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“A suicide bomber is neither suicidal nor a typical bomber . . . she is a self-bombing mass murderer”  –  Vladimir Putin

The zavesa covered almost all her face, so that only those startling beautiful turquoise blue eyes and the bridge of her nose were visible. As she recited her zaveshchaniye, a kind of last will and testament, her voice was a emotionless monotone and her eyes, unblinking. She had started with a brief narration of her early life, first as a little girl, then an adolescent with a crush on Dani Tashayev, the reigning pop star of her day and finally, as Raslan Muzhakhoyev’s wife and little Tania’s mama.

She didn’t attempt to glorify her husband who had been killed by the FSB the previous year. Raslan Muzhakhoyev was a violent and abusive man, besides being a Chechen warlord. Zarema Muzhakhoyeva was in fact secretly relieved when they brought her the news of his killing. Now, as she spoke, her voice was flat and her look, deadpan. A true believer who is about to go out and die in the service of Allah is expected to be filled with excitement and happy anticipation.

After a while however, something akin to emotion, in the form of a tremor, did enter Zarema’s voice,  when she began speaking about her younger brother, Avtorhan. She called him her lyubimaya Avi, whose unruly hair kept falling all over his eyes. Avi was an obedient child who grew up to be a respectful young man, she said, one who loved his family and would do anything for their happiness.

She was soon unstoppable. Zarema began relating little anecdotes about Avi’s naughty escapades in primary school, his skill at sketching and his talent for fixing household appliances.” When anybody in the neighborhood had a problem with their fridge, or their TV, they always came to my brother,” she said and for perhaps the first time, her lovely eyes crinkled at the edges as she smiled inside her zavesa. The crinkles abruptly disappeared though, as her eyes filled. Her head bowed now, Zarema stared down at her hands, her voice now a faint whisper, “He was so happy when he was mending things.”

She wasn’t done. Struggling to collect herself, Zarema Muzhakhoyeva continued,” When the Russians first came to Urus, Avi sketched them in their heavy trucks and presented the sketch to their commander, who was very impressed.”

Avtorhan volunteered for his own suicide mission in early 2003 and Zarema helped him prepare. Just prior to a mission, a suicide bomber goes through a transformation, brought on by the realization that he is going to die. The bomber’s religious beliefs suddenly grow stronger as he uses it as a crutch to help him face death without falling apart. He continues to be indoctrinated till the very last hour, to ensure that his determination does not waver. Fanatical ideologues in the group usually keep giving the bomber a non-stop pep-talk and for Avi, that task Zarema took upon herself to perform, with zeal.

On a chill February morning Avi was driven out to the gates of the security perimeter surrounding the Russian army barracks in the Urus-Martan Military District, by fellow jihadis of the Riyad-us Saliheen. One of them tried to adjust his belt as the buckle was hurting him near his belly button. In his cramped position, the bearded holy warrior had to twist his torso to reach down and loosen the buckle and must have pressed down on the remote button inadvertently. The belt went off with a thunderous roar as 50 lbs of RDX, crammed with 500 small screws and bolts, exploded.

In an instant, just 50 yards from the main check-point of the perimeter, the small hatchback turned itself inside out, like a peeled banana, destroying everything living and non-living in it. Since it was a bit early and the weather was particularly cold that morning, there were no pedestrians or vehicles around and therefore, there were no other injuries.

Zarema was devastated, not only because the brother she doted on was dead, but also because he had failed to complete his mission. Locking herself inside her one-room apartment one night, she first strangled the sleeping Tania with her bare hands and then emptied a small bottle of rat poison inside her mouth.

As the stomach cramps began, she put on a thin nightgown and went and lay down in her bed next to the still body of her daughter and waited and prayed for a quick despatch.

That deliverance never came. Zarema survived, only because a neighbor’s daughter, looking to play with Tania a couple of days later, caused her parents to raise an alarm. Her front door was broken open and they found her in the filth and stench of her own feces. A sister who lived in Grozny took her away and nursed her back to health.

