On Saturday, twice-widowed Madina Aliyeva walked up to a group of police and exploded. 15 people were wounded in the blast near the Interior Ministry in Makhachkala, the provincial capital of Dagestan, in Russia's troubled North Caucasus region. Madina joined the ranks of Russia's Black Widows: women bereaved during Russia's own war on terrorism who choose to exact vengeance as suicide bombers.
With only sporadic attention from the world's media, Russia has been fighting extremist Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus for years. Now the Boston Marathon bombings have focused attention onto this troubled and violent region. While suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lived for much of their lives in the United States, the brothers came from an originally-Chechen family that now lives in Dagestan. Additionally, it has been suggested that Tamerlan became radicalised while on a lengthy trip back to the region last year. The story of Madina, and potentially also of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, demonstrate how Russia's tactically successful counter-insurgency policy has failed to create a stable peace in the region.
In the 1990s Russia fought 2 wars to crush rebels in the Republic of Chechnya. In response to Russia's eventual military success, Chechen rebels increasingly turned to terrorism. Chechen militants began to strike civilian targets deep inside Russia in attention-grabbing attacks such as the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, during which 334 civilians were killed, and the 2010 Moscow subway bombing during which nearly 40 were killed.
During the early 2000s, the originally nationalist and largely secular rebel movement became increasingly Islamic. A ruthless counter-terrorism campaign by the Russians within Chechnya forced many fighters to flee into the neighbouring provinces of Ingushetia and Dagestan. As the conflict spread into these provinces, the conflict lost much of its secular nationalist character. Militants increasingly advocated a multi-ethnic Salafist emirate in the North Caucasus.
The first female Chechen suicide bomber, Khava Barayeva blew herself up at an army base in June 2000. The term Black Widows was quickly coined by the Russian media to describe the more than two dozen women who have subsequently blown themselves up in Russia due to the large proportion who had been bereaved. Many had been married to militants killed by the Russian security forces.
The reasons for the spike in female suicide bombers are complex. However, it seems likely that the killing and imprisonment of large numbers of young Muslim males stripped many women in the region of the support networks which might have cushioned them against indoctrination. In addition, females became increasingly valuable weapons for militant groups due to their ability to bypass some of the security restrictions imposed by the Russian government and the propaganda impact of their involvement.
The Black Widows have become a symbol of the increasing disintegration of society in the Caucasus region. While the conflict in Chechnya has subsided to some extent, Dagestan remains extremely violent. Governance in the region remains poor, with strong-men such as Dagestan's President Magomedsalam Magomedov — whose father was also president of the republic from 1987 to 2006 — retaining power thanks to complex patronage networks and support from Moscow, despite corruption and human rights abuses.
Social structures have been eroded by the years of destruction, while economic deprivation means that many from the region have no alternative channel for their frustrations beyond violence. Meanwhile the behaviour of the Russian security services has done nothing to remedy the grievances that stimulated the conflict in the first place. Indeed they have often heightened feelings of victimisation and perpetuated a the cycle of violence and revenge.
It seems likely that the Caucasus region will gain greater international attention, if only for a while, in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings — something that will be welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long felt aggrieved at the West's failure to recognise Russia's fight against Jihadist terrorism. However, for those who live each day under the shadow of both terrorism and state brutality in Europe's most dangerous region, Boston's tragedy does not seem such an extraordinary event. As one teenager told a BBC Reporter: "Here in Dagestan, we have our own Boston every day."