What motivates women to commit acts of terror?

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. It's still unclear who was behind the two recent suicide bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd, but Russian officials have suggested that sunday's suicide bomber was a woman and there's some indication that the attacks have to do with the long-simmering ethnic conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. In that conflict, it isn't rare to find women deployed as suicide bombers. They even have a name: "black widows." Mia Bloom is the author of "Bombshell: Women in Terrorism."

Mia Bloom: The women became involved in many of the same ways that men did. Starting in 1991 when Chechen tried to gain independence as most of the former Soviet Union Republics were breaking apart. What started as largely what we would consider to be a secular ethnic independence movement was really just taken over by Islamists.

Hills: But what about women? How did they get involved? How did they start to be used as what are called "black widows" in terms of directly in the conflict?

Bloom: Starting in about June 2000 we saw the very first female suicide bomber, and this particular bomber - a very, very personal reason. Her name was Khava Barayeva. What she did was she went after the Russian military general who had her husband killed. She killed him in a suicide bombing. I think that this is where the term was coined, the "black widow." When you look at the 50 women who have been suicide bombers in the last 13 years, not all of them have been widows, not all of them have been married. I think it was one way in which the Russians were able to downgrade the conflict and undermine the political aspect of it by making it appear that it was purely this visceral reaction by women who were mourning to lash out, when in fact many of the women might have been individually motivated because they lost a loved one, but there was a whole political organization behind it with goals, with fundraising - everything associated with a political movement.

Hills: But in the case of that first so-called "black widow", was it her idea? Did she just go off and kill this Russian person or was she encouraged and recruited to do this?

Bloom: I think she was affiliated with the organization at the time, the Chechen Independence Movement, but I think a lot of it was individual motivation. That's why she sought not just any Russian, but the Russian who was responsible for her husband's death. That has transformed. Now it's far less specific. With the Chechens go after Russians, they will sometimes make a deliberate choice, whether they're going after civilians or they're going after military personnel. As we've seen the shift toward increasing the numbers of civilian casualties, that's where we see a lot more women, because the women blend in with a civilian population very well. I think that in part may also reflect why we've seen the increase in the number of women used, as well as the fact that it's been more difficult for male Chechens to pass through checkpoints and get to Moscow or get to Volgograd or wherever they're going. What we're seeing with women, however, is the combination between individual motivation and levels of coercion. The Russians really capitalize on the propaganda value of portraying Chechen women as being wholly victimized and instruments, that they have no decision making on their own, when in fact when you talk to women who are involved with terrorist movements, that couldn't be further from the truth.

Hills: Have you talked to women who are directly involved in terrorist movements?

Bloom: Yes, for my book I interviewed women around the world.

Hills: Did you interview any women from Chechnya and Dagestan?

Bloom: I spoke to women from Chechnya and Dagestan who were in the Diaspora.

Hills: In your conversations, what did they say are the motivations?

Bloom: For them, the motivations for women are not necessarily different than the motivations for men. It's really about getting the Russians out. What makes the women's complaints "unique" is the way in which Russian security forces have targeted women in a way that we don't see anywhere else in the world, where the Duma has passed a law that Russian security forces and police are allowed to strip search any women who are wearing traditional clothing, like the veil, and so that has really put women under the microscope - Chechen and Dagestani women - and so they feel that they are being targeted. There's also been lots of reports by memorial and the human rights organizations that Russian soldiers, while in Chechnya and Dagestan, have really taken liberties with young women. Women have reported being sexually abused or go missing for weeks at a time, and then the Russian soldiers will sell them back to their families. I think the women are motivated not just because they've lost a loved one, but that they feel that Russians have really gone after them in a very particular way.

Hills: You mentioned that there's so much more media focus and questioning when it's a women - that's in part because of the overwhelming number of crimes and acts of violence are committed by men, isn't it?

Bloom: There is still a perception that women are the peacemakers and are the softer, kinder sex, and I think that having spent the last few years either speaking with women who are in terrorist movements or failed suicide bombers, that ultimately I haven't seen evidence that consistently across the world women are by nature going to be inherently more peaceful. In fact, if you look at Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi and Maggie Thatcher - those might have been three of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the 20th century.

Hills: But I'm not talking about peaceful but simply not committing acts of violence. Those distinctions. I think statistically it's overwhelming that men commit more crimes and acts of violence.

Bloom: Men do, especially in Western studies. I think that if you go into conflict zones you'll see women participating in violence in the Rwanda, in the Trials at the ICTR, lots of women have been tried with crimes of genocide, which again, is really hard for people to fathom - that women were participating in the genocide. As well as in the Sierra Leone, as well as in the DRC. There are women battle units in each of these civil wars, and in each of the terrorist movements that I've looked at, whether it was the provisional IRA, or the Emirates and ?? movement in Chechnya, or Hamas in Islamic jihad, women have played some very key roles. In fact, in shouldn't even be surprising to us, because when you go back to the 60's and 70's, women were involved in all of the European terrorist movements. Baader-Meinhof was named partly after Ulrike Meinhof, so the idea that women don't engage in violence I think is one of the things that the terrorist groups hope that we continue to believe so that it does have that shock value when a woman does participate.

Hills: Mia Bloom is the author of "Bombshell: Women in Terrorism" and she also teaches at University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Thanks so much.

Bloom: Thank you so much for having me.