When a group of heavily armed fighters rampaged through a Kenyan shopping center on Saturday last week, shooting dead scores of shoppers, one question for the tabloid media became irresistible: Had they been funded, perhaps even directed, by a 29-year-old British mother?
When a number of witnesses described a white woman among the terrorists, was it Samantha Lewthwaite they had seen, the youngest daughter of a British soldier, the shy, gawky schoolgirl who “all the teachers loved”?
Those questions have been preoccupying investigators since the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall, for which the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility. Lewthwaite was nicknamed “the White Widow” after it emerged last year that the Muslim convert, who was married to the July 7, 2005, London bomber Jermaine Lindsay, was being hunted by Kenyan police in connection with an alleged 2011 bomb plot.
Lewthwaite had expressed shock after the London bombings, saying she “totally abhorred” her husband’s actions and telling journalists she and the couple’s two children were “victims as well.”
However, she disappeared before resurfacing in Kenya as an important member, according to counter-terrorist officials, of the Somalian terror group.
Who is Samantha Lewthwaite and, more urgently, where is she now? Despite the firestorm of interest in the Briton since the Nairobi atrocity the Kenyan prime minister has said he had no concrete evidence of her involvement in the shopping mall slaughter. Privately and in public, security sources in Britain and Kenya have cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Stig Jarle Hansen, who has written extensively on the Somalian terror group, agreed, saying: “This is a mother on the run with little military or technical expertise, certainly compared to a lot of al-Shabaab activists, some of whom have been in the battlefield for 10 years. Why would they use a person like that [for this kind of attack]?”
Lewthwaite was eight months pregnant with their second child when Lindsay blew himself up killing 26 people.
Senior detectives who interviewed Lewthwaite after the bombings say they saw nothing to indicate she had been radicalized. However, she began traveling abroad a lot, according to a friend. In 2009, she gave birth to a third child, leaving the father’s name blank on the birth certificate. Shortly afterward, she disappeared.
The terror group has been keen to talk up her role. However, Hansen said he believes Lewthwaite may have become a mythic figure whose reputation may not fully reflect her significance.
If so, he said, the enormous press speculation could represent a propaganda victory for al-Shabaab.
“I think her operational position would be limited, but her symbolic value for al-Shabaab is very large, because she’s prominent in the media and because she is a convert,” Hansen said. “She’s the daughter of a soldier who they attracted away from the Western lifestyle. Her value to al-Shabaab is symbolic — which should not be understated.”