Archive for May, 2013

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The violence in Syria has descended into sectarian warfare, attracting Islamic extremists from all over the world. Tensions with Turkey have escalated as the conflict claims Turkish lives and threatens to spill across its border. The West, wringing its hands over whether and how to intervene, has offered a diplomatic solution, but one that requires an impossible, simultaneous laying down of arms. Russia, in the meantime, continues to send its navy to putter around menacingly at the Syrian port of Tartus, where it has a small base; it also continues to sell arms to Assad’s regime, despite U.S. objections. Nevertheless, Russia has expressed its hope and willingness to see the diplomatic solution put to work to avert a potential years-long civil war.

Sound familiar? That was June 2012, just under a year ago. Arguably, the only thing that’s changed in Syria since then is the scale: more casualties, more extremists, more violence, more spillover. What hasn’t changed is the rest of the world’s approach to the mess. Obama continues to waffle and stall, the Europeans continue to push for at least arming the rebels, and the Russians continue to hold the stay-out-of-it line, while doing little to hide the fact that their ships are massing in Tartus and that they’re shipping weapons to Assad.

What’s Russia’s endgame? That hasn’t changed much either: stall, maintain the status quo as long as possible. It is for this reason that Russian ships continue to cruise around in Tartus and that Moscow keeps sending arms to Damascus. The Russian ships and the anti-aircraft missiles won’t be used against the rebels—who have no planes or ships—but, rather, are Russia’s way of maintaining equilibrium. If the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels, Russia will arm Assad. If the West makes moves to intervene, Russia ships and anti-aircraft supplies will have made the moves exponentially more risky. But the reality, as familiar as it is, is evolving, and it’s making it increasingly difficult for Russia to tread water. “Russia would prefer a status quo, yes, but everyone here understands that a status quo no longer exists,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s a slowly disintegrating situation. The erosion of the regime is acknowledged by all, but what is the time horizon? How long will it take till it finally crumbles? Russia can wait, but the U.S. can’t.”

Russia is willing to wait in part because it has, and has always had, a fundamentally different conception of the conflict. “For Americans to understand the Russian position, you have to understand that the American, Western position is not totally right,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy foreign affairs editor of the main Russian daily, Kommersant. “The Russian position is less emotional and more pragmatic. Russia doesn’t believe at face value all these emotional declarations that a bloody dictator is stifling freedom and democracy.” Since the conflict began, Russia has been pointing out that if Assad goes, those that replace him may not necessarily be liberal, Western-minded democrats. And what follows the end of this war may not necessarily be peace. Because, in Moscow’s view, what’s happening in Syria is a fundamentally local, religious fight, but one, as Yusin puts it, “to which we’ve all become prisoner.”

“Moscow understands that something has to be done because the war has been going on for two years and it has to stop,” he explains. “But if Assad’s opponents win, there will be a bloodbath. Shiites and Alawites will be slaughtered.” Moreover, he adds, echoing the official Russian position, that the successors to Assad will likely be the ones flying the black flag of jihad and sponsoring terrorism outside Syria’s borders. Lukyanov points out that Syria has long been home to those displaced by the upheavals in the Caucasus, which has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamist insurrection. “Getting rid of a dictatorial but secular regime, and replacing it with an Islamist regime creates yet another support network for the terrorists in our backyard,” Lukyanov explains. Yusin makes a starker analogy. “Assad does not want to target America, but these guys do,” he says. “These are thousands of potential Tsarnaevs, and France and Britain want to arm them!”

One argument the Russians make officially is that all of this posturing, all of this standing behind Assad and sending ribboned delegations to show the Kremlin’s support, is not so much about Assad, but about principle. Assad won an election, and now the West and its Arab allies have decided to topple him — as the Kremlin sees it, in order to weaken Iran, Syria’s main ally. (American meddling has ramifications at home, too: Less than a year after Tahrir Square, Moscow exploded in anti-Putin protests with Western leaders, like Hillary Clinton, egging them on—at least that’s how the Kremlin saw it.) And if Syria goes, what happens to Iran, and, by extension, Russian influence in the region? They lost Saddam, they lost Qaddafi; now Assad, too?

