An international search is on for the White Widow, a British woman suspected to be at the heart of the terror plot that killed more than 60 people in Nairobi’s Westgate mall.
A Muslim convert, Samantha Lewthwaite grew up in the suburbs outside London, the daughter of a British Army officer. At some point, she met and married Germaine Lindsay, one of the suicide attackers who killed 26 people during the London bombings on July 7, 2005.
At the time, she told police that she was shocked and appalled by the bombings. Today, however, the 29-year-old woman is on the run from security forces, having been linked to a number of terrorist groups across East Africa. And security and government officials in Britain confirmed to The Daily Beast that they are now investigating claims that she was involved in the assault on the mall in Nairobi.
Amina Mohamed, the Kenyan cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, was among the first to fuel speculation that Lewthwaite was one of the ring leaders during an interview on Monday night. “From the information that we have, two or three Americans [were involved] and I think, so far, I have heard of one Brit ... a woman ... and I think she has done this many times before,” she told the NewsHour program.
This week Reuters reported that one intelligence officer and two soldiers had told them that one of the dead militants in the raid on the Westgate mall was a white woman. Kenyan police officers refused to confirm or deny those reports to The Daily Beast.
“She has become a mythical figure.”
But the British Foreign Office said that they were investigating claims of Lewthwaite’s involvement, and Scotland Yard said they were continuing to offer assistance to the Kenyan police operation.
The Kenyan authorities have sought Lewthwaite’s arrest since a raid on a bomb-making factory near Mombasa in December 2011, which apparently turned up a host of her belongings including notes and emails linking her to terrorist groups. Even though they have reportedly gotten assistance from the CIA, British Special Forces, and Scotland Yard, authorities have been unable to capture the young mother of three.
In the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 attack on London, British authorities provided a safe house for her because of the threat of reprisals. During interviews with security officials, she denied all knowledge of the plot, and publicly distanced herself from the bombings. "I totally condemn and am horrified by the atrocities," she said, in a statement released by the police, who also offered her protection in the wake of the attack.
She was never charged with any crimes and not long after, she disappeared.
“It is somewhat embarrassing,” says Neil Doyle, the author of Terror Tracker. “Obviously she was questioned and let go. And now she shows up in East Africa in a senior role. It makes you wonder how involved she was in 7/7.”
Patrick Mercer, a Conservative MP and former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counterterrorism, told the Daily Beast that British officials were in an awkward position. “I hope that the British authorities were fully cognizant of the threat that she posed, and that she hasn’t somehow been allowed to run unchecked,” he said. “There are now several occasions on which Samantha Lewthwaite has been under serious suspicion. I hope that this doesn’t point to the ball having been dropped.”
Six years after she walked free from a British police station, counterterrorism police in Kenya stormed into two Al-Shabab safe houses and discovered bomb-making chemicals similar to those used in London, a partially destroyed laptop that showed links to terrorism, and documents that identified a woman named Natalie Faye Webb. The name belonged to a nurse who was living and working in England at the time. The photograph showed the face of Lewthwaite.
By the time Scotland Yard had connected the dots, she had vanished again. “Whenever she’s got close to being caught, she’s got away,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. “She has become a mythical figure.”
Indeed, her extraordinary background has made Lewthwaite a popular figure among jihadi groups in East Africa. “In the same way that Osama bin Laden was such a compelling figure because he was the rich son of a multibillionaire sheik who gave it all up to go live in the mountains and fight for God, here you’ve got a girl from the Home Counties in the U.K. who sees the light and joins the battle when her husband becomes a martyr,” Pantucci said.
Her parents have found it impossible to believe she could be involved with any form of terrorism. “Samantha would not be involved in anything to do with terrorism. She was badly affected by what happened before and would have nothing to do with it. I am sure of that,” said her father, Andy Lewthwaite, last year.
The youngest of three children, Lewthwaite was a shy student at the Grange Secondary School in Aylesbury, a girl who loved fashion and parties with friends before she converted to Islam at age 17. She took the name Sherafiya and began wearing a hijab, but continued to do well at school, studying for a graduate degree at the School Of Oriental and African Studies in central London. In 2002, she came across Lindsay, a fellow Muslim convert, on an online forum. They met for the first time at an anti–Iraq war rally, and within months they were married.
Raj Khan, a local councilor in Aylesbury who knew Lewthwaite before the 7/7 attack, said she was "very good person" and he could not believe what he was reading. "She was not strong-headed. And that's why I find it absolutely amazing that she is supposed to be the head of an international criminal terrorist organization," he said.
Little is known about Lewthwaite and her husband in the years before the 7/7 bombing as Lewthwaite had become estranged from her family. When her husband detonated a bomb on a London underground train between Kings Cross and Russell Square stations, she was heavily pregnant, though the day before the attack, she had told friends she had kicked Lindsay out of the house after a domestic dispute. She was then quick to denounce him. "I am the wife of Germaine Lindsay, and never predicted or imagined that he was involved in such horrific activities,” she said.
If the documents found in Kenya six years later did indeed belong to her, she appeared to have changed her mind quite significantly. In a crumpled exercise book, police found a description of a "dua”— a prayer to Allah for a suitable marriage—in which the author asked for a man who would "go forth and give all he could for Allah and live a life of terrorizing the disbelievers as they have us. This is what I wanted and Allah gave me this and better.” Lewthwaite is believed to have married another suspected British Jihadi, Habib Saleh Ghani.
In the notes, she apparently outlines plans for a book she wants to write. The synopsis contains seven chapters, including “Guidance to Jihad/Islam; Life as a Stranger,” in which the author describes what it means to be among family and friends, when even those closest to you cannot know you are a holy warrior. It also contains a chapter titled “A Woman's Perspective,” that collects advice and stories from the wives, mothers, sisters. and daughters of holy warriors.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, head of research and information at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, says Lewthwaite was suspected of working for an Al-Shabab–affiliated group. “She is connected with a pretty serious jihadist network in East Africa, including the Kenyan Muslim Youth Center, the Al-Shabab affiliate in Kenya.” She is also believed to be the author of the group’s Twitter feed, which contains propaganda messages directed at would-be recruits.
The Twitter feed linked to a video clip about the futile search for the White Widow on America’s Most Wanted, and suggested officials might want to look to Hollywood for clues. "[Sister] they r luking 4 you. If only they watch the Thomas Crown Affair," read one post. In the 1999 film starring Pierce Brosnan, an art thief evades capture by hiding in plain sight.