Russia wary of Muslim women in North Caucus ahead of Olympics

Russia gathering DNA from some Muslim women in Dagestan by collecting saliva samples

Maligat Abakarova gives an interview in Dagestan on Sept. 30, 2013. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics in February, Russia is taking saliva samples from Muslim women in the region, according to residents in the North Caucasus.

Russian authorities are taking saliva samples from religiously conservative Muslim women in the North Caucasus region, area residents have told news organizations, alleging that authorities are gathering DNA so they can identify the women’s body parts in case any of them become suicide bombers.

The move coincides with a drive by President Vladimir Putin to crack down on what he labels an Islamist insurgency in Dagestan, a province in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains about 300 miles east of the site of next February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Eight women contacted by Reuters said they had been asked to provide swabs of saliva. Residents said the DNA tests were part of a sweep following a suicide bombing in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, in May.

Police did not respond to a request for comment.

In the last 13 years, 49 female suicide bombers have carried out attacks in Russia. Most of the bombers were from Chechnya and Dagestan, according to the Caucasian Knot website, which tracks unrest there.

The latest attack occurred Oct. 21 and was committed by a woman from Dagestan, killing six people in Volgograd, a major city north of Sochi.

Roots of insurgency

Dagestan, Russia's southernmost province, has Islamic roots dating back to the seventh century, and the majority of its 2.9 million people are Muslim. Ongoing bitter political struggles against control from Moscow has seen a growth in ultra-conservative Salafist beliefs,  under the influence of scholars who studied in the Middle East and Salafi fighters who flooded the region during the secessionist wars of the 1990s.

Dagestan's Muslims — traditionally followers of a more liberal Sufi strain of Islam — saw an upsurge in Salafism during the late 1990s, when nationalists in neighboring Chechnya, disappointed with the lack of support from Western nations in their struggle for self-determination, made common cause  with radical Salafi movements from the Arab world, according to a report by Murad Batal al-Shishani, an analyst on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.

In 1999, parts of Dagestan and Chechnya declared themselves an independent state, with one Islamic body declaring a "holy war" against Russia. Fighters from Chechnya crossed into Dagestan in support, but Russian forces crushed the insurrection within weeks.

The region today remains plagued by lawlessness, corruption, organized crime and high unemployment. Kidnappings, assassinations and violence are commonplace. 

Rise of the 'Black Widows'

Dubbed the "Black Widows" by the Russian press, some of the female suicide bombers from the region are believed to be motivated by a desire to avenge the deaths of their husbands at the hands of Russian security forces. 

Others, however, say the women are products of a sophisticated process of indoctrination, and some experts believe that underpinning this phenomenon is the traumatization of women caused by the loss of male relatives and the influence of Salafi ideology. Author Yulia Yuzik, who has interviewed a number of the women and their relatives, told Time that North Caucasus women who become suicide bombers are typically exploited by fighters. "The women who take part in terrorism do it not out of their own desire or willingness but because they are manipulated. They are given no other choice." 

These women, she said, are often ostracized by members of their own community, who fear Russian security forces will target them, too. "The community that welcomes you after that is the Islamist one. There you find self-respect. You are called a sister. You go to pray with them, socialize with them and you integrate into these groups based around Islam. That in itself serves as a kind of counterforce to the security regime, a way of expressing grief and frustration," Yuzik told Time. 

Once the Salafi community begins insisting you carry out a suicide mission, she said, they do not let up. "They will pursue you forever, and you have nowhere else to go. That is the trap."

In the runup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the crackdown on suspected extremists has become particularly aggressive. This spring, in what they presented as a preemptive move, officials blew up the homes of several of the widows.

Security forces have also sealed off mountain villages and rounded up young men suspected of having ties to fighters.

Many madrassas, or Muslim religious schools, have been shut, along with charities run by the Salafis. While some Salafis have fled abroad, others are taking up arms, Salafi leaders say.

"By the Olympics, the most important thing for our image is for the situation to be calm and normal in Dagestan," said Ramazan Dzhafarov, Dagestan's deputy prime minister.

The turmoil is taking its toll on residents of the region. Albina Magomedova, a 35-year-old Salafi woman, left her home in Makhachkala for Turkey this month.

Her father disappeared after being kidnapped by gunmen, her husband was jailed, and her brother-in-law — an insurgent blamed for suicide bombings on the Moscow metro in 2010 — was killed by security forces, she said.

Surrounded by other women at her home before she left the country, Magomedova told Reuters, "Allah does not allow us to take up arms. If he allowed it, we would." Some of the others, gathered over sweets and tea, disagreed.

In July, Doku Umarov, the leader of Russia's Salafi insurgency, urged his fighters to use "maximum force" to sabotage the Olympics.

Security tightened

Putin has tightened security around Sochi, where Cossack militia patrol the streets.

On Oct. 25 the country’s parliament approved new legislation he submitted, toughening punishment for attacks and making the relatives of insurgents responsible for paying damages.

Security analysts say that fighters are unlikely to penetrate the layers of protection around Sochi, but that attacks cannot be ruled out, especially in nearby cities like Volgograd.

"The special services can't prevent everything. There are many people who want to ruin the Sochi Olympics," said Sergey Goncharov, formerly a senior counter-insurgency official.

Putin in January dismissed Dagestan's former leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, who had relaxed tough religious policies, sought dialogue with Salafi leaders, allowed them to open madrassas and set up a commission to rehabilitate rebels.

"They wanted to give young people an alternative for realizing their religious needs not in the woods (a local euphemism for joining insurgents) but at the mosque," said Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, the North Caucasus director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent body that works to prevent conflict.

She credits the softer approach with fewer youths joining insurgent ranks last year and a 15 percent drop from the previous year in the number of insurgency-related deaths.

Today the commission has been dismantled, and many of the moderate Salafi leaders have fled abroad.

Al Jazeera and Reuters                                         

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