The ‘Black Widow’ of Sochi


37,000 extra troops are being brought in to Sochi to man the so-called ‘Ring of Steel’, in spite of these seemingly inordinate measures, the whereabouts of one person in particular is causing a degree of concern for the Russian authorities.

Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.
Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.

The individual in question is a woman, Ruzanna Ibragimova. She belongs to a group females evocatively named the ‘black widows’. A ‘black widow’ is supposedly motivated by vengeance for a personal loss. Ibragimova, like the 3 other female suspects, is the widow of a militant killed by Russian forces in the Caucasus region. The 22 year-old is alleged to have intentions to attack Sochi and is feared to have have broken the tight security ring around the city.

You don’t have to look far to see what Ruzanna Ibragimova looks like, with wanted posters in various hotels and airports in Sochi, it is clear that these women are being considered as a genuine threat. The Russian security forces have every right to be concerned, after all, in the past female bombers have been extremely successful in bypassing even the most stringent of security measures.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, demonstrate the capability of female bombers. In one scene, 3 females successfully evade French checkpoints to plant three bombs in the French zone of the city, the ensuing blast results in horrific devastation. We could debate the use of films as historical resources all day. However, even if the accuracy of this film is questionable, events of the last decade or so certainly vindicate what it portrays: that females are becoming a hugely dangerous weapon that security forces are struggling to get to grasps with.

The use of suicide bombers is not a new feature of warfare, with no need of an exit-strategy, low cost implementation and a high probability of inflicting significant casualties – attacks of this nature are becoming all to familiar.

Battle of Algiers (1)
In ‘The Battle of Algiers’ female bombers are used against the French.

Why specifically a female bomber then? In 2002, Hamas, rejected the use of females in such a way, yet in 2004, they unleashed their first female suicide bomber. Why this change in tactics? Hamas had denounced the use of women on the grounds of it being ‘against modesty’, not on a lack of faith in their operational value. The most plausible explanation, is that security forces have become more proficient in searching and identifying threats. With a female, there is a certain reluctance to search adequately, if it all – an error so ruthlessly exploited in ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Perhaps there is even disbelief that females would partake in such brutality, this is purely speculation but not altogether unconvincing as an explanation. It has also been suggested that the psychological impact of female bombers is much greater, as it only increases the web of suspicion and fear among the security forces and the local populace. That being said, it is certainly misleading to say that female bombers are completely attached to such overarching tactics and strategies – as demonstrated by the ‘black widows’ – personal motivation can be hugely powerful driving force.

The Russian security forces are quite familiar with the capabilities of female bombers. In the year 2000, two Chechen women entered a military base in Chechnya riding a truck packed with explosives, killing 27 Russian soldiers. The 1,500 mile ‘Ring of Steel’ may seem excessive, and although its necessity is not solely dictated by the threat of these 4 women, the authorities will be keenly aware of its importance in preventing such attacks. If the history of this field has taught us anything, it is that female bombers are very capable of attacking high profile targets, in 1991 the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber. With a much swelled population in Sochi and the presence of certain dignitaries and high profile targets, the importance of such security seems especially apparent.

The most devastating example of an attack by female bombers occurred in 2008, where 99 lost their lives at two popular Baghdad pet markets. The terrifying ease with which these female bombers inflicted devastation is obvious, however, females haven’t until recently been acknowledged by the FBI as an active group of Al Qaeda. It is clear, therefore, that the strong measures being employed in Sochi are necessary, and, in part, necessitated by a fear of this threatening new group of attackers.

With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.
With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.

We are now well within an age where war has taken a new face, where rigid frontlines and state-on-state warfare seem a distant memory. We can only hope that female bombers do not become just another familiar feature of warfare in our time.


The Wehrmacht: A Glorious Myth?