It wasn’t long after she returned to an empty apartment a year later, when Zarema finally concluded that the only way to redeem her brother’s ‘unfinished martyrdom’ was to complete his mission.

The video clip ended with Zarema’s impenetrable stare and her clear flat voice, “Now I am ready to join Avi and Tania in Paradise.”

What struck me about the video, apart from the surreal feeling of watching someone willingly marching off to her death, was the fact that there was not a single religious or political utterance in her monologue. Neither was there any mention of any atrocities by Russian forces on her own family. There was no intonation of  ‘Allah o Akbar’ or ‘Death to Russia’, nor even a hint of hate or bitterness, in her voice.

The other thing that haunted me for days was the sight of her angelic eyes and the contours of her beautifully sculpted nose. There was no doubt in my mind that Zarema Muzhakhoyeva was one very beautiful woman. What a pity, I remember saying to myself. If only I could snatch her from death and take her some place far away, I thought. For a moment I forgot I was looking at a completely mind-controlled fanatic with no feelings whatsoever, for ‘infidels’ like me.

Handsome looks and sharp features are common in that region of the world. The first time I was in Iran on business, I was being driven around Tehran in a Daewoo taxi by Agha Faroukhi, a wiry, muscular gentleman in his early 50s who resembled the late Hollywood star, Charles Bronson. The title ‘Agha’ usually precedes names in Iran, like ‘Mr.’ The salutation might follow the name instead. Faroukhi Agha is just as appropriate.

The thing that struck me most during the trip was the devastatingly handsome people. If Agha Faroukhi were to walk into an Indian restaurant, heads would behave like they were on ball bearings. And the women, they are something else. They have this flawless rich creamy complexion and noses so heart-stoppingly pointed that they could take your breath away.

Good looks are the norm not only in Iran but all across the dozen or so nations in that part of the world. But among all of them, the women from the Caucasus are known to be the most strikingly beautiful. The Caucasus is a mountain range that runs, west to east, along Russia’s southern border with Georgia, cutting through the tiny Republics of Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, from where it leaves Russia and enters the northern boundary of the sovereign state of Azerbaijan and meanders along till it touches the shores of the world’s largest inland body of water, the Caspian Sea.

Beauty is not just restricted to women, in the Caucasus. The Almighty Lord has bestowed breath-taking scenic grandeur and bountiful natural resources to the entire region. Fertile farm lands and starkly beautiful meadows abound, fed by all the melt water from the Caucasus range. There is so much extraction potential of vast reserves of energy, in the form of hydro-electric and geothermal power, oil and natural gas, that this region could easily have been a net exporter of energy if it had wanted to.

Chechnya, a Muslim majority Republic situated in the Caucasus, is similarly blessed.  It is also cursed with the typically Muslim mindset which chooses to remain in a state of perpetual strife and turmoil, even manufacturing discontent where it is absent, instead of striving to be productive members of society.

Since it was considered to have always been a part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (RSSR), Chechnya was considered a part of the Russian Federation, when the Soviet Union dissolved. While the other republics within the Soviet Union (the Baltic, Central Asian, and other Caucasian States) broke away and gained full independence, Chechnya remained inside the Russian Federation, leaving its Muslim population with the feeling that now was the time to break away unilaterally. The Chechens began their insurgency.

Seething with discontent, Chechnya, within the last two decades, has descended from a vibrant and beautiful tourist destination to one of the world’s most dangerous locations to live in. Currently, the de-facto head of the rebel movement, a Chechen version of a capo-di-tutti-capi, is a very dangerous man named Doku Umarov, a.k.a the ‘Russian Bin Laden’, whose stated goal is to combine the two neighboring Republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, with Chechnya, into a Medieval Islamic emirate governed by the tenets of strict Wahhabism. Numerous attempts by the FSB to liquidate him have failed. So far.

