As Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body awaits a burial place and Dzhokar Tsarnaev a trial for charges of using weapons of mass destruction, the spotlight has temporarily been turned to the elder brother Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell, whose computer has been found to have al Qaeda materials downloaded to it and whose kitchen and bathroom show traces of explosive materials indicating the brothers’ bombs were likely assembled in her home. Katherine Russell, an all American girl who converted to Islam after falling in love with Tamerlan was married to him in June of 2010 and together they had a small child.
Russell claims that she knew nothing about her husband’s intentions and has, according to FBI informal reports, been working closely with them. The possibility that Russell could also be a terrorist alongside her husband raises questions for many about the involvement of the female “Black Widows” –suicide operatives in the Chechen terrorist groups that following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, hijacked that republic’s secular independence movement turning it into a Chechen “jihad”.
During the early nineties when the Chechen secular rebel movement was met with a firm Russian response culminating in the first Chechen war of independence, the Chechen freedom fighters looked to the west for support. Except for westerners decrying human rights violations, the Chechen freedom fighters didn’t find the support they hoped for. But they did find—between the two wars of independence with Russia—an influx of foreign fighters coming victorious from the Afghan jihad—militants still euphoric over defeating the former USSR. These foreign fighters were confident that they could declare and win a “jihad” in Chechnya as well.
Most notable among them was Saudi foreign fighter Khattab, who brought the nascent al Qaeda ideology along with the methods of “martyrdom” or suicide missions into the Chechen battle for independence. He successfully convinced then rebel leader Shamil Basaeyev to change methods. Khattab and other foreign fighters brought the ideology, themselves as trainers and funneled funds into the “Chechen jihad” changing it completely. And as a result starting in 2000, a long terrorist campaign grew up out of the Chechen rebel movement in which over thirty suicide missions were carried out involving over one hundred and twelve “martyrs” half of whom were women operatives who blew themselves up in subways, on airplanes, at checkpoints and most infamously who took over a Moscow theater of over eight hundred theater goers and the Beslan school, taking over twelve hundred hostages—mostly women and children.
And what was perhaps most chilling about the Chechen terrorists was that they used women from the start. The first Chechen suicide bombers were two young women who drove an explosive laden truck into their target. Half of the hostage takers in Moscow were women dressed in long black Salafi style robes with bomb belts strapped to their waists—they were seen by journalist as women in mourning clothes when in fact they were dressed in conservative Islamic dress common to their extremist groups and they were wrongly dubbed the “Black Widows”.
All the Chechen suicide bombers that we conducted psychological autopsies on (over half of the total) had lost a family member traumatically to the two wars but the women had lost not only husbands, but brothers and fathers as well—so many were widows, but some were simply traumatically bereaved and seeking revenge. For Chechens this was the first time that women had been involved in revenge seeking behaviors – a domain in Chechen culture usually reserved only for the men.
As Chechens joined the militant jihadi ideology we found that they were instructed by their Middle Eastern teachers that they should fulfill their life duties before going on suicide missions—by marrying and having children—something that Tamerlan also did. Likewise women were presented in their world view as useful for childbearing but the best “love” was presented as “brotherly” or homosexual lovemaking and women were presented as needing to be respected, but as unclean. Basaeyev as well as other terrorist leaders also chose their wives strategically from among various areas and clans so as to guarantee protection when needed from their extended families.
The Chechen case gave us one of the first insights into how women carry out their roles in militant jihadi groups. Thus far al-Qaeda central has been slow to use women—although two Belgian women were recruited into their ranks and one—a European descent white convert—Muriel Degauque carried out a suicide mission in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq also began to use female bombers toward the end when males could no longer pass the checkpoints and we have now seen them in Afghanistan as well. But unlike in Chechnya where women joined the fighters in the forest and were suicide bombers from the beginning, al Qaeda has kept women in the roles of money carriers, instigators—some in Europe even offering themselves as a prize in marriage to potential “martyrs”, as translators of militant jihadi texts into the local languages and in some rare cases even as suicide operatives and trainers. Women have yet to be fully activated in al Qaeda central.
And although women joined right from the start in the Chechen case, we did not find them in leadership roles—men still call the shots when it comes to terrorism. Indeed in the Moscow theater hostage taking the women terrorists inside the theater (mercifully) did not detonate their bombs without an order from the men who were outside the theater proper—engaged in battle with Russian Special Forces. Although the women could have blown the theater and all those held there to bits, had they felt the initiative to act on their own.
With Katherine Russell, we still wait to learn more. She was a hardworking mother supporting her family—working seventy to eighty hours a week outside her home. She may have been just like the many Palestinian family members I interviewed who were in complete shock upon learning their son or daughter had blown themselves up—and she may have failed to notice how radicalized and serious her husband had become about his extremist views. Lack of knowledge and denial of the horrific is often a common attribute among close family members of terrorists.
Her case does however bring up a chilling parallel of the 7-7 London metro bomber, Germaine Lindsay’s widow—Samantha Lewthwaite—who also claimed innocence after her husband’s terrorist act, calling it “abhorrent”. Lewthwaite, also the mother of her “martyred” husband’s two children later turned up in Kenya leading and carrying out terrorist attacks against western targets. Lewthwaite according to a UK police officer’s comments reported in the Telegraph to have written in her diary that the devoted wife of a mujahid (holy warrior) must realize that her “life in the hereafter promised to be sweeter because of her husband’s “sacrifice” and that a wife must be “discrete”, “obedient” and must understand that her husband’s calling meant that she and her husband would be cut off from their families.
Let’s hope the story of a terrorist’s wife and mother to his child doesn’t follow those same lines in the case of Katherine Russell who in any case must be suffering from a great deal of sadness and loss over her husband’s sudden heinous death. And let’s hope that al Qaeda continues to be reluctant to use women operatives as time has proven they are the best at passing security checkpoints and lulling us into a false sense of safety.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages. She also conducted psychological autopsies with a Chechen colleague on over half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers investigating what put them on the terrorist trajectory and what motivated them to explode themselves.