11 Insane Facts About The “Black Widows,” The All-Women Bomber Squad Bent On Destroying Russia

Since 2000, a group of women known as the Chechen Black Widows has carried out dozens of deadly and destructive attacks against Russia, including playing a role in the Nord Ost hostage siege of 2002. Also known as the Shahidka Black Widows, these women are marginalized, painted as women avenging their husbands or as zealous religious Brides of Allah by the propaganda depicting them in the Russian media and by Russian officials.

These Islamic female terrorists have become increasingly radicalized in action and presentation, evoking fear throughout Russia. Chechen Black Widows are women who both actively and passively participate in the effort to free Chechnya from Russian control, a protracted, complicated, and tense effort that has been happening in spurts since the 18th century. 

The realities of the Chechen Black Widows, what drives them, and why they continue to act add insight into how far they will go to protect their homeland, their families, and their beliefs.

  • During The First Russian-Chechen War, Women Came Together To End It

    During the First Chechen War, fought between 1994-1996, both Russian and Chechen women worked to bring an end to the conflict. They pointed out how many innocent victims were losing their lives as a result of military action. Human rights violations against Chechen women by Russians were particularly prevalent, as well. There were many rapes, unjustified detentions, torture, and arbitrary executions. Outcry against these behaviors reflected how the Russian population, especially women, turned against the war.  

  • Things Changed During The Second Chechen War, When The First Female Suicide Bomber Completed Her Mission
    Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Things Changed During The Second Chechen War, When The First Female Suicide Bomber Completed Her Mission

    During the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999, the actions of Chechen women scared the Russian officials and population alike: the first recorded female Chechen suicide bomber completed her mission on June 7, 2000

    As a result, Russia began vilifying Chechen women, especially those who fought back in any way. Russian propaganda campaigns against Chechen women were key to maintaining popular support of the war on the Russian homefront. Chechen women became associated with Palestinian terrorists and global terrorism – and they were given a name meant to demonize and minimize any possible justification for their actions. Like the black widow spider, their violence was gendered and rendered indefensible.

  • The Black Widows Got Their Name From Their Russian Enemies
    Photo: Dope on the Slope / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The Black Widows Got Their Name From Their Russian Enemies

    Chechen female terrorists earned their name due to the number of widows taking part in bombing, killing, and destruction during the war between Chechnya and Russia. The name intentionally places women in a subservient role; in this nominal framework, they're motivated by the need to avenge men rather than possessing political opinions of their own.

    The association with a black widow spider is not accidental either. As the deadliest spider in North America, the female black widow's bites are deadly, and their behavior is decidedly non-feminine. Giving the female bombers a name that indicates a lack of femininity takes away sympathy for them, their behavior, and gives Russia the upper hand in the media – and actual – war against Chechen rebels. 

  • There Is No One, Single Motivation Driving The Black Widows

    The motivations of the Black Widows are far more complex than any name indicates. Many of the female bombers are, in fact, widows who have outlived the men in their lives, just like a black widow spider, but they also have Islamic and political beliefs driving them to act.

    The Chechen female bombers themselves could be seeking martyrdom; they may be looking to act out against the government; they may be looking to protect the children of Chechnya; or they may be avenging the death of a father, husband, or son.

    Or, any and all of the above.

  • The First Black Widow Attack Took Place in 2000

    On June 7, 2000, Khava Barayeva and Luiza Magomedova drove a truck full of explosives into a Russian Special Forces building at Alkhan-Yurt, Chechnya. Russia claimed that there were only two casualties after the attack, but Chechen rebels asserted they killed a couple of dozen people.

    At the time, Barayeva and Magomedova were each just 17 years old. Barayev made a video before carrying out her bombing. In it, she asserted her defense of Chechnya but also urged Chechen men to "not take the woman’s role by staying at home." 

    Barayeva was born into the Islamic movement against Russia, but she was the first suicide bomber in Chechnya. Her uncle was Arbi Barayev, a Chechen warlord who had been killed in 1999, and her brother was Movsar Barayeva, a Chechen commando and the future leader of the Nord Ost Siege in 2002. 

  • In 2001, Elza Gazuyeva Walked Up To The Man Who Killed Her Husband And Blew Herself – And Him – Up

    In November 2001, 23-year-old Elza Gazuyeva put explosives in her pockets and set out to meet General Gaidar Gadzhiyev. Gadzhiyev was Urus-Martan regional commander, the area just south of the Chechen capital city of Grozny. Gadzhiyev had forced Gazuyeva to watch as he tortured and murdered her husband. Overall, Gazuyeva lost 16 family members in the wars between Chechnya and Russia.

    Reports of the event indicate that Gazuyeva found Gadzhiyev and came face to face with him, asking "do you still remember me?" She then set off her explosives, killing herself, Gadzhiyev, and his bodyguards.