Sochi Suicide Bomber Threat: Why Terrorists Use Women
Russian security forces
Ruzanna Ibragimova, "Salima," in a handout by Russian security forces.
She goes by the name of "Salima" and has a big red scar on her left cheek. This 23-year-old from the Dagestan province of Russia -- whose husband was killed by Russian security forces last year -- is now considered a serious threat to bombing the Sochi Winter Olympic games that begin in two weeks.
Rosana Ibragimova is one of the so-called "Black Widows," women recruited by Islamic separatists groups in the conflict-ridden provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan that have been committing suicide attacks since 2000.
But why do such groups use women? Terrorism experts say they have a huge advantage over men when it comes to infiltrating security checkpoints.
"They can carry things internally and most security people aren't going to inspect your breasts," said Anne Speckhard, author of "Talking to Terrorists," a study of suicide bombers, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
"Most male checkpoint people would be tough with men, but not comfortable putting their hands everywhere on a woman. Plus, women are good at distracting men with conversation and other ways."
Speckhard noted that suicide bombers have also bribed their way past security checkpoints, something that could occur in the city of Sochi -- although perhaps not at the Olympic venues, which are more tightly controlled by elite level forces.
Since the Chechnya independence movement began using suicide bombers in the early 2000s, more than half have been women. Women were involved at the takeover of a Moscow theater in 2002, at the Beslan school takeover in 2004, and more recently at two separate attacks in Volgograd in December that killed 34 people.
On Monday, Russia announced it was looking for four potential female suicide bombers, one of whom was already in Sochi. Last year, when Russian security forces began a more stringent search of women suspects, it backfired, according to Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and author of "Bombshell: Women in Terrorism."
She noted that after the Russian parliament passed a law allowing women wearing traditional clothing to be strip-searched, many Islamic communities have became upset as a result.
"When you use women, it's a win-win proposition," Bloom said. "It's a great way to sneak in weapons or bombs, and if they are searched, it outrages the population."
Site of 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where security is expected to be tight.DigitalGlobe via Facebook
Bloom noted that Russian security forces have often taken liberties with strip searches, and there have been reports of sexual misconduct.
"That has fed into the propaganda used by the terrorist groups, there's this perception that the Russians will rape the women," Bloom said.
In researching her book, Bloom found that many of the Chechen women suicide bombers had family members that were part of the separatist groups. While some early bombers were motivated by revenge, others joined because their brothers, husbands or fathers had done the same thing.
By using family members, the terrorist groups are assured that the bomber won't back out at the last moment, something that would cause them to lose face with the rest of their committed family members.
The attacks are meant to embarrass Russian president Vladimir Putin, and put fear into the lives of ordinary Russians. Already, some countries are rethinking the size of their Olympic delegations, although none have canceled so far.
One security expert says that even with the announcement of the female suicide bomber may already be in Sochi, he expects the Olympics should be trouble-free because of the 60,000 or more forces on the ground.
"There is a lot of international cooperation, they were clever enough to invite Western counterparts," said Manos Karagiannis, professor of defense studies at King's College London. "I think they have publicized pictures and the story about the Chechen women so they make sure the world knows and they won’t take the whole blame for it."