When the German army rolled into Paris on the 14th June 1940, the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since Napoleon’s Grande Armée . After all, the German army had rendered the Maginot Line redundant, a set of fortifications so modern that it was said to be of better living conditions than a modern city. The Wehrmacht bypassed it through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest in 5 days. It is perhaps unsurprising after so much hope and resources had been invested into this state-of-the-art defense, that contemporaries saw the German army as something hereto unseen before – a truly unstoppable force.

the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since their very own Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

There is an idealized vision of the Wehrmacht: as an ultra-mobile, ruthless and highly motivated force, a view that does not lack justification. Although Germany lost the war, is it really credible to blame the Wehrmacht for this? To talk of the Wehrmacht one cannot avoid talking of ‘Blitzkrieg’, a concept so fundamental to early German successes. There is a commonly held image of ‘Blitzkrieg’, one that is often portrayed as relentless waves of tanks steamrolling through inferior opposition. This was not certainly not the case in France. French tanks were better armoured, better equipped and more numerous than their German opposition. General Auchinleck in the defense of Norway, commented that the German forces had much greater morale as a result of their superior training. Therefore, can we call an army that defeated superior opposition on numerous occasions an incapable one?  The early victories in Europe, particularly France, certainly vindicate the superiority of the German military doctrine, however, a fully functioning modern state-of-the-art  force they were not.

The Maginot line was a modern and complex hive of defences.  Entrusted with defending France.
Entrusted with defending France was the Maginot line,  a modern and complex hive of defences.

In so far as the battle for France was concerned, the numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe was certainly pivotal. The German army itself had only mechanized 10% of its ground forces by this point. This was as a result of a production deficit from the pre-war years, one that Nazi industrialists had predicted would only be remedied by 1945 – a fact that was to be ignored by Hitler at great cost. The ramshackle fashion of which the Wehrmacht retreated from Russia in 1943 is perhaps its most ignominious moment. A rapid German army, with its immaculate coordination and communication is a vision that is hugely undermined by this campaign. Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to make up for the lack of modernization that beset the Wehrmacht at this time. Some 148 divisions were expected to fight across a front of almost 2,000-kilometers. It is clear that the Wehrmacht was not as polished a force as it has often been seen as being.

Russland, bei Targowi Sawod, deutsche Truppen
Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to support the Wehrmacht.

At times the Wehrmacht was an unstoppable force, one that laid the way for modern day warfare – where mobility and inter-service cooperation were the order of the day. The Eastern Front may have been calamitous for a whole host of reasons other than just the frailties of the Wehrmacht.  However, there is no ignoring the deaths of 4 million men and boys, soldiers that made up what had proven to be an undefeatable army. Maybe Nazi Germany would have succeeded in winning the war if it had the industrial capacity of the USA or Russia, but does this really restore the image of the Wehrmacht? There is no hiding from how fragile the Wehrmacht proved to be. A one dimensional force unable to adapt in the face of a resilient opponent. It had succeeded against weak and disorganized opposition in the past, but as its enemies learned from its mistakes, the Wehrmacht stuck to its principles, even though to follow such principles was no longer possible.

Magician or Maniac?

On the first day of 2014, after marveling at how Moffat and Gatiss believed that they could get away with toying with the expectancy that gripped all avid Sherlock fans with some fairly half-arsed explanations, I thought I would put on Channel 4’s new show, Real or Magic starring the illusionist David Blaine.

As a big fan of Bradford’s greatest export, Dynamo, my feeling was that if Real or Magic could match up to Magician Impossible in any way I would be satisfied. I mean who couldn’t be impressed with a man who could walk on water – allegedly. Prior to David Blaine’s show I knew a little of his previous exploits, which included: starving himself, failing in one water-related stunt and what appeared to be him punching a stingray.


After a while David Blaine’s card tricks lost my attention. There is no doubting how impressive smuggling the correct card into the pocket of his all-trusting members of public. I just didn’t care after a while. Perhaps, I was just longing something on the same level as the ‘transported man’ in The Prestige, then again, that was a film.  Anyway, after more card hocus pocus , this time messing with the harmony of the Smith family, he moved onto star of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, Harrison Ford. Ford is known for some brilliant lines, most memorably in the ice cold utterance of ‘I know’, crushing the heart of Princess Lea – he did not disappoint here either. Blaine’s trick this time was to plant a card in an Orange in Harrison Ford’s kitchen, unsurprisingly Harrison showed signs  of befuddlement, befitting of a man of his age. After pulling himself together, Ford slowly raised his head and as if he was about to trade a witty remark with his Nazi captor typical of the Indiana Jones days, stared David Blaine in the eyes and said in a slow but audible voice, ‘get out of my house’.  At the time it was unsure if this was more Harrison Ford acting gold or a prelude to a modern witch burning.


