The scenes of mindless violence in Nairobi this week have come to be associated with one woman: Samantha Lewthwaite, a.k.a. “the White Widow”. By KHADIJA PATEL.
The actual human cost of the brutal four-day siege on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi is not yet known. As late as Thursday, Kenyan officials were still detonating explosive devices that had been left in the mall. But as forensic teams comb through the wreckage of the mall for clues, one woman has become the focus of frenzied media speculation into the attack.
Samantha Lewthwaite, a 28-year-old woman dubbed “The White Widow” by British police, is the widow of Jermaine Lindsay, one of the assailants of the 7/7 bombings in London. Lewthwaite, a convert to Islam, condemned the blasts at first and pleaded ignorance. Soon thereafter, however, she disappeared from the UK. In recent years, Lewthwaite has been wanted by international police for financing the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab (who have claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack) as well as possession of explosives.
Lewthwaite was first linked to the Westgate siege by Andrew Malone writing in the Daily Mail last weekend.
“I suspect this woman Lewthwaite is behind this attack,” Malone wrote, quoting “a senior anti-terror source”.
Media reports were already peppered with reports from survivors of a woman in a veil commanding the group of terrorists who had attacked Westgate mall. These witness accounts, together with the snippet of intelligence shared by Malone’s sources, fuelled speculation that it was indeed Lewthwaite leading the siege of the Nairobi mall.
Since then, British press have even gone as far as reporting on the health of Lewthwaite’s grandmother. Others reported that police had discovered sexy lingerie in homes she had vacated. Still others recounted the uncanny familiarity of her upbringing. Hers appeared to be a unfortunate case of good British girl gone bad.
In the stubborn references to Lewthwaite as the “White Widow”, there is a fixation on her race and her sexual proclivities. As the face of “homegrown” terrorism, the ultimate betrayal of Queen and country, she has become a target of fear and the object of immense loathing.
Malone described Lewthwaite as “one of Al-Qaeda’s main recruiters in East Africa and an official spokesman for Al-Shabaab”. He admits, however, an initial distrust in the reported prowess of the “White Widow”.
“In truth, I was deeply sceptical when news was first leaked two years ago about the White Widow’s alleged role as a terrorist with the group now causing carnage in Nairobi,” he writes.
Since then, however, he admits to have been disabused of that initial scepticism.
“Yet now, having spent time among her acolytes in the Islamic stronghold where she once lived near Mombasa, and in briefings with police, prosecutors and senior investigators during subsequent investigations in Nairobi, I have no doubt that Lewthwaite is a cold-blooded killer and a dangerous ideologue,” Malone says.
Writing in July 2012, another Birtish journalist, Mike Pflanz, who is the Nairobi-based correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, said that in December 2011, Kenyan authorities found chemicals identical to those her husband used in the London bombings of 7/7. “In another, more upmarket villa close to tourist hotels, ammunition, detonators, an assault rifle and cash in black bin-liners were seized,” Pflanz reports.
According to her Kenyan charge sheet, Lewthwaite intended to “cause harm to innocent civilians” by means of “an explosive device”.
It was also at around this time that Lewthwaite’s South African passport and her alias “Natalie Faye Webb” emerged.
Pflanz reported that Scotland Yard believed she was on the run “with a British-Kenyan man of Pakistani origin, Habib Saleh Gani”.
An associate of Lewthwaite, Jermaine Grant, also British, and described in some reports as Lewthwaite’s second husband, was arrested at the house with the bomb-making chemicals in Mombasa.
Lewthwaite, however, remained elusive.
Pflanz notes that a senior anti-terror official in Mombasa told him last year, “Since charges were drawn up, on January 4 , there has been ‘zero concrete information’ about Lewthwaite…”
She had successfully evaded the efforts of Kenyan, Tanzanian, British and, allegedly, US anti-terror detectives to find her.
Lewthwaite is alleged to have directed grenade attacks against Kenyan churches and bars. And after Kenyan troops launched an offensive against Al-Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia, the small scale terror attacks in Kenya in apparent reprisal of Kenya’s military involvement were also said to have involved Lewthwaite.
Pflanz wrote, “Diplomats, Kenyan police and Scotland Yard sources have all denied that Lewthwaite was linked to the most recent attack, a triple-grenade strike on a bar popular with off-duty police officers in a predominantly Muslim suburb of Mombasa.”
Telling perhaps of the legend being created around Lewthwaite, eyewitnesses countered that they had seen a woman who matched Lewthwaite’s description involved.
“Yet several witnesses who spoke to The Daily Telegraph this week said they saw a woman in Islamic clothing, including a headscarf but not a veil, and several said she was pale-skinned,” he reported.
