Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Affluent Suicide Bombers

Alarming evidence that some of those involved in recent violence were from middle-class homes with no history of Islamic radicalism.
By IWPR staff


Dilnoza Holmuradova, suspected suicide bomber

On April 8, Zahro Holmuradova buried the body of her 19-year old daughter Dilnoza, who the authorities say was a suicide bomber in a wave of attacks which rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent at the end of March.


Photographs of another of Zahro's daughters, 22-year old Shahnoza, are currently plastered all over the city on posters warning that she is an Islamic "fanatic" prepared to carry out a similar attack.


Police investigating the violence, which they blame on Islamic extremists, say that Dilnoza Holmuradova detonated explosives strapped to her body at the city's Chorsu market on March 29. Reports at the time said two policemen as well as the bomber died in the blast, which was followed by street gun-battles and further explosions over the next three days.


The official death toll has been put at 47, including 33 attackers and 10 policemen.


"I don't know how this could happen to my girls," said Zahro. "They had a good education, and my husband and I lived for the single purpose of giving them professional skills."


Young women like Zahro's daughters from well-to-do Tashkent families do not fit the profile of the average Islamic radical, who might be expected to come from the ranks of the marginalised, under-educated poor, so desperate that dying for the cause would be a realistic option.


But analysts say the decision of these young, middle-class women to get involved in the activities of Islamic militant groups is a symptom of problems entrenched deep in Uzbek society.


Prior to her disappearance, Shahnoza was in her second year studying economics at Tashkent's institute of irrigation. Her sister Dilnoza was a computer programmer, and enrolled at the Tashkent police academy in 2001. Besides her native Uzbek and Russian, Dilnoza also spoke English, Turkish and Arabic.


The Holmuradovs had made every effort to pay for their daughters to get a good education, and the two daughters had also acquired driving licenses - still unusual for women in Uzbek society.


Zahro says her daughters began studying Islam in 2002 and were greatly influenced by a meeting they had with teachers of the religion.


"They began to change a great deal," she said. "They stopped wearing modern clothes, listening to music and watching television. We didn't like their passion for religion, but my husband and I couldn't influence them."


In January this year, Shahnoza and Dilnoza left home without saying anything to their parents. They took two dresses each and all the Muslim literature in the house.


Zahro and her husband tried to find their daughters themselves, before turning first to the police and then to the National Security Service.


"The police were only able to return my Dilnoza's corpse," said Zahro, adding that she still hopes to see Shahnoza alive.


The central police department in Tashkent says Dilnoza and Shahnoza were active members of a radical Islamic group and that both had received training in some unspecified foreign country. It is not clear what group they are believed to have joined, or what the nature of the training was.


Zahro Holmuradova continues to doubt the official line that Dilnoza blew herself up in a crowded market, saying her daughter's body was intact when she received it.


"She looked like she was sleeping, and there was only a burn on her stomach," she said. "My daughter Dilnoza did not blow herself up, she was shot."


A representative of the Tashkent city police maintained that, while it was understandable that Dilnoza's mother wouldn't want to believe it, the young woman did die in a suicide attack.


Besides Zahro and her husband, at least two other families in Tashkent have been told of the deaths of their daughters in the wake of the recent attacks.


The Turaev family were shocked to hear that their 26-year old daughter, also called Zahro, had been killed. Her death certificate says she blew herself up.


Again, Zahro Turaeva was a young women with good prospects. She was born into an educated Uzbek family, graduated from the university of technology, and had a job in a government office for architecture and construction.


Another parent, 73-year old Khairullo Inoyatov, says he doesn't know how his 21-year old daughter Shahnoza Inoyatova died. Shahnoza Inoyatova left home on March 28, the day before the worst of the attacks began, after leaving her parents a note to tell them not to worry, and that she was travelling to an Arab country with a young man she had met a month previously.


On April 4, police officers delivered her body to the Inoyatov family, and relatives heard that a friend of hers had also been killed.


"We couldn't see Shahnoza's body, it was wrapped in a shroud, and the police did not give us a death certificate. We don't know how our daughter died," said Khairullo Inoyatov.


A friend of Shahnoza who asked to remain anonymous was summoned to the Chilanzar district police station in Tashkent to give evidence. There, she says, she was shown a photo of Shahnoza's corpse and told, "Your friend was shot, and the same thing could happen to you."


Dilnoza Holmuradova, Zahro Turaeva and Shahnoza Inoyatova had all been studying Arabic at the Egyptian embassy's cultural centre in Uzbekistan.


Oleg Bichenov, head of the anti-terrorist department at the Tashkent police department, ruled out any connection between this coincidence and the women's alleged involvement in the violence.


"We need to think about how the women could become terrorists and blow themselves up, and what kind of psychological indoctrination they went through," Bichenov told journalists.


The government-appointed leader of Uzbekistan's Muslim community, Abdurashid Qori Bahromov, was at a loss to explain how young people could be drawn to groups that advocate violence in the name of Islam.


"It is not our fault that young people become terrorists," he said, arguing that there is nothing he can do to make such individuals change their minds.


"These are people with poisoned minds…. Killing innocent people and committing suicide is a great sin. Allah will not accept them, and they will go to hell."


While acknowledging that some young people might find themselves caught up in radical groups by accident, he says he doesn't consider extremist militants to be either "Muslims or people".


Some observers say the involvement of these young women from educated urban backgrounds is a sign of the crisis facing Uzbekistan, a traditionally Muslim society where the middle classes especially were strongly influenced by the Soviet system.


According to independent sociologist Bahodir Musaev, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a reassessment of values amongst Uzbek adults. Society began to disintegrate, people became impoverished and demoralised, and as a result, young people were left in an ideological vacuum.


"You could say that various extremist organisations found an empty niche and began to influence the still developing minds of young people," said Musaev.


A western expert who has been studying Central Asia for the last decade agreed, saying "One thing is clear - if young women from good families blow themselves up, there is something seriously wrong with this country."


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