David Blaine’s acts also included creating money, unsurprisingly he didn’t perform this trick to his celebrities, which included Katy Perry and Jason Sudekikis. The show then took a turn for the downright weird. I had been transported from a sporadically exhilarating, fairly easygoing show, to a documentary covering the antics of a recently released lunatic.

First to be tested was Ricky Gervais. This time, Blaine’s ‘trick/illusion’ included him shoving a 12 inch metal pin through his bicep, as was quite rightly pointed out by a rather revolted Gervais, ‘that isn’t a trick, you’ve just shoved a needle in your f******arm’. Quite right Ricky, I was yelling the same thing. Blaine then went on to further strengthen his credentials as a maniac by filling his stomach with a unhealthy amount of water, and then topping it up with healthy splash of, you guessed it, Kerosene. As a rule of thumb, when someone in a scratchy black and white video from 30 odd years ago is trying what looks to be a fairly unsafe trick and was then later known to have died as a result, is it really worth following his footsteps as Blaine tells us he is doing? We are taken through a series of Rocky-esque montages, except instead of running and drinking raw eggs, Blaine just spews an impressive volume of water into a bath. This final act required him to regurgitate the Kerosene onto a fire, intensify the flames, then put it out with the water retained in the stomach. While he performed this I carefully watched the reaction of those surrounding him, which he did flawlessly I will add, however, it was impossible not to notice the slightly confused looks of the audience. This unanimous look of bewilderment was completely understandable. This man has just started a fire, then proceeded to make it worse, then spewed stomach water all over it. All of this effort just to put out a fire that he started himself, producing some fairly uningraciating noises in the process.

For me, the show was summed up well when Blaine met Macklemore. Blaine pulled a thread out of his eyeball- I cannot flesh this description out anymore I’m afraid, that was literally it. The Seattle born rapper nervously laughed clearly feeling uncomfortable I’m sure having expected to see some illusions with less gut wrenching crudeness.  I just felt this show was a tad too real for the sleepy headed new years day TV viewers. David Blaine is a very talented man, but his reliance on shocking the audience through self-harm let down an illusionist who is capable of producing some wondrous acts.

Please Mind the Gap

First things first, I am not a travel-a-phobe.  I have watched through the hands covering my eyes the warzone of the traffic system in Istanbul, where, if you remain within it long enough, you will fall shamelessly at the feet of the nearest diety just to make it all end. However, in spite of these priggish claims to being some sort of EU constrained Phileas Fogg, there is one zone of travel that continues to baffle me. A place where light has been banished, stench is incubated and a some truly remarkable behavior is exhibited. Of course I am talking about England’s national treasure: the London Underground.

The most common observation regarding the Tube is that it is a vacuum of conversation. I don’t know if it is because, for noobs, the crushing stress of getting on the right line renders people incapable of forming words. Or, because nobody else does it the unitiated obediently conform to fit in with the ‘locals’. I do it for the latter by the way. It is almost as if Boris is patrolling the carriages of the London underground in an invisibility cloak threatening anyone who breaks this sacred silence. Was the tube a place of friendly conversation in the past, or has it been like this since its conception? Do Londoners start talking when tourists are off the train just to mess with outsiders? My only reasonable explanation is that one day someone was cheerfully telling a ‘your mum’ joke to the whole carraige and went too far, in doing so, creating such an uncomfortable silence that it has been passed down to every generation of tube users ever since.


Every time I use the tube there is always a select group of people, so intent on getting on the carraige, that they show absolutely no regard for their own life – much to my amusement/horror. I personally am not a risk taker. When I was last on the tube my timing was impeccable, with time on my hands I nonchalantly strolled through the doors with such a drippingly smug look on my face, quite frankly I am surprised nobody remedied it with a slap. Anyway, I was proudly sitting in a seat, doing my post-boarding checks: correct line, yes.  Correct direction, yes. Luggage in a vice like grip between my legs, check. The doors were about to close, people braced themselves and everyone powered down into silent mode. Suddenly.  Out of nowhere, some madwomen clearly intent on joining us came charging across the platform. A look steely determination mixed with uncertainty etched across her increasingly reddening face. Stimulated by this drama, tube passengers around me snapped out of standby mode. The doors began to close. Surely not we all thought. The carriage was unified in excitement. Would she be  cruelly sliced in half by the tube doors like some unfortunate Bond villain, or would she make it? To this day I cannot work out how this women made it. I felt a cheer was in order and then I remembered where I was.