Now, with the Winter Olympics set to begin at Sotchi on the Black Sea coast this weekend, Russian authorities have information that as many as 20 of Umarov’s female suicide bombers might have already slipped into the area long before. Thank God for TV and ESPN.

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A Riyad-us Saliheen fighter. Determined. Unflinching.

The Chechen separatist movement has a distinct flavor from the Taliban in Afghanistan, even though they are both Islamic and have a common enemy, the Russian infidels. After the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan was the only nation in the world to recognize Chechnya as a state. In February 2000, the Chechen separatist government of President Aslan Maskhadov opened an embassy in Kabul. The rebels’ chief ideologue, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, was appointed ambassador in Kabul. The Taliban began training Chechen rebels in military camps on Afghan territory.

The relationship however, was and remains one of convenience, rather than real comradeship, since the Chechens are a very different people. The Afghans rarely carry out suicide bombings themselves, as it is not in their fighting tradition. Afghans are prepared to sacrifice their lives, but their methods do not include killing themselves deliberately. Almost all those who have carried out suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan so far, have been Pakistani nationals.

Additionally, while almost all suicide bombings by the Chechens are carried out by women (over 70%), female suicide bombers have been practically non-existent in Afghanistan.

Even the motivations are very different. While the Pakistani suicide bombers are driven by religious fervor, individual honor and the guarantee that their families shall be financially well provided for, the Chechen suicide bombers are motivated by revenge and a sense of utter despair and hopelessness.

Perhaps the most important difference is the support of terrorism among the common folk. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the support for extremists and militants is high, willingly or out of fear. In comparison, the common Chechens do not care much for the violence. A sizeable number openly condemn the mayhem that the Chechen terrorists practice. Putin had a real hearts-and-minds opportunity here but instead, he decided to be the bull in the china shop.

Chechen suicide bombings began in 2000 as a direct result of the launch of Vladimir Putin’s brutal Second Chechen War. Suicide terrorism however has been around a while. The first act of suicide terrorism was carried out by the Hezbollah in Lebanon, 1963. By 1987, the tactic had migrated to the vicious Tamil Tigers in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The Palestinian Hamas adopted it in 1993, followed by Turkey’s Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in 1996 and Al-Qaida in the mid-1990s.

In July 2003, Zarema Muzhakhoyeva finally got the chance to complete her brother, Avtorhan’s mission.

Customers in the crowded upscale Moscow cafe had not noticed Zarema when she entered and chose a table in the center of the main dining area, settled down calmly and ordered a Moka with lots of sugar and cream. After a while, still completely serene and her coffee still warm, she slipped her hand inside her black shoulder bag, groped around for the detonator and pressed the button. Nothing happened. She repeated the procedure nearly twenty times but the explosive device refused to go off.

As she kept trying, Zarema started to get frantic and sweat began pouring down her face. First a waiter and then folk sitting around, began to notice the bizarre way she was behaving. Someone called the cops  thinking she was having a nervous breakdown of some sort. A passing cop car responded within seconds and a cursory search revealed the deadly contents of her bag. Zarema was arrested. The bomb did go off eventually, killing a member of the FSB’s Bomb Disposal Squad who was attempting to defuse it.

Not all Black Widows join up to be a suicide bomber the way Zarema Muzhakhoyeva did, of her own free will. A sizeable number, more than 50% actually, are threatened, coerced, drugged and then brainwashed into it. They are the women who bring ‘dishonor’ to their families by being raped or through promiscuity or even  not being able to have children.

In the conservative Chechen society, widows are seen as burdens and the death of their husbands are made to seem like punishment for their sins. They are no longer considered fit to be wives and might even have to face an ‘honor killing’. Suicide terrorism is held out to them as a means of ‘redemption’ in the eyes of their community. The threats happen when the widows resist.

Zarema had little choice. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence in the high-security Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, her only consolation – the solitary cell she is in might have hosted Nobel Prize winning writer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn or even the World War II hero, Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg.