Medna Bayrakova remembers the day a middle-aged woman showed up at her door and asked to speak to her 26-year-old daughter. They shut themselves in the bedroom for half an hour, and then her daughter left, saying she was walking the visitor to the bus stop.
An hour later, Zareta still hadn't returned and several men in camouflage knocked at the door of the family's ravaged apartment in this ruined Chechen capital.
"We have taken away your daughter. She has agreed to marry one of our men," one said.
Bayrakova protested. "She's a sick girl. She has tuberculosis. She was coughing up blood only this morning."
"We will cure her," they replied quietly.
The next time Bayrakova and her husband saw their daughter's face, it was 24 days later -- separatist Chechen rebels had seized Moscow's Dubrovka Theater, along with 800 hostages. Zareta's unmistakable dark eyes were visible above a black veil on the television screen. Her fingers were clasped below a belt of powerful explosives.
There was one last view, this one a postmortem photo taken after federal agents gassed and stormed the theater in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2002, leaving all 41 hostage-takers and 129 of the captives dead. This time, Zareta's face was swollen and bruised -- barely recognizable.
"They asked me, 'Is it your daughter?' " Bayrakova said. "But the face was all smashed. She looked all beaten up. And then I passed out."
In strapping the explosives belt to her waist that fall day in 2002, Zareta Bayrakova joined the cult of the "black widows," the female suicide bombers who have left much of Russia on wary watch for the mysterious, dark-eyed woman in a long fur coat who is believed to recruit them.
A nationwide alert has been issued for a middle-aged woman with a hooked nose and dark hair popularly known as "Black Fatima," who has been identified as a recruiter for the women known as shahidas, or martyrs. The woman reportedly has been seen lurking on the edges of terrorist bombings during a decade of tensions between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Russian troops pulled out of the republic after a disastrous 1994-96 war, and the mostly Muslim region exercises self-rule.
Seven women have launched suicide attacks against Israel, the first one in January 2002. By that time, Russia had already recorded two such attacks, and since then their numbers have grown. More than three dozen Chechen women -- roughly half of the suicide bombers -- have launched or attempted attacks against Russian targets since the second Chechen war began in 1999. Russian authorities say many appear to be dazed and under the influence of drugs; some would-be bombers have reported that they were forced by relatives in the Chechen resistance into attempting such attacks.
Most recently, on Dec. 9, a young woman blew herself up in front of Moscow's historic National Hotel, killing six people. An older woman in a dark coat and fur hat reportedly was seen slipping away from the scene. On Dec. 5, suicide bombers blew up a commuter train in the southern region of Stavropol, killing at least 44 others and injuring more than 150. Authorities said three women and one man were involved in the attack.
Nearly 150 people died in black-widow attacks last summer -- so named in the Russian media because many of the female perpetrators have lost husbands, brothers and fathers in the war in Chechnya.
Abu Walid, a Saudi national who is one of many Arabs who have joined the Chechen militants, is believed to be the commander of the rebels' eastern front in Chechnya. He recently explained the use of female suicide bombers in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network.
"These women, particularly the wives of the moujahedeen who are martyred, are being threatened in their homes. Their honor and everything are being threatened," he said. "They do not accept being humiliated and living under occupation. They say that they want to serve the cause of almighty God and avenge the death of their husbands and persecuted people."
Sergei Ignatchenko, spokesman for Russia's Federal Security Service, said Arab militants "have abused the idea of Chechnya's independence to suit their own ends."
Chechen commander Shamil Basayev is said to have trained a force of up to 50 black widows for suicide attacks against Russian targets. Basayev claims to have masterminded several recent terrorist operations, including the Dubrovka Theater siege and the bombing at the National Hotel.
Meanwhile, the political leader of the separatists, Aslan Maskhadov, has repeatedly disavowed any connection with terrorism and even accused Russia's secret services of staging the Dubrovka siege for "propaganda purposes." But Russian security officials provided The Times with a videotape, dated Oct. 18, 2002 -- a week before the siege -- in which Maskhadov appeared to be referring to upcoming actions by Chechen rebels.
"We have practically accomplished a transition from guerrilla warfare to offensive combat operations," he says on the tape. "I am convinced, and I do not have a shadow of a doubt on this, that during the concluding stage of our struggle, we will definitely hold an even more unique operation, similar to jihad. And with this operation, we will liberate our land from Russian aggressors."
Another videotape, purportedly filmed at the same time, shows Maskhadov seated with Basayev, Abu Omar Seif -- an Islamic spiritual leader identified by the Russians as a link to Arab funding sources -- and Movsar Barayev, who led the hostage-takers at Dubrovka.