Would she be cruelly sliced in half like some unfortunate Bond villain, or would she make it?

This unique combination of  human fortitude and an impatient door closing system makes for ready entertainment. However, this is all I enjoy about the whole experience. My biggest gripe is with myself. I like many of the unenlightened aspire to have the wisdom of the oyster card bearing residents of London – or at least appear to. This pathetic yearning for acceptance often comes at the cost of a care-free trip across London. As far as I am aware I do not have a disorder, the level of preparation and route planning prior to any Tube based journey would suggest otherwise. This dependence on pre-planning comes a cropper with even the most minor alteration to my journey. A reasonable person would ask for help perhaps? Well no actually, for the wannabe Tube pros, as soon as you descend into the caverns of the underground you lose any sort of rational thinking. I am reasonably confident that if there was to be an apocalyptic event affecting the Tube, whereby the only means of escape was to catch an alternative line to safety, that I would stand paralyzed with fear yet resolutely pig-headed as everyone around me calmly walked off to some unknown platform. I would probably continue to do this until the first Zombie / 2012-esque ball of lava devoured me.


The Life of a Percussionist

To those of you who weren’t aware, it was the last night of the Proms which usually calls for those attending the Albert hall to become overly emotional and patriotic listening to some of the great scores written by Britain’s finest. Dambusters is a usual favourite and who can forget the fan’s Jerusalem, which despite its misleading name is unmistakably British.

However when I was watching on Saturday (Yes I am 19 and I really was watching the Proms) I wasn’t singing along at home to the classics, I was thinking about the unsung hero in every Orchestra who always gets overlooked, I was thinking about the percussionist. While other members of the orchestra can fall back on their fellow members, the Percussionist works alone.  His mistakes can not be masked by a chorus of strings or a big brass band. Though the contributions of this musician’s work seem minimal compared to his/her compatriots they should not be underestimated.  Every cymbal clash, every virtuoso glockenspiel solo, every triangle ting; a percussionist is responsible for them all.  Playing percussion on its own is an impressive skill to behold but it is lost in the greater scheme of an orchestra.

It’s sad really.  A percussionist in an Orchestra doesn’t even adhere to traditional percussion instruments, moreover he doesn’t get to use the full array of instruments at his disposal.  Percussion instruments were believed to be the first ever instruments and date back to tribal times.  Imagine being a musician back then; thought of as so inventive by banging two pieces of timber together to create a noise.  Then all of a sudden musical evolution saw the rise of the strings to quash these primitive striking tools.


Of course Percussion evolved too; the Piano Forte is a percussion instrument but has broken away from its ancestors and managed to assert itself in people’s homes and as heart of the Orchestra.  It’s so loud that it can drown out almost anything, the lid has to be shut for big performances.   The unfortunate news for budding percussionists is that music has naturally been linked to popular culture.  The guitar has mutated into the electric and the piano has managed to downsize to fit into people’s homes.  What both have in common is that they have an appeal to the masses.  Everyone is instantly impressed if one can play either of these instruments no matter how proficient you are.  Playing the glockenspiel on the other hand, well I’m not sure you could get anyone into bed with that one besides pianists and guitarists are deemed to have more impressive fingering.

At this point you are probably wondering why have I not mentioned the Drum kit? Well the fact is that a Drum kit is not part of a percussionist’s armory, they have to make do with bongo drums and the like.  A drumkit is one of the instruments that became popular, like the Piano and seemed to get away from the art of percussion.  So this leaves us with a dilemma for percussionists worldwide.  Do they continue to remain in the shadows, occasionally popping up to make that memorable cymbal crash or do they rebel? I’m sure there are purely percussion orchestras out there somewhere but not as mainstream as a classic Orchestra.  Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and next year while watching the proms will get to hear a symphony of crash bang wallop.