Mysterious 'white widow' eludes police in Africa

2013-12-13 10:24
Bullet-holes pepper the glass door of a shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. (Rukmini Callimachi, AP, file)

Bullet-holes pepper the glass door of a shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. (Rukmini Callimachi, AP, file)

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Aylesbury - She is called the most wanted woman in the world, a suspected terrorist charged with plotting to blow up resort hotels in Kenya packed with Christmas tourists, a westerner who wrote an ode praising Osama bin Laden, a jihadist who has eluded the law even as she has travelled through Africa with four young children in tow.

The saga of Samantha Lewthwaite is one of betrayal and revenge in a murky world where, somehow, a white woman born to a British soldier becomes a Muslim convert and then an international fugitive accused of conspiracy.

Her first husband blew himself up as part of Britain's worst ever terrorist attack in 2005, an act she first condemned - and her second partner adhered to the same militant brand of Islam and also apparently met an early death. Her notebooks, seized in 2011, are filled with lavish praise for extremists who slaughter civilians and hopes that her children will do the same.

And yet, since she disappeared some months after the London bombing, no one can say how the "white widow" became radicalised, moving from mainstream Islam to a "holy war" against the West - or why she would embrace a movement that denies a woman's right to education and other basic liberties.

Muslim link

"That is the mystery," said Niknam Hussain, a community organiser and former Aylesbury mayor. There was never a hint that Lewthwaite had chosen jihad during her years in Aylesbury, the small English city 65km northwest of London where she grew up.

"What was the journey from there to here?" asked Hussain. "I don't think you wake up radical. One is educated, inculcated, pulled into it. This is a small community. One would hope that if anything unusual was going on someone somewhere would have noticed it. No one seems able to paint a picture of what happened. What is her role? What does she do?

"We're at a loss."

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite was born on 12 May 1983, in the violence-scarred British territory of Northern Ireland, where her father was a British Army soldier and her mother an Irish Catholic - the Ulster equivalent of star-crossed lovers.

Before Samantha reached age 6 the family moved to Aylesbury, where her father worked as a truck driver until the couple's separation.

Raj Khan, a former Aylesbury mayor who knew Lewthwaite and her family, said she forged strong bonds with the city's Muslims, a group that includes many resettled Pakistanis. She converted to Islam as a teenager.

"Living in the neighbourhood, she became very friendly," said Khan. "She came to enjoy the hospitality of the Muslim community."

Khan said Lewthwaite, through one of her girlfriends, became particularly close to a Muslim family that facilitated her conversion.

"The people who helped her were very pious, respectable, mainstream Muslims with no sign of radicalism," he said. "She would have understood it as a religion of peace that does not allow radicalism or killing."

Extremists

Her embrace of Islam generated little notice, nor did her marriage in 2002 to Jermaine Lindsay, a British Muslim with Jamaican roots whom she first met in an internet chat room and later in person at a demonstration against the war in Iraq.

And yet, on 7 July 2005, her husband stepped onto a subway train and blew himself up as part of an attack that killed 52 civilians and three other bombers.

It was the most lethal terrorist attack ever on the British mainland, marking a "before and after" divide in the country's halting embrace of a multicultural society - since it was the work of British Muslims, not extremists from afar.

Aylesbury residents were unaware of Lindsay's role until dozens of heavily armed police descended on Lewthwaite's house just six days after the bombing.

She became a national figure that night, viewed not as an Islamic extremist but as a wronged young mother, pregnant with her second child, shocked to discover that her husband had been part of a terrorist plot.

In a statement to the local paper, she condemned her late husband's actions even as she defended him.

"He was a loving husband and father," she said. "My whole world has been torn apart and my thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation." She could "never have predicted that he could be involved in such horrific activities".

The widow was taken from her home under police protection. That may have been prudent - three vigilantes were arrested after trying to set fire to her modest rented brick house in apparent retaliation for Lindsay's actions.

Birth

When Lewthwaite eventually returned to Northern Road, neighbour Ray Davies said she seemed to enjoy her newfound celebrity.

"She walked around here like she was on top of the world," he said. "I hope they catch her. And I hope they kill her."

When she resurfaced in Africa a few years later, she was no longer the penitent widow apologizing for her late husband's mass murder.

She was, instead, a jihadi in her own right, committed to waging war against the West.

She would not be seen in public, or grant interviews, but Kenyan police - and her own writings - describe a woman willing to die for her cause.

In July 2010, a white woman calling herself Asmaa Shahidah Bint-Andrews registered at the exclusive eight-room Genesis birth clinic in the well-to-do Saxonwold suburb just outside Johannesburg. She paid her deposit in cash - R27 500.

She did not want to give birth in a regular hospital, with its impersonal wards, but chose instead a more expensive water birth. She picked the Sage room, which featured a marble birthing pool, leather chairs, and a private bathroom, recalled unit manager Tamzin Ingram.

A baby girl, Surajah, was born with no complications, aided by midwife Lesley Rose, and was duly registered with authorities.

Asmaa Shahidah Bint-Andrews turned out to be Samantha Lewthwaite using an alias. The infant was her fourth child - she had remarried.

Bomb plan

Authorities later said she is believed to have entered the country using a South African passport issued to Natalie Webb.

Nearly two years later, in early 2012, Kenyan counter-terrorism police made the startling announcement that Lewthwaite had linked up with key figures in the shadowy al-Shabaab terrorist networks, which has ties to al-Qaeda and is branded a global threat by US officials.

Police said she and others had entered Kenya the year before to plan a bomb attack on a coastal resort over the Christmas holidays.

Police had nearly nabbed her in a raid on 20 December 2011 - just days before the planned attack- but let her go after being fooled by the South African passport she was carrying.

The widow's fraudulent passport sported her own photo in place of Webb's - a hapless UK-based nurse who had apparently been a victim of identity theft.

Lewthwaite was said to have fled to al-Shabaab's base in Somalia after that close call.

Kenyan authorities issued an arrest warrant for Lewthwaite to answer bomb making charges, which had been kept secret for four months. The warrant said Lewthwaite possessed acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sulphur and lead nitrate, as well as batteries, a switch and electrical wire - preparations similar to the ones used so effectively by the London subway bombers.

Though the bombings never took place, the myth of the white widow was born.

International search

Lewthwaite became the subject of an international search on 26 September when Interpol called for her arrest among its 190 member nations. But the "red notice" linked her to the failed 2011 Christmas plot, not to the Westgate Mall killings.

It says she is wanted for "being in possession of explosives" and "conspiracy to commit a felony", though the timing of the Interpol notice - issued just five days after the mall attack - led many to assume that police believe she had a role in that as well.

The constant reports of Lewthwaite at the fore of the al-Shabaab movement - even though the group has denied on its Twitter account that it uses women recruits - has sparked some scepticism about her possible role.

In Mombasa, Kenya, where the trial of her alleged accomplice in one of the plots is ongoing, Islamic community leader Abubakar Shariff Ahmed said he thinks Lewthwaite's story has taken on a mythology all its own.

"An English lady, with four kids, not by herself, and she can disappear?" he asked. "Scotland Yard is looking for her, the FBI, the ATPU [Kenya's counter-terror police] and she's still in Kenya? Come on."

- AP

Read more on:    al-shabaab  |  kenya  |  kenya mall attack  |  east africa
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