This is the crux of the issue. Moscow may not have a long term plan—in fact, while it knows that the peace conference it’s co-sponsoring with the U.S. will inevitably fail, it continues to push the idea anyway—but fighting the fight, acknowledging the proxy war aloud is, in some ways, all that matters. “The issue isn’t a love for Assad, or our port at Tartus, or even the arms sales,” says Georgy Mirsky, a venerable Russian scholar of the Middle East. “These things matter, of course, but they are not the main thing. We can live without Syria, we can live without Assad, but to allow someone to say that Moscow is dancing to Washington’s tune would be unacceptable. Unacceptable.” This, Mirsky says, is a holdover from the Soviet days, which, at the Russian Foreign Ministry, have never quite receded. “Soviet rule has been gone for twenty years, but the Soviet mentality remains, especially at the very top,” Mirsky explains. “There is a very strong suspicion that you can’t trust the Americans in any way because they’ll take every opportunity to do something nasty to us. So the instinct is that if the Americans are against someone in the Third World, then we have to be for this person. And vice-versa. This all comes from the Soviet mentality.” This would explain why Mirsky once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.”

The problem with this approach, if you’re America, is that there isn’t much you can do with a fluid, roving check-mate. There is even less you can do when your ostensible partners in bringing the two sides together project onto you their worst fears and suspicions, and when everything is done not to win, but to prolong a status quo that no longer exists.

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria [TNR]

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

While Moscow slept, and Washington slept, a man named, as far as we know, Ryan Christopher Fogle, who had been, as far as we know, a third secretary in the political section at the American embassy in Moscow, was tackled by guys from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was wearing an awkward wig that shone blonde in the night time footage, with a gray baseball cap perched atop it. His clothes—a blue checked shirt and a pair of jeans—made him look like a delinquent frat boy being hustled away from a rowdy costume house party in a police cruiser, not the CIA case officer the Russian authorities said he was. Fogle, they said, had tried to flip an FSB agent by offering him $100,000 in crisp 500 Euro notes. Also recovered at the scene: a brown wig, four pairs of sunglasses, a Moscow street atlas, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, a cell phone that seems to have been on this earth for at least a decade, and a compass. There was also a letter, “from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism,” instructing the recipient to set up a Gmail account at a café with wifi in order to get in touch with the Agency. It was signed, “Your friends.”

It was a strange scene, and it got even stranger when Fogle, whose arrest was filmed by the FSB, was hustled, handcuffed, into the agency’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters and berated, on camera, by an FSB officer with a blurry face and an impeccable American accent. Fogle, he said, had phoned the FSB agent at around 11pm last night and asked to meet with him. When the FSB agent declined, Fogle insisted and got his meeting. This agent, the berating officer gently explained, “is responsible for [redacted], and is involved in fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus.” He is, the officer noted, “a well-trained warrior.” “At first, we didn’t believe that this could have happened, because you know perfectly well that, recently, the FSB is actively aiding the investigation into the explosions in Boston, as well as other information that is potentially threatening to the safety of the United States of America,” the officer went on, his voice rising steadily as he began to circle around Fogle, bobbing from the waist as he became more and more angry at the thought of all of Fogle’s iniquity. There was the FBI visit to Moscow, the productive meeting between Obama and Putin. “And, with this as a backdrop, when relations between the two countries are being strengthened, an American diplomat commits a state crime against the Russian Federation. We think that, when two presidents are working hard to strengthen ties, when they are trying to improve the climate of mutual understanding, this citizen, in the name of the government of the U.S., commits the most serious of crimes here, in Moscow!”

Fogle, who seems to have no trouble understanding the Russian official’s accusations of harshing the geopolitical mellow, sits in his chair looking like a kid who’s been in trouble before and knows exactly how this is going to go. He has clearly been trained for such an eventuality. He seems to know that soon, the Russians will release him back to the U.S. Embassy, he’ll be PNG’d and expelled from the country, and, after a brief shitstorm, all will go back to its old ways. And that’s exactly what happened.

But the whole incident is a strange one. First of all, wigs and a compass? Really? Did he not graduate up to the Groucho Marx glasses? “Yeah, the Agency has a tendency to do that,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in Europe and the Middle East. The problem, he says, is that when you don’t have a “tech” present to help you compile your disguise, “you usually come out looking like a gay mad scientist.” “I know everyone gets a kick out of the wigs and thinks that went out with the Cold War, but it didn’t!” says Peter Earnest, former CIA operations officer and executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington. “Sometimes, light diguise works really well if you’re meeting someone at night and you don’t want a casual observer to recognize you.” Earnest points out that all the “fancy” hi-tech stuff is great, but is easily hacked into. “Osama bin Laden cut off all electornic communications,” Earnest points out. “He was using medieval methods—a courier!” As for the Gmail account Fogle was encouraging his target to open? “That’s not surprising,” says Gerecht. This, apparently, was a “cold pitch”—trying to flip someone unprimed—and the procedures, Gerecht says, “are fairly standard.”

