Feds Searching for Friend of Boston Marathon Suspect, 'Concern' Over
March 4, 2014
By MICHELE McPHEE
Investigators are searching for Heda Umarova, pictured here with Boston
Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in an image on a Russian social
networking site, after she failed to return from a family trip to Chechnya
last year. The others pictured have been blurred out to protect their
U.S. counter-terrorism officials are attempting to track down a female
friend of the accused Boston Marathon bomber after she traveled to Chechnya
last year and is believed to have since posted "alarming" jihadi imagery
online, officials told ABC News.
Officials are concerned that Heda Umarova, 23, may have been radicalized to
Islamist violence -- allegedly just like her friend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,
charged in the April 15 bombings, and his brother Tamerlan, who was killed
in a police shootout -- and could pose a threat to Americans overseas
because her U.S. passport allows easy foreign travel.
Umarova left Boston with her family in July with a round-trip ticket to
visit relatives in their native Chechnya, but she failed to return to
Massachusetts with her parents at the end of August. Her family told federal
authorities and ABC News she stayed behind to get married after she met a
man there during Ramadan.
Her younger brothers, Adam, 20, and Junes, 18, were already under suspicion
by some investigators because of their online support for the Tsarnaev
brothers and social media postings that included tweets with Dzhokhar a day
before the blasts. A photo of Junes Umarov and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lighting
fireworks appeared on one social networking site in January 2013, an ABC
News investigation found.
"No one is calling Heda a terrorist but her travel has certainly garnered
some attention. People are concerned that a 23-year-old is in Chechnya, a
country that she fled from... and now she is deciding to stay on her own," a
ranking law enforcement source involved in the Boston Marathon investigation
told ABC News. The source said that her decision to stay in Chechnya also
raised eyebrows because, at least until she is married, she didn't seem to
have any "obvious means" of support.
"We were already concerned about the social media exchanged with her
brothers, who remain on the radar, especially the younger brother Junes, who
was Dzhokhar's best friend," the source added.
And now, sources said, the FBI has been monitoring Heda Umarova's apparent
Internet posts recently, which include depictions of Chechen jihadis
brandishing weapons and a photo-shopped image of a U.S. passport in a
carry-on bag bearing the black flag of jihad.
Heda and her brothers did not respond to multiple attempts by ABC News to
reach them through their parents and social media to comment on the sources'
In a brief interview at his family's home last month, Heda's father Hamzat
Umarov told ABC News that he spoke to the "FBI and CIA" about the
photographs but refused to talk about whether he believes his daughter is
"What does it mean, pictures? Pictures can be anywhere. It doesn't mean
anything, the pictures. We don't want to talk about it. We talk with the
FBI, everybody. The FBI came, CIA, everybody's come,'' he said.
Umarova's trip back to the same country from which her parents fled as
refugees a decade ago to seek political asylum in the U.S. brought federal
agents back to her family's Chelsea home -- the same second-floor apartment
that armed agents searched last April during the manhunt for the accused
marathon bomber, several law enforcement officials told ABC News.
Heda Umarova has not been indicted for any offenses, sources said.
A spokesman for the Boston FBI field office declined to comment on Heda
Umarova or any possible threat she may pose. "It is the FBI's policy not to
confirm or deny whether or not an investigation is being conducted,'' said
Special Agent Gregory Comcowich.
Heda Umarova's Sister: We Were Treated Like 'Terrorists'
The Umarovs were questioned by immigration officials extensively about the
reasons for the return trip to Chechnya when they left Boston last summer,
scrutiny that only intensified when they returned without Heda, law
enforcement sources said.
"They had a hard time getting out of the country and an even harder time
coming back when she [Heda] was not with them,'' said a law enforcement
official familiar with the Umarov family.
The questioning led Heda's sister, Hawa Umarova, 26, to complain to U.S.
Customs and Border Protection and Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force
officials that her family was treated like "terrorists," the sources said,
despite their constant cooperation with various local and federal law
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Keyes confirmed that Hawa Umarova was cooperative
with his officers last April after the identities of the suspected marathon
bombers became known and that her family submitted to a voluntary search of
their home during the desperate search for Dhzokhar Tsarnaev.
Federal investigators were led to Chelsea initially by Twitter messages
exchanged between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Junes Umarov a day before the twin
blasts exploded along the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three
and wounding another 260 others last April 15.
In addition to the social media exchanges between Junes and Dzhokhar,
federal authorities are now also scrutinizing a Russian social networking
page using the name Heda Umarova that was linked to a fan page for Dzhokhar
on the same social networking site.
The page is sympathetic to Tsarnaev and his supporters, who insist on his
innocence. It features several pictures of the Umarov siblings with Dzhokhar
Tsarnaev, including one with Heda, her brother Adam, and "Johar" as a boy,
which is the Russian spelling of the accused terrorist's nickname.
