MOSCOW — If Russia's security services are correct in blaming two female Chechen suicide bombers for attacks that killed almost 40 people on Moscow's crowded subway Monday morning, it marks the return of a nightmare that Kremlin thought it ended years ago.
Experts say that increasing numbers of family members, including women, are turning to radicalism as conditions in the largely Muslim north Caucasus region spiral out of control and Moscow-backed security forces crack down on insurgents, often punishing families and even whole villages suspected of aiding them.
"When an elder brother is kidnapped or a relative is killed, the younger brother takes arms," said Tatiana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, Russia's largest independent human rights monitoring group.
"Thus the soil is created," by arbitrary and often brutal actions of the authorities, she said. "Young people have no patience, and they often do not see any other means to fend for themselves and their family but to take up arms."
The women, who call themselves "shakhidy," or martyrs, typically are the widows or mothers of Chechen men who've been killed by Russian forces.
"Chechen society is very hard for women who've lost their men folk, or who have no breadwinner, and they become vulnerable to recruitment," said Andrei Soldatov, the editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal that focuses on Russia's security services. "There are potentially very many such women in the north Caucasus at the present time."
Russian security forces call them "black widows," both for their deadly intentions and for the head-to-toe mourning clothes that are their signature dress.
The use of women to strike civilian targets was pioneered a decade ago by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was seeking a way to smuggle explosives past Russian checkpoints at the outset of the Kremlin's second war to subdue separatist Chechnya, security experts say.
"Basayev started up a 'martyr's brigade' comprised of women, who proved very successful in killing Russian officials and destroying administration offices," said Soldatov.
"After Basayev was killed by Russian forces in Ingushetia in 2006, we were told that the martyr's brigade had been disbanded," Soldatov said. "Some rebel Web sites have since claimed that it was resurrected, but only now do we see clear evidence that it's back."
A large contingent of shakhidy was among the 50 Chechen rebels who seized a Moscow theater in 2002 and died along with 120 hostages when Russian security forces stormed the building using a poisonous knockout gas.
Two black widows blew themselves up at a Moscow rock concert the next summer, killing 14 people.
Another pair has been blamed for destroying two Russian airliners in 2004, days before a large group of militants, including several black widows, seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia and took 1,200 hostages. More than 300 people, half of them children, died when Russian forces stormed the school.
Weir is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.
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