Who is the ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite?
Published 23/09/2013 | 07:58
DAYS after her husband blew himself up in a Tube carriage beneath King's Cross station on July 7, 2005, killing 26 people, Irish woman Samantha Lewthwaite professed complete "incomprehension" at his "horrific" act.
Within weeks, the soldier's daughter and teenage Muslim convert from Banbridge, Co Down, disappeared from view, with the two children she had by bomber Jermaine Lindsay, one of them the couple's weeks-old newborn.
Police sources said surveillance on the family was "switched off" late in 2005.
Spin forward six years, to Christmas 2011, and that surveillance was on again.
But Samantha (29) was far from England. On this occasion, she was in a rundown suburb of Mombasa, on Kenya's coast, where she had just slipped a clumsy police dragnet.
In a two-room flat she rented in the city, one of four she paid for in cash with months of rent upfront, anti-terror police found chemicals identical to those her husband used at King's Cross on 7/7. In another, more upmarket villa close to tourist hotels, ammunition, detonators, an assault rifle and cash in black bin-liners were seized.
Lewthwaite, then using a faked South African passport in the name of Natalie Faye Webb (a nurse from Essex who had never been to East Africa), had again disappeared.
A picture soon emerged of a woman "intending to cause harm to innocent civilians" by means of "an explosive device", according to Kenyan police charges against her. She was on the run, Scotland Yard said, with a British-Kenyan man of Pakistani origin, Habib Saleh Gani. An associate of Lewthwaite's, Jermaine Grant, again British, was arrested at the house with the bomb-making chemicals and is currently on trial for the same charges Lewthwaite faces, which he has denied.
But since the charges were drawn up, the following January, there has been "zero concrete information" about Lewthwaite, one senior anti-terror official in Mombasa said.
She has been accused variously of being al-Qa'ida's chief financier in East Africa, funding the recruitment and smuggling of Muslim youth to terror training camps in Somalia, and coaching her own all-women jihadist squad there.
And this woman -- nicknamed the White Widow by police and "our white sister" by sympathisers -- has been said to have directed grenade attacks against the kuffar worshipping in Kenyan churches and watching Euro 2012 in its bars.
In fact, none of that is fact. Instead, it is part of a myth that seems to have taken hold benefiting propagandists on both sides of East Africa's growing rift between security and terror.
There have been suggestions that Lewthwaite took part in the most recent in a series of small-scale terror attacks across Kenya that have followed its military incursion into Somalia in 2011.
Diplomats, Kenyan police and Scotland Yard sources have all denied that Lewthwaite was linked to an attack, a triple-grenade strike on a bar popular with off-duty police officers in a predominantly Muslim suburb of Mombasa. Three people died, including a three-year-old boy in a neighbouring house that was hit by an off-target grenade.
However, several witnesses said they saw a woman in Islamic clothing, including a headscarf but not a veil, and a number of them said she was pale-skinned.
Isack Simiyu was closer than most.
The 23 year-old was in charge of directing where pub-goers parked at the Jericho Bar and Butchery in Mishomoroni. He stood to block the road when the black Toyota Rav4 and the smaller white Toyota Probox estate seemed ready to ram into the backs of people watching the England-Italy Euro 2012 quarter final on June 24.
"Then I saw the cars reversing, fast, and a man in a mask and a woman in a buibui (black shawl) came out, she lifted something like a launcher to her shoulders and she started firing," he said.
"She was a white lady, when she had got down from the car, I could see her face clearly." Shown four different images of women who looked similar to Lewthwaite, of which only one was her, Mr Simiyu immediately identified the supposedly on-the-run terror suspect.
That she would return to Mombasa defies logic, and contradicts the combined security intelligence of Kenya's police and Scotland Yard, which did not send officers to investigate Mr Simiyu's claims, contrary to reports.
"Why would she come back to the middle of the lion's den?" asked a clearly exasperated Elijah Rop, director of the coastal division of Kenya's anti-terror police department.
"We don't know where that woman is, but I can tell you that she is not in Kenya. This idea that she is firing rockets is nonsense.
And yet, less than two hours later, an anti-terror officer with close knowledge of the Lewthwaite investigation said the opposite.
"You know, there is a lot of laxity here, she can pass by any police roadblock, she can hide herself in Muslim clothes, she may even be living here in Mombasa," the source said.
The officer agreed with his boss, however, that Lewthwaite was "no threat", that she was "not connected" with senior al-Shabaab suspects, and that "very few people" in Mombasa or, wider, across East Africa had heard of her.
Perhaps this is the reality of Samantha Lewthwaite, that she truly is hidden away somewhere on the East African coast, with her children, lying low, no threat to anyone bar herself, and the myth surrounding her has taken on its own life.
The other danger, more chilling, is that Samantha Lewthwaite is everything that she has been accused of being.