Surprised? Well, given the other espionage techniques that the Russians and Americans have used on each other in the past, you shouldn’t be. “Oh, you should talk to [former Moscow CIA station chief] Burt Gerber,” one espionage specialist exuberantly suggested. “He invented the pop-up kit!” The pop-up kit, if you must know, is what the Agency used in Moscow at the height of the Cold War: because all cars coming out of the U.S. embassy were tailed by the KGB, the American spook would have a driver who would make a sharp turn, the spy would jump out and disappear into a crowd, and a contraption in the shape of a human would pop up in the passenger’s seat. Then, there was the “spy rock,” in 2006. The Russians alleged that the British were using a rock to spy on them. It was all very funny until last year, when the Brits confirmed that, yes, in fact the rock had been spying on the Russians. (Actually, it was being used to send and transmit data, which is notoriously difficult to do when spying on the cunning Russians. “The rock was a real improvement over what we had before,” says Robert Jervis, an expert in the field and a professor at Columbia.) The Russians are not too shabby when it comes to Keystone Cops maneuvers, either. In the summer of 2010, ten Russian “sleeper” agents were busted by the FBI. Among their techniques: using WiFi in cafes, swapping orange bags in public places, and burying money in a field. Anna Chapman, the most infamous of the so-called “Illegals,” purchased a temporary cell phone and registered it to the following address: “99 Fake St.”

What’s most amazing is that, by all accounts, Moscow is a terribly difficult place to work if you’re a spy. “Every case officer had a half life in Moscow because the place was bugged up the wazoo,” says Gerecht. “They could sniff out who you were pretty fast.” And yet, our spies are using blonde wigs straight from a Halloween store, printed instructions, and compasses. No one had an explanation for why, but at least, Gerecht assured me, we’re not using this in Islamabad and Sana’a. (Says Earnest: “It would not surprise me.”)

What is it we’re looking for in Moscow? During the Cold War, some 40 percent of the CIA was dedicated to spying on the Soviet Union. One old hand described meeting a woman whose full-time job at the Agency was tracking the canned-goods industry in the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, counter-terrorism has become the priority, and Russia has become, for the most part, just another country. These days, we’re mostly concerned with Russia’s still well-stocked nuclear arsenal and their counterterrorism operations in the volatile North Caucasus. And, there’s the “defensive” target, explains Jervis. “If we can penetrate the FSB, we can learn a lot about what they’re trying to find out about us,” he says. (That’s right. We’re spying on them to see what they’ve spied on us, and they’re spying on us to see what we’ve spied on them.) In this case, the Russians seemed to be accusing Fogle of going rogue in the international Boston investigation. Unclear if that’s true, mostly because the video and the FSB officer’s lecture were featured prominently on Russian state TV, and most such spy scandals are handled quietly. Most likely, Fogle was caught red-handed—or blonde-wigged—and the increasingly powerful, increasingly visible hardline faction of the Russian government was just flexing its muscles, and showing that, though it’s cooperating with the Americans, it’s still stronger and wilier than the Yanks. One Russia analyst jokingly speculated that Fogle was a double agent working for the FSB, sent in to make the CIA look bad. “I’m only half-joking,” he added.

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot [TNR]

Foreigners in Their Own Land

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Monday’s rally in Moscow started with a moment of silence to commemorate the event, exactly one year ago, that sowed the seed of the protest movement’s demise.

Last year, on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin was inaugurated president of the Russian Federation for the third time, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully down a wide Moscow avenue to Bolotnaya Square, an act that itself commemorated the first mass protest against Putin’s government on December 10, 2011. It was a heady time: People were angry and fed up with the government’s increasingly ham-fisted lies, and they were giddy at the discovery that there were tens of thousands of people in an atomized, sprawling city who were just like them, a fact that the Russian media had done its best to keep from anyone.

But then—either because of a planning glitch, or, more likely, a police provocation—the May 6 protest devolved into chaos. Police and protestors clashed violently in the square, and the violence spread throughout the city as the protestors scattered, and police pincered them out of subways and cafes. It was a violent, horrifying day, made all the more so by the unexpectedness of the conflagration.

