I Met the Black Widow Suicide Bomber

A police officer stands guard near a train station at the Olympic Park in the Adler district of Sochi January 18, 2014. Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games from February 7 to 23. Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

What do the "black widow" Islamist suicide bombers reported to be headed for the Winter Olympics in Sochi look like?

I think back to May 2012 when a series of Islamist bombings in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, left 13 dead and over 130 injured. Two weeks later, two suspected terrorists were cornered in a house by security forces and, after the intervention of protesters, some women carrying babies were allowed to leave the premises.

The women were angry. One, who claimed both her brothers had been killed by Russian forces, said to me, "I am ready to do anything. I can blow myself up, together with all these nonbelievers."

This week I was informed by an official in Makhachkala that the furious woman I spoke to was none other than Ruzana Ibragimova, one of the black widows desperately being sought by police after warning they had intelligence she was on her way to bomb the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Police suspect Ibragimova is already in the Olympic city, having arrived from from Dagestan earlier this month.

I also met recently another woman closely associated with Islamist terrorism, "Aisha" - not her real name - a niece of Doku Umarov, the leading Chechen terrorist who has promised to wage war against the Kremlin until his country is free of Moscow rule. Russians call him "the Russian Osama bin Laden."

Umarov has been seen so rarely in the past decade, the authorities have pronounced him dead eight times. I asked Aisha when she had last seen him. It was in a mosque in the Ingush city of Nazran more than 10 years ago, in the midst of the second Chechen war, she said.

She recalled being shocked and a little frightened when she saw him, as if she had seen a ghost. She looked deep into the dark sharp eyes of a bearded man who had come in to the mosque to pray and she found them to be familiar. They were her uncle's eyes.

As he and his two companions were leaving, one of the men - her uncle - turned to her and said, "Tell your grandfather that Doku Umarov paid a visit." It was then she knew for certain it was her uncle.

Aisha found Umarov's transformation from besuited office worker, when she had last seen him, to guerilla fighter disguised as a holy man quite striking. "They really know how to put on a disguise," Aisha said. "He and his men could walk and travel freely in this outfit anywhere in the North Caucasus resembling old Muslim men and be treated with respect."

Aisha's Uncle Doku is leader of Emirate Caucasus, whose paramilitaries have terrorized Russia for the past 15 years, killing hundreds of government officials every year, mounting suicide attacks on police stations and military bases, bombing subway cars full of passengers and even attacking one of Moscow's busiest airports.

Since Umarov's reign of terror began he has caused the deaths of more than 1,000 Russians.

Umarov had once lived in the October district of Grozny, working as the state security secretary for the government of the independent republic of Chechnya when it was briefly independent of Russian rule. He was not particularly religious, relatives said.

Shortly before he disappeared to join the guerrillas, Umarov was studying to become a student at Grozny State Oil and Technological University in the mundane construction department. Then he disappeared to join the armed struggle for Chechen independence.

Is Aisha's uncle alive today? The family say they don't know. A few weeks ago, the head of the republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, proudly announced that Umarov had "died a rat's death." That would have been more readily believed if it had not been the eighth time Umarov had been declared dead.

If Umarov is dead, he is continuing to wage war from beyond the grave. His latest order to his jihadist followers, delivered in the summer via Youtube, was to attack the Olympic Games that open next month, the order that sent the black widows heading for Sochi.

Putin has a lot riding on the success of the games. Not only has the enterprise so far cost Russian taxpayers and investors more than $51 billion, but Putin believes national prestige is at stake if anything were to go wrong.

This week, the Russian authorities issued the warning to beware of four women suicide bombers. (Suicide bombing is one of Umarov's preferred methods of attack.) Photographs of the women were issued, their stern faces framed in hijabs.

"Jihadists have a new trend: recruiting Russian ethnic suicide bombers," the leader of the police union of Dagestan, Magomed Shamilov, explained.

Since the summer, when Umarov issued his threats to the Winter Olympics, police have returned time and again to question his sisters and other relatives. The family feel it is like living "on top of a barrel of gunpowder," Aisha told Newsweek.

