2014 Olympics Terror Threat: The Hunt for Black Widows

Last December, 3 bombings in the Russian cities of Volgograd and Pyatigorsk killed over 30 people, igniting fears of potential terrorist attacks at the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. Currently, the Russian government is searching for at least three women suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Sochi and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Russian officials believe that one potential female suicide bomber, Ruzana Ibragimova, may already be in Sochi; officials consider her to be “black widow,” as her husband died at the hands of Russian security forces last year. Officials have begun handing out fliers at hotels in and around Sochi to urge guests to be on the lookout for Ms. Ibragimova, as well as the two other black widows, Jhannet Tsakhaeva and Oksana Aslanova. The United States Government has offered to provide additional security assistance at the Games, if requested by the Russian Government.

Q1: What is a “black widow”, and why are Russian security services concerned about them?

A1: Women represent over 40 percent of suicide bombers in Russia, and over 90 percent of them hail from the country’s North Caucasus region. Female terrorists from that region, including Chechnya and Dagestan, have reportedly carried out suicide bombings in Russia since 2000. Most of these women have lost husbands or male relatives who died fighting Russian forces, earning them the nickname “black widows.”

Some experts believe that these women are especially vulnerable to recruitment by militants for two main reasons. First, the violent loss of their loved ones may lead to a desire for revenge, making them relatively easy to convince to carry out terrorist attacks. The fact that Russian security officials threaten these widows after the death of their husbands may compound this desire. Second, militants reportedly recruit some women, including individuals who have not lost loved ones, because they are perceived as emotionally vulnerable and thus easy prey for militants.

The first reported suicide bombing by black widows occurred on June 7, 2000, when two Chechen women used a truck bomb to strike a building used by Russian special forces. Black widows were also responsible for the 2004 bombing of two Russian airliners and the 2010 bombing of the Moscow subway, which killed 90 and 40 people respectively. In total, reports indicate that 47 women have carried out 27 suicide bombings in Russia over the past 14 years, killing over 400 people.

These women have actually achieved greater success in the number of people killed per attack than male suicide bombers, likely due, in part, to their ability to evade suspicion. While Russian security services are attempting to raise awareness of the black widow threat by distributing flyers showing pictures of the women and indicating that they may wear non-religious clothing, the effectiveness of this tactic remains to be seen.

Q2: What threat might black widows pose to the Olympics?

A2: The Olympics is an important, high profile event for Russia, intended to bolster the country’s image and reputation. As such, many worry that a successful terrorist attack during the Games would be devastating for the international perception of Russia and its stability. Last summer, the leader of the Chechen separatist movement, Doku Umarov, called for attacks against the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as retribution for the deaths of thousands of Muslims in the Caucasus region.

 In addition, in a video released on January 19, 2014, individuals claiming responsibility for the December bombings in Volgograd threatened a “surprise” for Russia and the Olympics.

These threats, along with the belief that at least one of these black widows is already in Sochi, have heightened fears that planned terrorist attacks will occur at the Olympics.  The Russian government has already implemented a so-called “ring of steel” – a 1,500 square mile zone around Sochi with over 40,000 security personnel, drones, patrol boats, and detection equipment – in an effort to prevent potential terrorist attacks. 

However, some U.S. officials believe that the concentration of security assets in Sochi will leave other parts of Russia more vulnerable to attack. Therefore, terrorist rhetoric centered on the Olympics may in fact be a “red herring,” intended to facilitate strikes on transportation systems or other targets outside of the security zone. Ultimately, while the possibility of a strike on the Olympics themselves is worrisome, the hunt for black widows may only serve as a distraction, drawing attention away from threats elsewhere in Russia.

Q3: How might the United States work with Russia to prevent potential attacks and protect attendees during the Olympics?

A3: To bolster the defenses at the Games, the United States and Russia are currently discussing the use of American electronic equipment with the capability of disrupting cellphone and radio signals used to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However, as the United States has experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, this equipment’s effectiveness is not universal, and may offer limited protection against certain types of threats. Other challenges include questionable compatibility of Russian security systems with the technology and assigning command and control of the U.S. equipment once in place. These challenges are compounded by Russia’s long-standing reluctance to cooperate and share intelligence with the United States.

Additionally, the United States military has indicated that “air and naval assets, to include two Navy ships in the Black Sea, will be available if requested for all manner of contingencies in support of — and in consultation with — the Russian government.” In particular, the United States is likely preparing for the potential evacuation of thousands of American citizens in the event of a terrorist attack. In addition, the U.S. has C-17 transport planes based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and special operations and crisis-response units stationed throughout in Europe. However, direct U.S. military involvement in Russia itself would require a request for assistance from the Russian Government, and U.S. military officials do not believe President Putin will make such a request. Ultimately, while the United States may be willing and able to provide some level of security assistance for the Games, much depends on Russia’s willingness to cooperate for the safety and security of all in attendance.

Garrett Riba is a research intern with the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and a Master’s Candidate in Security Policy Studies at The George Washington University. Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Stephanie Sanok Kostro and Garrett Riba