Russia hunts ‘black widows’ in Sochi

Three wives of Islamic militants sought ahead of Olympic kickoff

AP

Russian security officials are hunting down three potential female suicide bombers, one of whom is believed to be in Sochi, where the Winter Olympics will begin next month.

Police leaflets seen by an Associated Press reporter at a central Sochi hotel Tuesday contain warnings about three potential suicide bombers. A police letter said that one of them, Ruzanna Ibragimova, a 22-year-old widow of an Islamic militant, was at large in Sochi.

A U.S. congressman who was in Sochi on Tuesday to assess the situation said he was impressed by the work of Russian security forces but troubled that potential suicide bombers had gotten into the city, despite all of the extraordinary security measures.

“We know some of them got through the perimeter,” Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview. “She’s for real. What we don’t know is how many more black widows are out there.”

Russian authorities have blamed the so-called “black widows” of slain insurgents for previous suicide attacks in the country.

The Black Sea resort town will host the games amid concerns about security and potential terrorist attacks.

The southern city of Volgograd was rocked by two suicide bombings in late December, which killed 34 and injured scores more.

An Islamic militant group in Dagestan posted a video Sunday claiming responsibility for the bombings and threatened to strike the games in Sochi, about 500 km west of Dagestan.

McCaul, a Republican from Texas, said he had numerous meetings with officials in Moscow and Sochi, and was briefed by the joint operation center in Sochi, which is responsible for overall security in the area.

“The one improvement I would ask of the Russians is to allow our intelligence services to coordinate and cooperate better with theirs,” McCaul said.

Although the Russian side was confident that it could provide security, the U.S. has information that could help keep the games safe, he said.

McCaul also expressed concern that terrorists could have gotten into Sochi before security was tightened. “How many potential cells could be in Sochi and the Olympic village?” he asked. “But after ‘the ring of steel’ was implemented we have this one person who seems to have been able to penetrate it. It does demonstrate vulnerability.”

Police material distributed to the hotel staff included pictures of two other women in veils: 26-year-old Zaira Aliyeva and 34-year-old Dzhannet Tsakhayeva. It said they had been trained “to perpetrate acts of terrorism.”

It warned that the two women “are probably among us,” but, unlike in Ibragimova’s case, did not say if they are believed to be in Sochi. No further information was provided about the two women or their motivation.

The term “black widow” refers to the belief that women who have carried out past suicide attacks in Russia did so to avenge the deaths of husbands or other male relatives.

One of the earliest attacks to draw attention to female terrorists was the 2002 mass hostage-taking at a Moscow theater by Chechen militants — 19 of the 41 attackers were women. The crisis ended with Russian forces pumping narcotic gas into the theater, killing all the attackers and at least 118 of the approximately 850 hostages. Police footage after the raid showed some of the women dead in theater seats with explosives attached to their bodies.

In 2003, two women blew themselves up at the entrance gate to a Moscow outdoor rock concert, killing 14 people.

In the first wave of a shocking series of attacks in 2004, two Russian airliners were brought down with bombs on the same night, killing a total of 79 people. Authorities said both of the bombers were women, and one had a brother who had disappeared in Chechnya.

The Olympics are to be held from Feb. 7-23. Russia has mounted an intense security operation in the city, but concern persists that soft targets outside the Olympic venues, such as buses and tourist facilities, are vulnerable to attack.