Where do Umarov and his fellow fighters get their funding? Some comes from inside Russia. According to Sergey Markov, Putin's trusted advisor, much of the money comes from Russian sources, particularly from regions where there is a large Muslim population.

But there are foreign sources of funds, too. "Mostly Saudi Arabia, but also Qatar foundations continue to wire money to Umarov's jihadist troops and other Islamic organizations in the country," Markov told Newsweek. "We hoped that when Putin helped to prevent the West's bombings of Syria, jihad would ease up on Russia, but apparently not."

Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the board of Human Rights Center Memorial argues that only 5 percent of the Islamists' finance comes from Saudi Arabia. "In places like Dagestan, insurgencies created a life tax or Islamic tax, a system of extracting money for jihad under a life threat from the local elite," Cherkasov said.

In the past few years, jihadist ideas have spread among unhappy young Russians across the whole of the nation. The Internet has helped spread the word of Islam and attacks on the materialist values of modern Russia, with its corrupt officials and stunted economic opportunities.

The headlines in Russia have traced a trail of devastation.

In 2010, six men from the Siberian town of Kirovsky converted to Islam and killed three policemen in the name of jihad. A year later, Russian suicide bombers Vitaliy Razdobutko and Maria Horosheva blew up themselves and three policemen in the Dagestani village of Gubden.

On New Year's Eve, 34 were killed and more than 100 injured in two separate attacks by suicide bombers in Volgograd, reportedly one of the terrorists was an emergency room nurse, Pavel Pechenkin, who converted to Islam in 2012. "In Volgograd, she appeared almost like a hipster, with an ordinary baseball cap and a backpack," said Ekaterina Sokirianskaya, North Caucasus director of International Crises Group, a nonprofit nongovermental organization committed to resolving deadly conflicts. Most suicide bombers come from Dagestan, next door to Chechnya, Sokirianskaya said.

Last weekend, a 49-minute video was posted showing two mujahideens, Suleiman and Abdurakhaman, proudly holding machine guns and promising "presents" for Sochi. "We have no reason not to believe the threats," said Galina Temresova, a retiree who lives in Sochi. "Besides, we already heard that one suicide bomber is in Sochi. I will spend the next three weeks at home."

Putin tried to comforted the thousands heading to Sochi for the games. "We know what the challenge is and how to handle it," he said.

Putin has drafted strong leaders into Chechnya - first father Akhmat then son Ramzan Kadyrov, veteran fighters in the war for hearts and minds in Chechnya who have imposed upon the country Islam in an iron fist.

When Newsweek first began talking with Ramzan, in 2006, he still lived in his father's modest village house. Today, the Chechen leader and father of eight also lives in two large palaces behind fortified gates, with garages filled with collectors' cars, and a zooful of wild animals. When asked who paid for his opulent lifestyle, he said, jokingly, the money came "from Allah."

Kadyrov wears smart brown, dark blue and black uniforms designed by his wife Medni's fashion house, Firdaws (Paradise Gardens). His lavish, glittering 35th birthday party was attended by actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, actress Hilary Swank, British violinist Vanessa-Mae and singer Seal.

He can burst into tears without warning. During one of the interviews with Newsweek, he cried when he spoke about his love for his Sufi sheikh and also about the moment he entered Holy Kaaba in Mecca in 2009.

His aim is to create "a safe and fun city for young people, so the world will stop thinking of [the Chechens] as terrorists," he told Newsweek.

The Kadyrovs did bring about a form of peace to Chechnya. But the rebuilding came "at an immense cost: highly authoritarian government, grave human rights abuses, repression of political rivals and independent activists," said Sokirianskaya. In Chechnya, authorities offered the population part of what they wanted, radical Islam, now overseen by Kadyrov, but not the other part, independence, he said.

"The Moscow authorities had a chance to make peace," said Abas Kebedov, one of the leaders of the Salafi community Ahlu-Sunna in Dagestan. "They could have listened to [moderate voices] and stopped them from joining the underground. But our government chose to kill and bomb religious people. It is our common trouble now."