was the mastermind of the bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St Petersburg that killed 26 and wounded 100 in November 2009; and the suicide bombing that almost killed Ingushetia’s president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, in June 2009. He may have trained 30 suicide bombers. Nine already died. The FSB is frantically searching for the remaining 21, who are believed to be in Russia, and perhaps Moscow itself.
The shahidas‘ shadow play
The first Chechen “Black Widow” was Luiza Gazuyeva, who killed a Russian general in November 2001 because she believed he was responsible for killing her husband. Still in late 2001, a notorious Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, set up a battalion of shahidas called Riyadus Salihin, with both men and women. Black Widows carried a string of attacks up to 2004. Basayev was killed by the FSB in July 2006.
Alix de la Grange is a Swiss specialist on Chechnya, with countless trips to the line of fire and interviews with Chechen women. She says that if Black Widows were indeed the Moscow suicide bombers, they “were certainly drugged and manipulated by a fanatic. Black Widows are usually young and dejected, they had their husband or family killed, and they have nothing to lose. For Islamists, it’s so easy to use them as cannon fodder. That was already the case in 2002 during the hostage drama in Moscow at the Dubrovka theater; the Black Widows were not privy to most of the plan.”
As for the Moscow bombs, they may have been detonated by remote control by a “male companion”. But de la Grange is sure nobody was trained in Pakistan. “They don’t need to go there, they have everything they need where they are. And traveling for Chechens is very difficult, they are extremely controlled at all borders.”
What de la Grange says widely corroborates the study Les Fiancees d’Allah, published in 2005 by journalist Julija Jusik, and based on interviews with families of female suicide bombers: a Black Widow is basically moved by despair, not by crazy adoration of Allah. Jusik also tacitly stated that Chechen men never become suicide bombers. They have used women right from the start of their bombing campaign in 2001. The explosives they use must be fabricated, transported and detonated; they take care of it. They drug the Black Widows. And then detonate their payload by remote control.
That’s a key difference between Chechnya and both Palestine and Iraq. No less than 16 aspiring shahidas were arrested in Diyala province in Iraq in 2008; many of their deceased male family members were also suicide bombers. And five years before Jihad Jane in the US, Muriel, a white woman from Belgium, also decided out of despair to become a suicide bomber in Baquba.
The first female suicide bombing is believed to have happened in 1985. It had nothing to do with radical Islam. In countless cases, female suicide bombers are secular – as with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist outfit, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkish Kurdistan. The first shahida was a Palestinian, in Jerusalem, in 1995. She was also moved by despair, not Allah.
The hidden hand of Moscow
So Moscow did not have an AfPak connection, even though al-Qaeda’s game was (is) to establish an Islamic emirate of Khurasan (as in the Iranian province, west of Mashhad) which would unite, once again, Central Asia, eastern Iran, most of Afghanistan, and north and western Pakistan.
The FSB – without mentioning al-Qaeda – instantly blamed the North Caucasus jihadis who want to establish a trans-Caucasus emirate. Few seized on the fact the Moscow subway users are so attentive to the profile of “terrorists from the Caucasus” that the two Black Widows must have been decked out in full Dolce & Gabbana not to arouse any suspicion.
But there’s a more disturbing possibility. What if this was a false flag operation carefully orchestrated by the FSB itself?
De la Grange pulls no punches; “In 2002, at the Dubrovka theater, it was proved that with all the controls in Moscow at the time, it was perfectly impossible for a commando of 41 Chechens carrying an arsenal of weapons and explosives to calmly cross the whole city by car without the complicity of the police and the FSB.”
Not by accident, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is using almost the same words as when elected president in March 2000: “The Chechens, we will throw them down the toilet”. He has just ordered his intelligence services to “sweep the sewers” to find the terrorists. The best and the brightest Russian political scientists seem to agree that the suicide bombings will help Putin to turbo-charge repression all across the Caucasus, not only in Chechnya but also in Ingushetia and Dagestan.
The issue is becoming pressing: On Wednesday, at least nine people, including a regional police official, were killed by two bombs in the restive republic of Dagestan. The BBC reported that a car bomb went off outside the offices of the local Interior Ministry and the FSB security agency in the town of Kizlyar. This was followed by a second bomb soon after in the same street.
For de la Grange, “He [Putin] has two years ahead of him to show off as the country’s strongman, the one who will save the population from terrorism – a sine qua non condition to reclaim his position as president. So the attacks could have been orchestrated, or facilitated, by the FSB and Putin himself. There have been troubled alliances before between Chechen rebels, Islamists and the FSB. Anyway we look at it, the crime in Moscow profits most of all Putin and the FSB.”
So did the Black Widows end up working for Russian intelligence? And what if these Black Widows were nothing but … ghosts?