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Africa

Was UK’s 'white widow' involved in Kenya mall attack?

© Photo: AFP

Text by Sam Ball

Latest update : 2013-09-26

A British woman dubbed the “white widow” by the press has emerged as a possible suspect in the weekend's deadly assault on the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Samantha Lewthwaite was married to one of the suicide bombers in the London July 7 attacks.

A British woman nicknamed the “white widow” has emerged as a possible suspect in Saturday's deadly terrorist attack carried out by al Shabaab Islamic militants on the Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Speculation over the involvement of Samantha Lewthwaite, the wife of one of the suicide bombers who carried out the London 7/7 attacks, was fuelled by comments made by Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed on Monday, in which she said that a British woman was one of the attackers.

“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 PBS NewsHour programme.

Should the minister’s comments prove accurate, Lewthwaite, who has been previously linked to terrorist activity and is wanted by Kenyan police over an alleged plot to bomb the country's coast, would appear a likely suspect.

Lewthwaite: From grieving widow to international terrorist

The daughter of a British soldier, Lewthwaite, 29, appears to have enjoyed an ordinary upbringing in the English market town of Aylesbury, around 45 miles northwest of London.

She first came to the attention of the British media in the wake of the July 7 bombings in London in 2005, which killed 52 people. Her husband, Germaine Lindsay, was one of four suicide bombers involved in the attack.

She met Jamaican-born Lindsay in an internet chatroom at the age of 17, two years after she converted to Islam.

Pregnant with the couple’s second child at the time, Lewthwaite initially seemed appalled by her husband’s actions.

“I totally condemn and am horrified by the atrocities which occurred in London," she said, describing Lindsay as "a good and loving husband and a brilliant father, who showed absolutely no sign of doing this atrocious crime".

The ‘myth’ of Samantha Lewthwaite

However, in the years following 7/7, media reports have linked Lewthwaite with a number of attacks across the Horn of Africa and named her as a prominent member of al Shabaab, earning her the nickname “white widow” in the press.

In February 2012 it was reported that Kenyan police were hunting for Lewthwaite after finding a fake passport containing her picture during a raid on a house linked to terrorist activity, while in August 2013 she was accused of orchestrating a grenade attack on a bar in Mombasa.

But while she is “undoubtedly involved in some way” with al Shabaab, “there is not a great deal of information” on Lewthwaite’s exact activities in recent years, Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told FRANCE 24. 

“She pops up periodically from time to time across the Horn of Africa. But there’s very little in the way of concrete facts,” he said.

A look at the al-Shabaab militant group

But whether or not she has been directly involved in any terrorist acts, her importance to al Shabaab and the wider Jihadist movement is more symbolic, says Maher.

“The first thing is that she’s a convert to Islam, she’s white, English. She has great propaganda value.

“And her husband was a July 7 bomber, which gives her a kind of pedigree as a jihadist. It feeds into the ‘myth of Samantha’.”

Confusion remains over Lewthwaite’s role

Despite the rife press speculation, whether Lewthwaite, or any women for that matter, were involved in the Nairobi attack, remains unclear with conflicting reports coming from witnesses, security forces and the Kenyan government.

Early reports at the time of the attack, which began Saturday and led to a hostage standoff between the Islamists and police that was still in progress on Tuesday, cited witnesses who said at least one of the attackers was a woman.

However, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said earlier on Monday that all of the terrorists were male, though some had dressed as women, before being contradicted by Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed’s comments.

Meanwhile, a British security source told Reuters that it was possible that Lewthwaite was involved in the Nairobi siege. "It is a possibility. But nothing definitive or conclusive yet" the source said. 

Maher believes it is “impossible to speculate” at this stage over Lewthwaite's possible involvement.

“There’s so much conflicting information even from government officials in Kenya,” he said. “It would be unusual though for a woman to be involved in this kind of attack.”

The British Foreign Office, meanwhile, has refused to comment on whether one of its citizens may have taken part in the attack.

Date created : 2013-09-24

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