Covered from head to toe in all-black Islamic robes with only their determined, kohl-lined eyes showing, they quickly came to be called the "black widows" as a horrified world watched a new Chechen female suicide squad in action last week.
They were widows of Chechen rebels killed in the separatist war with Russia, they told the 700-odd terrified hostages at Moscow's Palace of Culture Theater. And they warned the captured theater patrons that their zest for death was stronger than their captives' collective will to live.
Death ultimately did strike the 18 black widows and some 30-odd other rebels before sunrise on Saturday, when Russian special forces pumped a mysterious knockout gas into the theater during a controversial raid to end the 2 ½-day standoff.
Hours after the operation ended, news cameras inside the theater captured a surreal scene of the bodies of the once-dreaded women warriors slumped and lifeless on the plush red seats of the auditorium. Explosives were strapped around many of the bodies.
Commonly called "hell on Earth," Chechnya has been the site of one of the murkiest insurgencies in modern history since Russian troops first entered the Muslim-dominated southern Russian state in 1994 to quash a separatist movement.
In the past few years, the international community has come to expect the worst from the Chechen conflict, including kidnappings, disappearances, tortures and raids in an all-pervasive climate of lawlessness and terror.
But even the most seasoned Russian experts were horrified by the sight of the "widows of the war" calmly announcing their intention to blow up the famous Moscow theater in a videotaped message, which was aired the Arabic satellite TV network al Jazeera just hours after the rebels seized the theater.
"I was shocked, very much so," said Sebastian Gorka, a fellow at the Virginia-based Terrorism Research Center. "For those familiar with mainstream Chechen society — which to put it bluntly, is a conservative society — the concept of front-line Chechen female combatants is unusual, it's a novelty."
A Frightening New Face of Terror
But for many of the hostages, the black widows were a particularly frightening terror innovation.
Russian newspapers reported chilling witness accounts of the determination and discipline of the female rebels, with several freed hostages complaining that the women guerrillas were particularly aggressive.
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda, for instance, Ludmila Fedyantseva, a schoolteacher who was trapped in the theater with her 73-year-old mother, recounted how she constantly sought medicine for the ailing woman.
On one such mission, Fedyantseva said she was accosted by a female Chechen rebel called Svyeta, who demanded to know why the teacher had left her seat.
"My mother is dying," Fedyantseva said she told her captor.
She said Svyeta replied stonily: "It doesn't bother my conscience. If I see [you] again, I'll shoot."
For the terror-stricken hostages who had come to the theater to see a performance of a popular musical, mercy was apparently in short supply.
"You're having a bad day," one of the Chechen rebels reportedly told Fedyantseva. "But we've had a bad 10 years."
Sexual Violence and a Climate of Fear
In a bloody insurgency that has seen systemic violations of human rights, including torture, "disappearances" and summary executions at the hands of Russian forces, rights groups warn that the situation for women in and around Chechnya are among the worst in the world.
"The hostage-taking in Moscow is a dreadful reminder of the unsolved situation in Chechnya," said Judith Arenas, a spokeswoman for the human-rights group Amnesty International. "The situation there affects every single person, but women are particularly vulnerable to violations that include arbitrary detention, torture and rape."
Rights groups have charged that the fear of rape by Russian forces in Chechnya is pervasive, causing many families, particularly those with young women and girls, to flee and motivating desperate attempts to hide female family members.
More than 150,000 Chechens have been living in camps in the neighboring region of Ingushetia since the second Russian military operation was launched against the separatists in September 1999.
But even in the camps, Chechen women face grueling hardships, according to Rachel Denver, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
"The fact that many Chechen women have lost husbands, fathers and brothers, who have been arrested, killed, or have simply disappeared, means that women have had to take on the job of feeding their families while trying to find their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers," said Denver.
"But while Russian authorities have stopped the delivery of food aid to the camps, leaving the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the international community, the government has been trying to compel Chechens to return home," she said.
Given the desperate situation, experts such as Kheda Omarkhadzhiyeva, a psychologist practicing in Chechnya, say it's not hard to comprehend why Chechen women these days are able to break the bonds of tradition.
"Probably, they are women whose relatives were cruelly executed by Russian troops in Chechnya, where family is most important in people's minds," said Omarkhadzhiyeva in an interview with The Moscow Times , adding that the suppressed stress accumulated over a decade of lawlessness and instability could ignite violent reactions among Chechen women.
Mainstream Nationalist Operation
Although Russian officials have periodically warned of Chechen rebels' links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, many experts believe the participation of women in the Moscow theater operation points to the involvement of traditional Chechen nationalist groups.
"President [Vladimir] Putin has been trying to use this rhetoric of al Qaeda links since Sept. 11 to help him use stronger tactics against the rebels," said Gorka, of the Terrorism Research Center. "But I wouldn't take it as gospel truth. Al Qaeda may use female supporters to look after their families, but the use of females in the front lines points to more mainstream Chechen rebels."
In his videotaped address aired on al Jazeera, Movsar Barayev, the 25-year-old leader of the Islamic Special Purpose Regiment, took responsibility for the daring attack on the Palace of Culture Theater.
Against a backdrop of a black banner with the words "Allah-u-Akbar" (Allah is great) in Arabic behind him, Barayev pledged to fight in the name of Islam until the Russians withdrew from Chechnya.
But many experts say Barayev, rather than being motivated by religion, seemed closer to the norm of an organized criminal exploiting the anarchy of war-torn Chechnya.
A relatively unknown Chechen guerrilla leader until he inherited a band of die-hard fighters from his uncle Arbi Barayev — who was killed in a battle with Russian soldiers last year — Barayev belonged to a new generation of Chechens. They have grown up in the thick of the bloody insurgency, unlike the older leaders, who grew up under Soviet communism.
And some experts fear that the daring attack on the Moscow theater will inspire a new breed of Chechen fighters, many of them women, inspired by a belief in bloodshed and martyrdom.
ABCNEWS.com's Dean Schabner contributed to this report.