In the following year, the protest movement sank into a kind of aimless despair as the state systematically arrested 28 people it deemed had disturbed the peace. One, Maria Baronova, a young mother, faces two years in prison for a YouTube video showing her encouraging protesters. One young man faces a lengthy jail term for exhorting people to violence, even though he has a debilitating stutter. Others face years in prison for hitting police officers, when they were the ones injured. The dragnet even caught an old woman, a pensioner. (There were, of course, no investigations into possible police brutality; all the injured special ops fighters who suffered bruises and bloody noses were rewarded with free apartments.)

Monday’s rally was nominally to show support for these people, the so-called Prisoners of Bolotnaya, whom the government has clearly made an example of: You want to protest, be prepared for the consequences. But in reality, today’s protest was a sort of test for signs of life. Did anything remain of that thrilling, optimistic protest movement of yesteryear?

The answer? A definitive, depressing maybe. As usual, more people came than the pessimistic projections predicted: anywhere from 8,000 (police estimate) to 30,000 (organizers). By all accounts, the hopelessness was dissipated a bit by anger, but the aimlessness of it all was still there. “It was a lot of people,” tweeted Moscow Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder. “And they know what they want. But they—and the opposition leaders—still dunno how to get there…” This was reflected in the tired, usual-suspects line-up of speakers, and their staid, regurgitated speechifying. It was made all the more pathetic by the weak sound system: A mishap earlier in the day had killed a volunteer setting up the equipment, and speeches had to be delivered from the side of a truck rigged up as a stage. Sometimes, it reverted into farce, as when opposition journalist Oleg Kashin went dada and sang, a capella, a song called “It’s All Going According to Plan.” Some invoked the Stalinist purges of 1937—a common, if slightly inappropriate trope of late. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and an opposition veteran, declared, “No more resolutions! This time, we have demands!” It was a cringeworthy, unwittingly Monty Python-esque moment, and it reflected the impotence of the large, angry crowd. It was the age-old Russian dilemma, incarnate: What is to be done?

Elder told me that everyone she spoke to came to the rally “because we couldn’t not come.” She said it reminded her of the people who vote for Putin “because there’s no one else to vote for.” “It’s all so passive,” she noted. I would argue that the passiveness is the impotence of defeat, when, as the Russian saying goes, your hands fall to your sides because you just don’t see what can be done. Because if the government ignores you and doesn’t give an inch—the best the Kremlin could do today was simply to say that Putin is “aware” of everything going on; aware, and nothing but—there’s not much you can do. And if it pushes and intimidates, it makes sense to do what many Muscovites do: retreat into your vacations to Goa and your Apple products, into a cozy cocoon of friends and family, hidden from the brutality outside. Or you could do what an unverifiable number of Russians are doing: leaving. But it’s a hard decision to make. “I have no other country, I have nowhere to retreat,” boomed opposition politician Alexey Navalny, the one rousing speaker today. It was a heartbreaking expression of what I’ve seen in many of my liberal Moscow friends: They are being slowly squeezed out of their country, being made to feel like foreigners in their own land.

After the live streams from Bolotnaya ended, I spent the afternoon watching videos from the fallout of last year’s May 6 violence: a peaceful, many-days-long sit-in at the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh poet, on one of Moscow’s old tree-lined boulevards. It was a wonderful, happy spring, the days sunny and long, full of hope and silliness, and people played guitars and sang old Polish Solidarity songs about toppling walls with their shoulders. A year later, it’s hard to watch. There is no one at the fountain today, and it’s not just because it’s unseasonably cold in Moscow.

Foreigners in Their Own Land [TNR]

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story

Monday, May 6th, 2013

There were three important women in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s life—five, if you count his sisters—and each is a window into the culture to which he seemed to cling in the final years of his life.

First, there is his aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, a Chechen refugee from Kyrgyzstan and now a resident of Toronto, by way of the U.S. In a press conference the day her nephew Dzhokhar was being hunted in the streets of suburban Boston, Maret, with her rust-colored hair and silvery manicured nails, gave a magnificent performance. She was brassy and assertive, commanding the attention of the reporters calling to her with questions. “I’m lawyer from back home,” she declared, exhorting the FBI to prove to her that her nephews were responsible for the bombing of the Boston marathon. “How difficult is that? Give me evidence!” she demanded, flicking her hand into the air as if peppering the press with her disdain. She talked about her nephews, but also about her youth in Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers spent part of their childhoods. As a Chechen, Maret said she had to prove her mettle, to go over and above her Kyrgyz and Kazakh peers because, unlike them, “I was not in my land.” Asked about Tamerlan’s radicalization, Maret acknowledged that he did indeed turn to Islam in recent years. “He started praying five times a day, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” she said. “You just say words, gratitude to Creator.”