When it comes to Westgate, the evidence against Lewthwaite is contradictory.
On Monday, Kenya’s Interior Minister told a press briefing that there were no women involved in the attack but one of the male attackers had been dressed as a woman.
Shortly thereafter, the country’s Foreign Minister, speaking to PBS in New York, said a British woman who has “done this many times before” was among the assailants.
When he announced the end of the siege on Tuesday night, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said that “intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved,” adding that he could not confirm those reports.
But while Kenyan authorities attempt to find out who was behind the brutal assault on the Westgate mall, the South African government is also investigating Lewthwaite’s acquisition of a South African passport and her alleged links to South Africa.
On Thursday, Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor said Lewthwaite’s South African passport was fraudulently acquired. “[The passport] was investigated and reported on in 2011. It was cancelled at the time as it was found to be acquired fraudulently,” she said.
Pandor said further investigations were needed to determine how Lewthwaite acquired a passport under the alias of Natalie Faye Webb. “I don’t think it’s easy to get a South African passport. It might have been easy at the time,” she said.
And indeed conversations with Somali refugees in Pretoria and Johannesburg reveal a similar disbelief that a South African passport or identity is easily acquired.
“If we can get South African ID, why then we must we always go [and] ask for the refugee papers?” one Somali national asked.
Still, as news crews roam around Mayfair, quizzing unsuspecting residents about whether they recall Lewthwaite frequenting mosques in the suburb, the South African link to Lewthwaite is not borne of her passport alone.
“It is known that when she was in the country earlier this year, she was in Fordsburg and in Mayfair [Johannesburg]. She managed to get into the country although her name is on the Interpol list of wanted people,” Hussein Solomon, an academic at the University of Free State, told The Citizen about Lewthwaite.
Solomon, however, admitted on Wednesday, on the record, not to have any factual underpinnings to these claims. He said he had aborted research into terrorism in South Africa after threats of litigation from “the Muslim community”. Further, he said his only sources were from news reports.
And while Lewthwaite’s links to South Africa continue to be investigated, it is her involvement in the Westgate siege that is most urgently in need of clarification.
Al-Shabaab themselves have rejected speculation of Lewthwaite’s involvement in the Nairobi attack this week.
In a tweet the group said, “We have adequate number of young men who are fully committed and we do not employ our sisters to such military operations.”
On Thursday night Channel 4 reported that it had reliably learned the identities of two of the men who had led the attack on the Westgate mall. One of the men is a former member of Kenya’s special forces, the other is a Somali who had lived and worked in Kenya but was arrested and imprisoned in Somalia, where it is alleged he was also tortured by the CIA.
Lewthwaite’s name does not feature here.
Interpol, however, issued a red notice for Lewthwaite earlier on Thursday, saying she is “wanted by Kenya on charges of being in possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony dating back to December 2011”.
The notice said Kenyan authorities wanted other member nations to be “aware of this danger posed by this woman, not just across the region but also worldwide.”
It said Lewthwaite had previously only been wanted “at the national level for alleged possession of a fraudulently obtained South African passport”.
Still, an actual link of Lewthwaite to the siege of the Westgate mall has not been revealed.
“Truthfully, we cannot even say that she is someone that we fear. She is far away, she is hiding, she knows that if she comes back to Kenya she will be found and she will be taken to court,” one Kenyan anti-terror officer told The Telegraph last year.
His words may have come back to haunt him in the scenes of carnage in the Westgate mall this week. Kenya’s porous borders with Somalia and the alleged corruption of border officials may have assisted someone like Lewthwaite to slip into Kenya undetected.
But certainly for Kenyan authorities investigations – and by their own admission, South African authorities – Samantha Lewthwaite is not a sudden phenomenon.
The Telegraph’s Pflanz writes, “The myth of Samantha Lewthwaite that seems to have taken hold [has benefitted] propagandists on both sides of East Africa’s growing rift between security and terror.”
Lewthwaite may or may not have been involved in the attack on the Nairobi mall, of which the full human cost we are yet to learn. The morbid fascination with the “White Widow” in the aftermath of the carnage in Westgate, however, does little to assist the trauma of victims. The obsession with Lewthwaite masks questions that need to be asked of Kenyan authorities. How did Kenyan intelligence fail so spectacularly? The unending focus on Lewthwaite this week also impedes the efforts of investigators.
Already, one Kenyan woman has been mistakenly identified as the White Widow on social media.
Samantha Lewthwaite may have been the brains behind the attack, she may have been the commander inside the mall, or she may not have had any part in it at all. But what happened in Nairobi this week is far greater than the legend of one woman. The media obsession with the “White Widow” is a distraction from the reality of the unspeakable horrors of the attack on the Nairobi mall, and indeed everyday life in Somalia.