Much of Russia is in mourning this week. In simultaneous vigils across the country, which are commemorating the terrorist attacks that have shaken the nation in recent years, citizens are bringing flowers and paying tributes at sites made infamous by suicide bombers. In Moscow alone, there are 12 such makeshift altars—locations where terrorists blew themselves up along with dozens of innocent Muscovites.
More than 100 of those deaths in recent years have been at the hands of women. And many of those female suicide bombers hail from Dagestan, a violent region in the North Caucasus.
Before she turned herself into a bomb, Aminat Saprykina was a professional actress and dancer in Dagestan. At the peak of her theatrical career, she performed the lead role of a charming witch, Olesya, in Alexander Kuprin’s Forest Witches. Fellow actors remember her as a joyful girl and a graceful break-dancer. A video from that period of her life features the future mass murderer dressed in a sexy black skirt, swirling in a dance.
But after her conversion to Islam, Saprykina took another name: Kurbanova. And it was with this name that she became at least the 42nd female suicide bomber in the last decade in Russia, according to Caucasian Knot, an online news source that has been tracking the disturbing trend.
Last week, the 30-year old ethnic Russian took a taxi to the home village of Dagestan’s most influential Sufi Muslim leader, Sheikh Afandi, and entered his house, which was full of kneeling believers. She then blew herself up, killing the Sheikh and at least seven of his followers. The gruesome attack raised the number of casualties of terrorist attacks in Dagestan in the first half of the year to 193, with nearly 200 more wounded, the Caucasian Knot reports.
Kurbanova had become a Salafi Muslim, making herself a member of a minority in Dagestan, albeit a rapidly growing one. Conversely, Sheikh Afandi, like nearly 80 percent of Dagestani residents, was a member of the Sufi branch of Islam. In fact, most of Dagestan’s police and officials are Sheikh Afendi’s murids, meaning “committed ones,” or followers of his Sufi teachings. By killing the 74 year-old leader, Kurbanova had badly damaged a bridge that Sufi and Salafi Muslim peacemakers had been trying to build to each other this year.
Salafi attract young people by the idea of “pure Islam.” They do not drink, they despise corruption, and the Kremlin—the seat of centralized power in Russia—is their enemy. They fight to turn the North Caucuses into an Islamic republic with Sharia laws. There are two Salafi mosques in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, though five years ago there were none.
During the Chechen war and until recently, the Salafi religion was considered extreme, and those Dagestanis who became adherents of pure Islam were immediately persecuted. About two years ago, however, the new president of Dagestan, Magomesalam Magomedov, began to organize roundtables and negotiations with Salafi; Magomedov was the first official to say that police should stop violence against peaceful Muslims, even if they are of a different religious group.
But terror attacks by Salafi insurgents are slowing down the peace effort.
In March, 2010, two Dagestani women, one 17 and one 27, blew themselves up in the Moscow subway system, killing 39 and injuring hundreds of others. Last May, a 19-year female suicide bomber and her older brother exploded at a police checkpoint in Makhachkala, killing 12 and injuring another 100 people.
Unlike the so-called black widows from Russia’s decade-long war with Chechnya, who were trained in camps before being sent to Moscow with their bombs, Dagestan’s female suicide bombers are not being trained in any special way, experts from leading human-rights groups, both international and Russian, say. Before blowing up the Moscow metro, the two Dagestani widows, with their faces covered, spoke in a video that circled the Internet in the days after their attack: “Sisters, if you really desire to help Allah, follow other girls who have sacrificed themselves,” one of them said.
Since Saprykina went missing in 2009, leaving her job at the theater, to the day she committed a terrorist attack, she had married three insurgent fighters. Such a practice has become popular among young Muslim Salafi women, who marry jihadi insurgents in order to obtain a part of their husbands’ rewards in paradise: “Dozens of Dagestan’s Salafi women step on the path of jihad seeking to marry ‘forest brothers,’” says Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, director of the North Caucasus think tank International Crisis Group. “Their husbands do not survive for too long, so widowed women re-marry other guerillas, sometimes up to 2 or 3 times in a few years.”
The fear of death, it seems, has faded for Dagestan’s Salafi women. “All they think about is jihad and death is a trivial part of it,” says Nadria Isayeva, a Salafi believer and former editor in chief of Dagestan’s independent Chernovik newspaper, now an exile in the U.S. “Many young [Salafi] women think that if a guy is not fighting jihad, he is not a real man and they refuse to marry him.” (Isayeva, a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner had to leave Dagestan in 2010, after being harassed by security forces for her coverage of their anti-terrorist operations.)
Jihad relieves guerilla men of taking care of and providing for their families. That makes the life of an insurgent’s wife miserable and insecure. And as soon as women wrap themselves in black hijabs, police put them on a list as potential suicide bombers. Their children get beaten and humiliated at schools, police arrest their family members, security forces watch every step they make and listen to their cellphones. So, to survive, the women often live in isolation and hide from police around private apartments. “For the last few years, Kurbanova must have been hiding around basements, rooms with no windows. To her, a Sufi Sheikh calling Muslims to pray for Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev was her direct enemy,” Isayeva explained.
The majority of Dagestan’s nearly 3 million citizens believe that war is not for Muslim women, that women should be at home cooking food and taking care of children. But as talk breaks down, the hate for Sufi law-enforcement officers accused of “disappearing” their husbands, brothers, and sons only grows among Salafi believers, pushing them to the streets to protest. Last May, a few dozens of furious women covered in black and lilac hijabs and convinced that one of their husbands was arrested and being tortured gathered outside the gate to Kirovsky police station in Makhachkala.
Many of them called their husbands and within minutes an angry rally began before masked and armed special police units broke it up. Women raised their arms up and shouted in chorus: “Allah Akbar! (God is the Greatest)” and “We’ll all blow ourselves up together with all of your police stations!”
The Moscow-based newspaper Izvestiya reports that the management of Russia’s security services is discussing new methods to keep the few ethnic Russian women who convert to Islam under surveillance. The suggestion is they are religious traitors. Human-rights activists fear that any potential green light given to repressions of Salafi community, under this pretext, would give birth to even greater violence. “This is scary; brutal methods will radicalize a larger number of women,” Sokirianskaya said.
Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.