Virginia woman charged in connection to ISIS recruitment
(CNN) — After seven months of investigation and undercover work, federal officials have arrested a Virginia woman and accused her of lying to federal agents about involvement with the terrorist group ISIS.
Heather Coffman, 29, of Henrico County, is charged with making a materially false statement or representation regarding an offense involving international and domestic terrorism. Authorities said they built their case against Coffman with information from a series of undercover interviews and inflammatory social media posts.
Coffman first caught the attention of the FBI through her Facebook activity, according to a criminal complaint filed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The complaint details many of Coffman’s controversial Facebook posts and interactions.
Investigators say that on June 23, using the name Ubeida Ametova (one of her many online aliases), Coffman listed her “work and education” on her Facebook account as “jihad for Allah’s sake.” Per the charges, she posted an image with the captions “We are all ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” and also posted a picture of armed men and the black flag of ISIS, emblazoned with the words “Virtues of the Mujahideen.”
Authorities say that on July 8, using a second Facebook account, Coffman reposted the same images from her first account in addition to a picture of the ISIS flag surrounded by praying men armed with AK-47s.
Coffman’s Facebook activity prompted the FBI to obtain a search warrant for the account on August 4, leading investigators to discover a history of correspondence about ISIS. The criminal complaint details some of these exchanges, in which Coffman allegedly defends ISIS and rebukes those who criticize the terrorist group. She writes, “I know…it’s all Zionist propaganda though! If we can rid the world of them…then the world will be a better and peaceful place.” Additionally, investigators say that Coffman took credit for attempting to recruit her sister when she wrote, “she know ISIS because I told her about them and got her into liking them lol” and “my dad is a little angry because I got her into all this jihad stuff.”
Investigators said they also discovered a man whom Coffman claimed was her husband. According to Facebook communications detailed in the complaint, this man told Coffman that he hoped their future son would be “Mujaheeden,” and Coffman agreed, expressing her support for “whatever you want to do.” Days later, as shown in the charges, Coffman told her “husband” that she hates gays and Zionists and “they should all die.” On July 29, she warned him not to post pro-ISIS statuses on Facebook, and suggested that “the NSA has already seen it.”
Coffman had multiple other Facebook accounts with a variety of user names, including Heather Coffman, Heather La’ahad, Heather Obeida La’ahad, Heather Ametova, and Ubeida Ametova, and which authorities say displayed varying degrees of radicalization. As of October 2, 2014, Coffman had set her location on one of the accounts to Hafsarjah, Idlib, Syria.
Coffman’s social media behavior presented a number of red flags to authorities, but officials said the information gathered by an undercover FBI agent from a series of interviews helped lead to the charges. Starting in July, an agent posing as an ISIS sympathizer routinely met with Coffman and began to investigate her recruitment network.
After establishing a relationship, the undercover agent told Coffman about an associate who shared their views on Islam and was prepared to join the fight with ISIS in Syria. Per the complaint, Coffman revealed that she had experience connecting potential recruits with ISIS facilitators. She had begun to arrange travel to Syria for her “husband,” the online associate investigators had discovered, but their relationship ended and he had decided not to follow through.
According to the criminal complaint, Coffman explained her frustration to the agent, saying, “I set him up with the brothers who gave him a contact name and number in Turkey to get him across the border when it was time for training…I spoke to another brother about it who said he was shocked he is sitting around waiting in Macedonia and he is going to call the emir and fix that and get him to Turkey…but my account was disabled so I couldn’t follow through with that. But I think he was just joking us about going.”
On October 19, the undercover agent told Coffman about plans to travel overseas, search for routes into Syria, and find an ISIS contact, to which Coffman replied, suggesting she could help find a contact and facilitate travel.
The undercover agent met with Coffman three times, on November 5, 6 and 7, according to the charges. During a recorded meeting in a hotel room on November 5, Coffman again offered to help find a contact and facilitate travel into Syria. After locating and vetting what she considered to be a legitimate facilitator, Coffman told the agent she would reach out and initiate the plans.
But on November 6, Coffman told the agent her contact had gone dark and that she was still waiting for a response. Then on November 7, Coffman met again with the agent, this time with a third unidentified associate, and asked the agent to propose a list of questions that she would relay to the facilitator, because, as Coffman explained, she wanted all communication with the facilitator to go through her. In this meeting, Coffman, the agent, and the unidentified third associate created a code language to discuss plans without tipping off law enforcement.
On November 13, two FBI agents met with Coffman at her work and conducted an interview, throughout which, according to investigators, Coffman “provided false, material information to the federal agents.” Coffman said “we don’t talk about things like that” when asked about their conversations regarding ISIS and al Qaeda, and denied that the undercover agent ever expressed support for ISIS or similar terrorist groups. The FBI agents told Coffman that lying to a federal agent is a crime, though Coffman said her account was truthful.
Coffman appeared in federal court in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday, and has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Coffman’s lawyer did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.