Another member of the Chechen terrorist cell operating in Boston has eluded authorities. Heda Umarova, a 23 year old Boston student and longtime friend of Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being sought by U.S. counterterrorism officials for posting disturbing jihadi imagery online.
Similar to the Tsarnaev family, the Umarova Family were in the U.S. after seeking political asylum but still traveled back and forth to the country that they fled from. Although Heda and her brothers were under suspicion for their online support for the Tsarnaev brothers and Heda was the author of the #freejahar network, the family was permitted to travel to their native Chechnya just four months after the Boston bombings.
Regardless of her round-trip ticket Heda failed to return to Massachusetts with her parents at the end of August. They claimed she stayed in Chechnya to get married to a “lovely” groom that Heda met during Ramadan services.
Heda Umarova’s Internet posts clearly demonstrate that her radicalization is complete and that she is ready for her final training in preparation for jihadist operations. Her posts include a photo-shopped image of a U.S. passport in a carry-on bag covered in the jihad black flag and photos of female jihadist soldiers.
Her social media page also linked to the Kavkaz Center, which is affiliated with the designated terrorist group the Caucasus Emirate. Vilayat Dagestan, formerly known as Shariat Jamaat, is one of several Salafi jihadist groups under the umbrella of the Caucasus Emirate. Vilayat Dagestan claimed responsibility for the twin suicide attacks in Volgograd in December 2013. Similar to Hezbollah and Hamas, the Caucasus Emirate and its affiliate groups have a huge media presence including on-line blogs, twitter, websites, Facebook, news, radio and television stations. There is even a division called Anonymous Caucasus also known as the Electronic Army of the Caucasus Emirate.
Chechen Islamists often utilize women as suicide bombers and refer to them as ‘Black Widows’. They are often the wives or daughters of Chechen militants killed by Russians.
Black Widows were involved in several suicide attacks from 2000 to 2004 against Russian targets and became active again in 2010. Chechen women also participated in hostage operations, including the October 2002 seizure of a Moscow theater and the September 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan. Since 2010 their operations have been backed by the Islamic Caucasus Emirate group, al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Caucasus.
This may explain how Heda is supporting herself in Chechnya. Most of the women are from Dagestan, the epicenter of violence in the conflict between Islamists and Russian federal forces. However, Heda’s anger is directed at the United States for the death of Tamerlan and the imprisonment of Dzhokhar. This makes her more likely to target Americans.
Prior to going operational Black Widows have posted photos of themselves on social media, knowing they will be used in reports covering their bombings and in Islamist propaganda. On March 29, 2010, two female Chechen suicide bombers killed 40 people and wounded more than 100 in Moscow’s subway system during rush hour.
One of the bombers was 17 year old Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova, from the Khasavyurtsky region of Dagestan. She was the widow of Dagestani militant leader Umalat Magomedov, who was killed by federal troops the previous year. Dzhanet posted photos of herself wearing a black hijab and clutching a gun. She also posed with her husband brandishing weapons.
On October 21, 2013 a Dagestani woman named Naida Asiyalova detonated an explosive belt containing 500–600 grams of TNT inside a bus at a train station in Volgograd killing 7 civilians and injuring at least 36 others. This was one of three suicide attacks in the southern Russian city of Volgograd prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics. In 2010 Naida met Dmitry Sokolov on a Russian dating website, fell in love and converted him to radical Islam. Three years later Dmitry built and strapped on the explosive belt which blew up his wife and five others. A few weeks later he was killed in a standoff with police.
This is the jihadist version of Romeo and Juliet. Young men and women romanticize the Islamist cause and their heroic role in it. Al Qaeda propaganda glorifies their martyrdom which further inspires them to kill and die in the global jihad. It appears that Heda Umarova has succumbed to the same jihadist love story. There should be no doubt that Heda is training in Chechnya for terrorist operations. If she succeeds she will be the first American Black Widow.
Dawn Perlmutter Director of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and Shillman/Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum is considered one of the leading subject matter experts (SME) in the areas of symbols, unfamiliar customs, ritual murder and religious violence.