But the postings on the Heda Umarova VK page that have concerned federal
counter-terrorism officials include photographs of several women dressed as
jihadi fighters in Chechnya, taken probably about a decade ago, an expert
In one photo, a woman in a black headscarf is toting an AK-47 rifle. Other
extremist postings support martyrdom and violence for Islam.
Days after ABC News spoke with Heda's parents, the images in question and
the link to the fan page for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev disappeared from the Heda
Umarova VK page.
The social networking page also included links to Kavkaz Center, which is a
jihadist media portal linked to Doku Umarov, the jihadi leader of the
Caucusus Emirate who threatened to strike the Sochi Olympics last July.
There is no familial relation to the terror leader and Umarov is a common
name, family members in Chelsea, Mass. told ABC News.
Investigators found a YouTube page created by Tamerlan Tsarnaev that
included a lecture given by a leader connected to Doku Umarov, law
enforcement officials said, but there is no evidence the North Caucasus
militant leader influenced the marathon attacks.
Heda's Mother: I 'Love' the US
During another interview last week, Heda's mother, Raisa Umarova, became
emotional when asked why her daughter stayed behind in Chechnya, a country
that she and her husband desperately wanted to leave 10 years ago when their
five children were "babies."
"She is getting married. She doesn't speak good Russian. They [the Umarov
children] come to this country as babies. This is my home now. I love this
country. I love my children being here," the mother said through tears.
Raisa Umarova said her family came to Massachusetts as political refugees
but became proud U.S. citizens after seven years here.
The Umarovs as new immigrants became friendly with the Tsarnaevs in 2004,
three years after the Tsarnaevs arrived, Hamzat Umarov told federal
officials, and acknowledged to ABC News that the families "knew each other."
Both families were natives of Chechnya -- though the elder Tsarnaevs now
live in neighboring Dagestan -- who successfully sought political asylum in
the United States by citing the staggering violence in that region and "the
Tsarnaevs took them under their wing," an investigator said.
But despite her younger children's public support for Dzhokhar, Raisa
Umarova insisted that she and her husband have no contact with the Tsarnaev
"I don't like them. I like my country,'' she said, referring to America.
No one in the Umarov family has been charged with a crime or named as a
suspect complicit in the April 15 attack on the Boston Marathon.
Chelsea High School officials said federal investigators interviewed Junes'
teachers and classmates after the marathon bombings last year.
Chelsea High Principal Joseph Mullaney told ABC News all five of the Umarov
children attended the public school and called them "bright students." Junes
and Adam were in Advanced Placement classes, like their older sister Hawa,
who speaks several languages, Mullaney added.
Hawa went on to graduate from Mass College of Liberal Arts in North Adams,
Mass. Junes and Adam are roommates and students at MCLA now. Adam Umarov was
questioned on campus last year, officials said.
Chelsea High School librarian Thelma Dakubu said the entire Umarov family
strongly identified with Chechnya. Adam even posted the Chechen flag of
Ichkeria - which symbolizes the ongoing conflict between the Russian
federation and nationalists there - on his Chelsea High School Yearbook page
"They were fond of saying, 'We're not Russian. We're Chechen,''' Dakubu told
ABC News. "Heda was the quiet one."
Dakubu was also quick to add that the family appeared tight-knit and
hardworking. The family patriarch, Hamzat Umarov, even performed a custom
Chechen dance at a high school talent show with his daughters, she said.
"They seem to be a close family,'' Dakubu said.
In his 2013 high school yearbook, Junes Umarov wrote, "I'm a stress free
kind of guy" -- which is the identical quote Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tweeted two
days after the bombings, one of several he sent during the chaotic search
for the attackers.
Both Hamzat Umarov and his wife Raisa Umarova insisted in separate
interviews that Heda stayed in Chechnya to get married. Raisa Umarova said
that the future groom is "lovely" and that Heda met him during Ramadan
services during the family trip.
The family, however, would not provide details on the wedding and declined
to identify the groom to ABC News. Sources said law enforcement officials
were similarly stonewalled.
Tsarnaev has been held in a Massachusetts federal prison at Fort Devens
since his arrest and the Department of Justice has announced prosecutors
will seek the death penalty. Tsarnaev is also charged with the assassination
of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who prosecutors said was gunned down by
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 18.
U.S. District Court Judge George A. O'Toole ruled last month that the trial
is slated to begin in November and allowed the defense team to add another
death penalty attorney to work on the case. Last week defense attorneys
complained in a court filing that the FBI is monitoring every file that they
review with Tsarnaev, endangering his right to a fair trial. Much of the
court filings on the case are under seal.
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