Maret is the old Chechnya: secular, Soviet, severed from its roots, paranoid and cynical in its knowledge, acquired painfully and firsthand, of what a government can do to its subjects. When Maret talked about her nephews being framed, she knew what she was talking about: “Lawyer from back home” actually meant state prosecutor, a key actor in a judicial system that was in practice a political bludgeon, one that actively invented charges against potential opponents. Maret also talked about Islam as a thing that is both native and foreign to her. Islam was something into which she was born, and which, to her, likely, is a set of pleasant traditions and holidays that give her a sense of belonging to an old history. For someone who had a Soviet upbringing, being born a Muslim was akin to being born Chechen; it was just another mark of ethnicity, and, towards the end of the Soviet experiment, didn’t mean much more than having a non-Slavic name.

Enter her sister-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, wife to her brother Anzor, mother to her nephews Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. You look at that old baby photo of Tamerlan from the late 1980s, and you see Zubeidat looking like a more sullen version of Maret. Her hair is uncovered and fashionably teased; her dress is secular, even stylish. At a press conference in Makhachkala, Dagestan, a quarter of a century later, she is a woman transformed, though the long, morose face is still the same. In between, she had moved from the wasteland that was nominally Buddhist Kalmykia, where Tamerlan had been born, to nominally Muslim Kyrgzystan, had another son, Dzhokhar, and two daughters, emigrated to America, gone to beauty school, married off her older son and daughters with uneven success, was arrested for shoplifting, divorced her husband, and moved back with him to her native Dagestan.

Somewhere along the way, Zubeidat found Islam in a way Maret never did.1 It is said that Zubeidat pushed Tamerlan toward the old faith when he started to lose his way, and it is also said that Mikhail Allakhverdov, the mysterious “Misha,” a Ukrainian-Armenian convert to Islam, had pushed Zubeidat or Tamerlan or both closer to Islam. And from there, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar seem to have moved on to more intense forms of the religion, including an interest in the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It is something that seems to have percolated through the house and into Zubeidat’s newfound faith: She told one of her customers that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job designed to turn the world against Muslims. “My son knows all about it,” Zubeidat is said to have claimed . “You can read on the Internet.”

Zubeidat is the new Chechnya, and the new Dagestan. At the Makhachkala press conference, she is dressed in a long-sleeved black caftan, her face framed tightly by a black and white hijab. Her mourning is expressive and theatrical, almost Middle Eastern. She talks about how she regrets moving to America— “why did I even go there?”—about how she expected America to keep her children safe, but instead “it happened opposite,” she says, weeping. “America took my kids away.” If the Tsarnaevs hadn’t emigrated, Zubeidat contends, “my kids would be with us, and we would be, like, fine.”

That, in the new Chechnya and the new Dagestan, is highly unlikely. While the Tsarnaevs were in Kyrgyzstan and America, the region began to change rather violently. After the First Chechen War ended in 1996, Chechnya became a mix of lawless wilderness rife with violence and kidnapping, and pockets ruled by fundamentalist warlords, like Aslan Maskhadov. After a second war between Russia and Chechnya broke out in 1999 and dragged on for years, Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of Chechnya. Kadyrov was the son of a separatist mufti and led a vicious militia that switched to the Russian side early in the second war, and become allied with the FSB.

Kadyrov, who now posts photographs of his devout family at play or going on Muslim pilgrimages on his Instagram account, is accused of grotesque human rights violations. He now rules Chechnya with a mix of terror and a torrent of money from Moscow. He has led Chechnya down the path of increasing Islamization. Women are now required to cover up, lest they be harassed by the authorities or, worse, subject to paintball attacks by Kadyrov’s modesty vigilantes. Kadyrov has also voiced his support of honor killings, a rather stark turn for the once secular republic. “Now Chechen women must wear hijab and long dress with long sleeves to go anywhere out of home. There have been many situations of the public humiliation of those who tried to resist,” a Chechen woman told me. She asked to remain anonymous for fear for her family’s safety. “The previous generation was under the radicalization of Wahhabi regime during 1996-1999, but the Wahhabis lost, they didn’t achieve the goal to cover all Chechen women with hijab. But now the government has achieved that goal. This young generation of radicalized girls and boys might be a real threat to the society in the nearest future.”