For the Russians, the tapes are proof that the moderate Chechen resistance, which has spoken out publicly against terrorism, is secretly organizing civilian terrorist operations. Russia has repeatedly sought to convince the U.S. that Moscow and Washington are facing the same enemy: the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Maskhadov's aides have said he was talking about a strike against Russian military forces, not a terrorist act against civilians. And Chechen rebels say the Russians are ignoring the deep domestic rage that motivates suicide attacks.
"The Chechens do not have the right to stain with their blood the streets of Russian cities, which are rear bases of the aggressors' army?" the Chechen separatist website, Kavkaz Center, asked sarcastically. "A Russian tank driver, with intestines of Chechen children on its caterpillar track, and the pilot of a low-flying warplane shelling a bus with women and infants, are just unscrupulous uses of force, while a Chechen widow blowing herself up together with the pilots who have murdered her children is terrorism and cannot be justified.
"According to their logic, the Chechen nation must die magnanimously and in silence."
On a quiet side street in the former Cossack village of Asinovskaya in western Chechnya, there is a pile of rubble that used to be Sulumbek Ganiyev's house. It is the house in which he raised six sons and four daughters.
Only four children are alive, two of whom are in captivity. Islam was killed in a rocket attack in 1999. Daughter Petimat disappeared in July 2000 and is believed to have died in a bombing raid in Grozny. Rustam, a former rebel fighter, is in prison in North Ossetia. Hussein was fighting with the rebels when he was killed in 2000. Raisa, who resisted being recruited by her brother as a black widow, is being held by the Russian secret services at an undisclosed location. The youngest son, Tarkhan, died in a car accident last spring.
Daughters Fatima and Khadzhad died in the Dubrovka Theater siege, with unused explosives belts strapped around their waists.
A few days after the Dubrovka standoff, the family says, Russian troops arrived in the early evening and, without so much as a knock on the door, blew up their house.
Ganiyev, a former builder, says he is alive today only because he and his wife were watching television next door.
"We are not to blame. Before the war, all the children were at home. The Russians took them away from us," Ganiyev said recently.
He said the family's first encounter with Russian troops was in October 1999, not long after the beginning of the second war, when soldiers entered the village and shot the Ganiyevs' five cows, tied two of the carcasses to their vehicle and left.
In July 2000, he said, troops entered their home at gunpoint, stole their videocassette recorder, lambs and chickens, and threw a grenade into the cellar where goods for the winter were stored.
Not long after, Rustam and Hussein began fighting for the rebels. Russian soldiers came to the door in June 2002 and grabbed Tarkhan, then 21, Fatima, 23, and Raisa, 17. Ganiyev remembers daughter Khadzhad, 14, shouting defiantly, as her three siblings are being led away: "Are you really brave, when you take away girls?"
"They wanted to take her away, too, but her mother jumped in and prevented them," Ganiyev recalled.
For three agonizing days, the family knew nothing. Finally, Ganiyev said, he was able to negotiate a $1,000 ransom for his children's release. But when they came home, he says, they were different. "After that, the girls understood that they will never be in peace," he said.
"They were very angry," added his wife, Lyuba. "Otherwise, could you expect them to go to Moscow and take this death?"
Their daughters told them that they had been taken to a shed and that sometime later their brother, tied at the legs and hands and badly beaten, was thrown at their feet "like a dead body." The soldiers poured a bucket of water on him to awaken him and then led him away again.
"They tortured the girls with electric current. They put a metal spiral on their fingers and attached it to a current source, and they shocked them until they passed out," Ganiyev said. "They wanted to get information about what bandits they know, who are the rebels."
Lyuba Ganiyev tried to explain what drove Fatima, a law student who often helped her father bale hay, and Khadzhad, who had hoped to become a gynecologist, to join the terrorists in Moscow -- and Raisa, who eventually turned herself in to Russian authorities, to nearly follow them.
"After they beat them for three days, they had had enough. They came back and said, 'We are now in shame. They held us for three days. We can't live like this anymore.' It's not that they were crying. We never saw them crying. They were just sitting down, depressed."
On Sept. 29, 2002 -- the same day Zareta Bayrakova disappeared -- Fatima and Khadzhad left home, saying they were going to Dagestan to see their nephew. They never returned. Their parents next saw them, as Medna Bayrakova had seen her daughter, a month later in television footage of the Dubrovka siege.
"They didn't tell us," Ganiyev said. "If we had known, we wouldn't have let them. I would have broken their legs to stop them."
Some witnesses said they saw two women walking together just before the bombing at the National Hotel in the heart of Moscow in December.
"So, where is your parliament?" one of them asked. Then, the explosion. One witness said he saw a woman in a long coat fall to the pavement, get up and walk briskly away. Authorities believe that the woman may have been Black Fatima.
The bombing on the edge of Red Square crossed a red line of sorts for many Muscovites.
"Maybe they are doing this out of religious convictions, but I think it's against our God and against the soul of every human being. No normal woman would be likely to do this," said Tatyana Yezhova, a 19-year-old medical student injured in the bombing.
