Crashes: Did 'Black Widows' Bring Down The Planes

Russian officials confirmed what the rest of the world suspected: that terrorism was a likely cause of two nearly simultaneous crashes of airliners that took off from the same Moscow airport one night last week. The FSB (formerly the KGB) announced that traces of the explosive hexogen had been found in the wreckage of Siberia Airlines Flight 1047, en route to Sochi, and Volga-Aviaexpress Flight 1303, to Volgograd. The planes had taken off from Moscow's Domodedovo airport within 45 minutes of each other and apparently crashed just three minutes apart. FSB spokesman Nikolai Zakharov confirmed that investigators had "defined a circle of individuals possibly involved in conducting the terrorist act." The two crash sites were about 500 miles apart. Ninety passengers and crew are believed to have died.

Edgy Russian officials initially tried to steer speculation about the possible causes of the crashes toward the accidental: it was suggested that mechanical problems or contaminated fuel could have brought the planes down. Western experts, citing the lack of precedent for the crash of two planes within minutes of each other, ridiculed the early Russian explanations. Speculation about possible accidental causes was undermined when reports surfaced that a radio transponder which broadcast the identification of one of the planes to controllers briefly sent out a hijack-alert message before it cut out permanently, apparently as a result of the crash. Then the FSB announced its finding of explosives residue.

A little-known Islamic extremist group called the Al-Islambouli Brigades, which previously claimed credit for trying to kill the president of Pakistan, issued a statement on a jihadi Web site claiming that five-member teams of its mujahedin had hijacked the two planes; U.S. intelligence officials were not sure the claim was authentic. More intriguing were reports that authorities were trying to determine why families had not stepped forward to claim the bodies of two Chechen women, one on each of the crashed airliners. One theory: the crashes were the work of a cultlike band of militant Chechen women known as the "Black Widows" because their Islamic mujahedin husbands were killed fighting Russian security forces. Suspected Black Widows wearing dark Islamic dress and explosives-rigged "martyrs' belts" were implicated in the siege of a Moscow theater in 2002 and also in at least two Moscow bombings last year. Some U.S. officials caution that it may be in Russian President Vladimir Putin's political interest to hype a Chechen connection to the crashes to justify his government's continuing crackdown on Islamic rebels in the breakaway region.

Crashes: Did 'Black Widows' Bring Down The Planes | News