Even before this policy had firmly taken root, the region became a source of unique terrorism: the female suicide bomber. The first woman to detonate herself was 22-year-old Khava Baraeva, who, in 2000, drove a truck packed with explosives into a local Russian military base, killing three. She was going after the commander who had killed her husband. Other Chechen and Dagestani women followed her lead, blowing up military posts as well as civilian targets inside Russia. Two women, for example, simultaneously brought down two Russian airliners in 2004, killing 89, and two young Dagestani women blew themselves up in the Moscow metro, in March 2010, killing 40. Half of the terrorists who seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in 2002 were women, strapped with explosives. Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of suicide bombings originating in the region are perpetrated by women.

The women have come to be known in Russia as “Black Widows.” At home they are known as shakhikdi, the Russianized feminine form shakhid, or martyr. “A lot of the women in these radical Islamic groups, for example, in Indonesia, they don’t get personally involved in frontline warfare but they raise their sons so that if their father is killed, they can step right away into his shoes,” says Mia Bloom, a scholar at Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and author of Bombshell, a book about women suicide bombers. “Women act as the glue within the terrorist cell,” she explains. “The daughter of one cell leader will marry a cell leader in another area to create linkages, like in 15th century European courts. And the women are to make sure that their men stayed fierce.” Bloom adds that, though it’s hard to do this in the U.S., in conflict zones “the mothers will convey a certain ideology or worldview to the children.” Others, like Mariam Farhat, a Hamas activist, encouraged her sons to go on suicide missions, and publicly bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have more sons to send into battle.

Chechen and Dagestani women took it one step further; they went into battle themselves. It is a stunning paradox, given that at home they live in what Bloom calls “an extraordinarily patriarchal society—so much so that the women at the Dubrovka theater were wearing explosive belts, they were not the ones with the detonators.” The man is the means and the ends of a Chechen home. When a Chechen woman is married, she is not allowed to speak at the wedding. Often, her relatives can’t even come. It is a celebration of the man’s acquisition. “In a Caucasian family, where the man dominates, woman is raised to take care of the man and to sacrifice for the man,” the Chechen woman told me. “The Caucasian code of ethics requires the woman to be modest and quiet. But during the war in Chechnya I have witnessed so many times how Chechen women would step before tanks and armed soldiers, aiming weapons at them, if their men were in danger of being captured or killed. So, this socially required behavior changes when it comes to a life and death issue. Mothers are ready to sacrifice for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for husbands, and so on.”

Though Zubeidat refuses to accept her sons’ guilt—“No, never,” she said that day in Makhachkala—and though a Russian wiretap caught her talking with Tamerlan about jihad, it seems unlikely that she would strap herself with explosives and charge forth against the enemy. Chechen and Dagestani mothers usually don’t. And that’s where Katherine Russell comes in, especially after a woman’s DNA was said to have been found on a fragment of the bomb.

Russell, the daughter of a Rhode Island doctor, met Tamerlan at a night club, converted to Islam, and, after marrying the elder Tsarnaev brother, reportedly became more observant and began to pull away from her family. She went to work while her husband stayed home. According to her friends, he was often abusive, calling her a “prostitute” and hurling furniture at her. This too is unfortunately common in the culture: Tamerlan’s naturalization was held up when he faced charges for slapping his girlfriend; his father, in an interview with The New York Times, wondered aloud at the strangeness of this country, where “you can’t touch a woman.”

But unlike a black widow, and unlike Zubeidat and Maret, when her husband was accused of blowing up the Boston Marathon and then died in a shoot-out with police, Russell, the American, did not pick up arms, verbal or physical, to avenge her man. She walked away. His violent attack on the state did not bond her to him; rather, it seemed to rip her out of his orbit, to shame and terrify her where, had Tamerlan been a radical in Dagestan, it may have brought her a certain grief-tinged honor. Instead, Russell issued statements in which she expressed her ignorance of the plot—the DNA was found not to be hers—as well as her shock and her family’s grief for the victims of the bombing. Most tellingly, she declined to claim Tamerlan’s body. Instead, it was claimed by his sisters, who though Americanized and horrified by Tamerlan’s act, said they would give their brother a proper Muslim burial.

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story [TNR]