Many Russians see Chechnya's drive for independence as an assault on the nation's territorial integrity, and the carnage wrought by terrorists has only reinforced their support for President Vladimir V. Putin's war in the breakaway republic.
Russia has been widely criticized for atrocities and human rights violations -- Chechen men and women have been regularly kidnapped from their homes, tortured and even killed -- but the Russian public sees a military body count that often reaches half a dozen a day, as soldiers are ambushed in the hills or blown up by roadside explosive devices.
Chechen terrorists have attacked rock concerts, subway stations and commuter trains full of students. At the National Hotel, horrified witnesses described seeing severed heads and limbs strewn on the sidewalk. Others waited in fear for the next strike.
"We were immediately told on the radio that we should stand here and watch very, very carefully over the people who come here, because there was information that there are three other suicide bombers. So I am standing here breaking my eyes over everybody who comes in here," Yevgeny Petrov, a 23-year-old security guard, said as he anxiously watched passersby at a shopping center across the street on the morning of the hotel bombing.
"They told us they are women, and they will be constantly talking on the phone, as if somebody is hypnotizing them. Or we should look people in the eye, because their eyes will be weird, as if they are drugged," he said. "It's very scary. How can you uncover a terrorist if she looks like everybody else?"
After the hotel bombing, a composite drawing was distributed, purported to be a likeness of Black Fatima. By then, everyone in Moscow knew who she was, mostly thanks to Zarema Muzhikhoyeva, a would-be black widow who last July set out to blow herself up at a restaurant on Moscow's Tverskaya Street.
The 23-year-old resident of Chechnya was stopped by security guards, but her bomb later detonated accidentally and killed a Russian policeman trying to defuse it.
Muzhikhoyeva, whose husband was killed fighting the war while she was pregnant with their daughter, told her interrogators that she had been "a virtual slave" to rebels who convinced her that it was her religious duty to go to Moscow and detonate a bomb at a cafe on busy Tverskaya Street. Investigators told the Moscow paper Kommersant that a woman Muzhikhoyeva knew as Lyuba -- Black Fatima -- took her to a house near Moscow and visited her frequently during the next week. She told police that Lyuba often gave her orange juice that made her dizzy and gave her a headache.
On the last day, she said, Lyuba gave her more juice, handed her a rucksack containing a bomb and showed her how to set it off.
In a jailhouse interview published Tuesday in the newspaper Izvestia, Muzhikhoyeva said two Chechen men prepared her for the task and dropped her off near the cafe. After being confronted by three men, she said, she went back on the street.
She said she had already decided not to pull the switch but feared that her trainers would set it off by remote control.
"Neither I nor they knew what to do," she said. "I was walking along, waiting for death."
Finally, a police officer approached and ordered her to drop her bag.
"I carried out the command and stepped away from this terrible bag," she said.
Alexei Zakharov, who heads Moscow's Research and Applied Science Center and specializes in the psychology of extreme situations, has interviewed would-be black widows in Russian custody and said many have reported having been drugged. All, he said, demonstrated signs of mental trauma.
The fact that they often are literally widows is telling, he said, because of a sense that they have become a burden on their husbands' families.
"Sometimes these women are told: 'You've been a sinner all your life. Allah punished you by taking your husband. Now it's time to restore yourself by doing your duty.' "
Zakharov says he has seen evidence of brainwashing techniques, in which religious phrases in Arabic are recited repeatedly. "They're gathered in large auditoriums, and they repeat a combination of sounds whose meaning they have no idea of. At the same time, they're making very rhythmic body motions. That, in fact, is one of the simplest and most primitive entrancing technologies."
In Grozny, whatever understanding exists of suicide bombers appears to be more instinctive than scientific.
"You must either feel terribly bad to want to kill yourself, and others in the bargain, or you must be a complete lunatic. And when you see everything that's happened around here, you know the number of lunatics has increased," said Zarema Sadulayeva, an activist with the group Save the Generation in Grozny, which works to promote the welfare of Chechen youths.
In a region where large numbers of men have either joined the rebels or fled the country to avoid arrest by the Russians, women have taken on new roles, many said.
They are the teachers trying to keep the schools open when there is no electricity. They are the mothers standing each Monday outside the Russian government headquarters, demanding to know what has happened to their missing sons. They are the stooped shoulders hauling buckets of water up shattered stairways to 10th-floor apartments.
And some of them are suicide bombers.
"We know now that we can take care of ourselves. But nevertheless, it's difficult. Very difficult. We are suffering every minute," said Fatima Shabazova, 37, who lives in a war-battered apartment building with 12 other Chechen war widows.
"Men die on us. And we have to be strong. We just have to be," she said. "Otherwise, we won't survive."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times