News & Politics

Could a Black Widow Threat Happen in Washington? And Other Terror Questions Related to Sochi 2014

A DC-based terrorism expert talks about female militants.

Are women terrorists potentially superior to men? The question is timely with the start of the Sochi Olympic games two weeks away. Reports of a threat from so-called “black widows” are a staple of the news cycle. With the 2014 games, which open on February 7, the early focus is less on sports and more on possible security threats. But who are the black widows, what is their base group, and could they be found in Washington? We spoke with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of the 2011 book Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror.

What is a terrorist-related black widow?

“Black widow” generally refers to a female militant affiliated with Caucasus militant groups. The reason the term is used is that many of them literally are widows of men who were in the field fighting the Russians—but not all of them have been.

How long have they been on terrorism experts’ radar?

One of the earliest instances of women being used by Caucasus militants was 2002 in the high-profile hostage-taking at a Moscow theater, where 19 of 41 attackers were women. They’ve continued to crop up in both terrorist and other militant activities since then.

Female militants are not a new thing. If you go back to the very first suicide bombing campaign carried out by the Tamil Tigers, they used females.

Did the black widows evolve on their own, or is this a larger terror strategy?

It has to be a bit of both. There have been recruiters associated with this, and at the end of the day the Caucasus militant groups have leveraged females in a way that most other Islamic militant organizations have failed to do. But you need to have the recruits there to be able to leverage them.

Sochi, based on reports so far, seems to be a security sieve. Is that a fair description?

I think so. I’m concerned about security in Sochi in a way I haven’t been with other Olympic games. In the 2012 London games the thing I found most interesting was the extraordinary outlay of security expenses. That’s what I wrote about when analyzing those games.

There’s a big difference between Sochi and all other Olympics. You have a militant organization that has launched a sustained campaign against the host country, Russia, and they’ve carried out attacks designed to inflict maximum causalities, and they’ve been competent enough to successfully strike targets we consider very difficult targets. Not only is the intention there, but also the groups have shown they can follow through.

What’s your assessment of the Russian security plan?

Russia has said it’s going to impose a “ring of steel” around the games. Even if you have a ring of steel around the games you still need to get people past security. Caucasus groups struck the Moscow airport in 2011 with a suicide bomber just outside the security perimeter. Attacks that occur not inside the security ring, but just outside, have the same effect and symbolism.

Do the militant groups targeting the Olympics operate only within a certain region?

No and yes. They were originally thought of as Chechen, which was true as of 1999. But as Russia carried out intense and often brutal operations in Chechnya and Ingushetia, they’ve been able to strike inside Russia. The group is certainly Russia-focused. But like many militant groups their leadership talks of having more global ambitions.

If Sochi can be vulnerable, what does it say about Washington and other cities? Do we have better security here, even with no Olympic games?

It’s hard to say if our security is superior to theirs because it hasn’t been tested in the way Russian security has. What we don’t have is this sustained, indigenous insurgent campaign that Russia has, and that’s a great thing. If you look at US-based terrorism plots, we haven’t been faced with the same volume of very serious domestic plots that Russia has.

Do you think terrorists—of any type—walk the streets of Washington undetected?

Certainly. And of many types. This isn’t to say one should be scared of walking the streets. You have threats of gang violence, murderers, robbers, terrorists, and foreign spies. That’s life. There are threats anywhere. In general, the best position is one of resolve in the face of potential threats.

There are warnings out of Sochi that the “black widows” will like dress as tourists, not in traditional Islamic attire, to go undetected. Does this make all women suspect?

Russia does heavily rely on profiling in its policing efforts. One reason black widows are strategically advantaged is that they can blend in extraordinarily well, with makeup, high heels, high fashion. They look like Russian women.

As to whether it makes all women suspect, the answer is no. There’s a limited number of black widows they are looking for. They have a good idea of who they are and what they look like. This is actually a rare example where racial profiling ends up not targeting people of African descent. The [black] widows are not African, Korean, or Japanese.

Can women terrorists in general, to the extent they exist, operate more effectively than male terrorists?

Hard to say. Other than the Caucasus groups most jihadists have trouble incorporating women because of their very conservative gender norms. One thing that makes a female terrorists effective is they are unexpected. Also, they are of symbolic significance. The fact that they are women has caught media attention, accomplishing part of what the militant groups want to accomplish. There’s nothing that makes women terrorists superior to men.