Volgograd Terrorist Attack's Suspected 'Black Widow' and the Rise of Female Suicide Bombers

Officials are still scrambling to piece together the events from Volgograd's two deadly bombings on Sunday. At around 1 p.m. Russian time, a suicide bomber set off a bomb at Volgograd's train station, killing at least 17, and wounding many others. Less than 24 hours later, an explosion ripped through a trolley in Volgograd, claiming at least 14 lives. But what makes the first attack especially unusual? It may have been perpetuated by a woman named Oksana Aslanova.

Aslanova, who was in her early 20s, already lost two husbands — both known radicals — in militant attacks. She had kept a low profile since 2012, when she could've underwent training, Voice of Russia speculates. In October, another female suicide bomber set off an explosive vest while on a bus in Volgograd, killing six others.

“The use of female suicide bombers is a classic Chechen tactic, which is increasingly popular with other jihadist groups,” says former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institute.

If a woman is sexually assaulted or raped during a war, she may believe the only way to redeem her honor is by sacrificing herself. As husbands or son die during wartime, terrorist groups may offer uneducated and poverty-stricken women the promise that their families will be provided for in return for their lives. If a woman sacrifices herself, she may be exacting revenge or believe that she will finally be viewed as a equal in male-dominated societies.

No specific group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet. But many are pointing fingers at Chechan rebel leader Doku Umarov, who called upon Islamist militants to target the February Olympic Games in Sochi, which is located about 250 miles from Chechnya and Dagestan in the North Caucasus region. Umarov upholds any violence due to religious reasoning:

“They are planning to hold the games on the bones of many, many Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. It is incumbent on us as Muslims not to permit that, resorting to any methods Allah allows us.”

The so-called "black widows" of Chechnya are far from a new phenomenon. Since 2000, these women, called Shahidka, have carried out half of all suicide attacks in Russia. In 2010, "black widows" were responsible for two subway bombings in Moscow that killed 37 people. Since the war in Chechnya erupted in 1994, scores of young, black-clad women have volunteered to avenge the deaths of their sons or husbands. They've targeted Russian commuters trains, schools, and theaters. The conflict region of Dagestan most recently appeared on people's radars as the area where suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was radicalized before spreading his ideas to his brother, Dzhokhar.

Other terrorist organizations have been able to attract women to join their forces. The most high-profile case of the year involves Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the "White Widow," a British national linked to a mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, which left 72 dead. Investigators believe Lewthwaite, who is connected to the terrorist group Al Shabaab (and is also the mother of four kids) is on the run in either Kenya or Somalia.

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Al-Qaeda is also known for recruiting female suicide bombers during the Iraq War because they are less likely to be subjected to full body searches — and garner more media attention. From 2003-2008, an estimated 50 women died as suicide bombers in the country. In February 2008, al Qaeda reportedly used two mentally-impaired women to kill 73 people in a Baghdad bombing.

About 76 percent of Kurdistan's PKK suicide attackers are female, and a female Tamil Tiger was responsible for the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The first known female suicide attacker was Sana'a Youcef Mehaidli, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. In April 1985, she killed two Israeli soldiers by driving a truck filled with explosives into an Israeli Defense Force convoy.

So why do women sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers?

There are probably a wide variety of reasons, but a few stand out, according to the Center for American Progress. If a woman is sexually assaulted or raped during a war, she may believe the only way to redeem her honor is by sacrificing herself. As husbands or son die during wartime, terrorist groups may offer uneducated and poverty-stricken women the promise that their families will be provided for in return for their lives. If a woman sacrifices herself, she may be exacting revenge or believe that she will finally be viewed as a equal in male-dominated societies.

As Courtney E. Martin writes on The Huffington Post, male suicide bombers have become the norm, but when the West sees a female as an agent of terrorism, we become more perplexed and alert:

It is easier not to acknowledge women's agency. ... Our media, the public at large, is so uncomfortable with the idea of female suicide bombers because it awakens some sense of responsibility within ourselves. When those we have stereotyped as tender, introspective, sensitive resort to reckless violence and destruction, we are forced to put a face on the violence. Suddenly, dead Iraqis lying in the street are not just casualties, their murderers are not just terrorists, but flesh-and-blood women — your little sister, your niece, your daughter.