She was once a middle-class girl, from a sleepy English town, but, since the devastating Nairobis attacks, Samanatha Lewthwaite has become an international fugitive. Amelia Gentleman looks at the mystery and mythology of the "White Widow".

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samantha lewthwaite, aka the white widow.
Samantha Lewthwaite, aka The White Widow.

It was the morning of July 7, 2005 and London was a scene of bloody, confusing, devastating mayhem. In the space of an hour, while the city’s famously efficient underground rail system was packed with commuters, four suicide bombers — three on trains and one on a double-decker bus — had detonated devices packed into their rucksacks, killing 52 and injuring 700.

As commuters streamed out of tube stations covered in blood, and screaming bystanders searched desperately for loved ones, in a small town an hour’s drive northwest, a young mother watched the unfolding tragedy on television and, by her own account, wept for the victims.

Samantha Lewthwaite hadn’t heard from her own husband, but she wasn’t unduly worried. A couple of days earlier she had thrown him out of the house they shared with their young son in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, convinced that he was having an affair and dismayed by his increasingly odd behavior.

“Obviously, I didn't know then I was linked to what I was seeing,” she recalled in an interview a few months later. Her father, however, was worried on behalf of his newly single daughter, who was eight-months pregnant and well known in the provincial town for her decision as a teenager to convert to Islam. “My dad phoned and told me I had better take off my Islamic clothing in case there was a backlash... I ignored him,” she told the tabloid newspaper The Sun in September 2005.

It was, she says, several days before she became concerned that her husband was not answering his phone. “I saw a number to phone on TV if you were worried about a lost person. They also said the bombers had links with London, Luton and the North. I phoned and said my husband was missing and he had links in all three places.”

Armed police arrived at her home and took Lewthwaite away for questioning. They showed her pictures of her husband on CCTV cameras and told her that DNA indicated he was one of the bombers. “My world collapsed,” she told the paper, dressed in a black niqab with only her eyes visible. “I was in tears thinking, ‘Who poisoned his brain?’”

Though it later emerged she’d visited the 7/7 ringleader, Mahammed Sidique Khan, with her husband, police found no evidence that she had known what her husband was planning. In fact, Lewthwaite, who was then 22, made a public statement distancing herself from him. “I am the wife of Germaine Lindsay, and never predicted or imagined that he was involved in such horrific activities. He was a loving husband and father... My thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation."

Lewthwaite’s words were published around the world, focusing global attention on — and widespread sympathy for — the young, middle-class soldier’s daughter, who appeared to be innocently connected through marriage to the perpetrator of one of Britain’s worst terrorist atrocities.

The world's most wanted woman

Fast-forward eight years and Samantha Lewthwaite has returned to the international spotlight. But in a stunning transformation, the young British mum has gone from a figure of sympathy to one of the world’s most hunted women. No longer blending with other mums at Aylesbury playgrounds, she is the subject of an Interpol “red notice”, one of the agency’s highest alerts, wanted by authorities in Kenya on charges of being a fugitive, in possession of explosives and conspiracy in the planning of other terrorist attacks.

When, how, and why — apparently not if — she morphed from devastated bystander to terrorist mastermind has Britain’s tabloids in a feeding frenzy of speculation. No longer Samantha Lewthwaite, she is luridly known as “The White Widow”, a woman so mysterious that papers have replaced actual information about her with a powerful mythology: She was front and centre at the massacre in Naorobi’s Westgate shopping centre in September, she has links to another Kenya-based British terror suspect, Jermaine Grant, her elder children’s middle names Shaheed and Shahida respectively mean ‘martyr’ in the male and female form, entries in a diary that may or may not have been written by her suggest that her children want to become jihadi warriors, police found sexy knickers in a raid on an apartment she’d just fled. And so on.

Rumours about Lewthwaite’s possible involvement in the Nairobi massacre that left at least 67 people dead, began shortly after the assault, when soldiers at the scene said a white woman was among the terrorists. Despite the certainty of Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, that there was a woman involved who had mounted similar attacks “many times before”, the connection with the brutal attack, like many accusations against her, remains unproven. But the rumours refuse to die down.

Samantha Lewthwaite’s life can be traced in a series of pictures that have now been reprinted millions of times. First we meet her as an awkward schoolgirl, flashing a gentle smile at the school photographer, her striped tie knotted messily over her white shirt. Then we see her at a formal party, smiling uncomfortably in a low-cut pink satin dress, cream cropped cardigan and tiara. Then the notorious photograph, released shortly after the 7/7 attacks, of her squeezed up with her husband, cheek to cheek on the sofa, matching grins, cuddling a toddler on her knee, the black hijab wound around her chubby face – an unsettlingly touching family picture. Later, there’s the black and white passport photo, stuck into a forged South African passport, above the name Natalie Faye Webb, the alias Interpol suspects she has been using. Finally there’s a more sophisticated image, a glamorous selfie that shows her poised, pouting at the camera, her eyeliner, mascara and lipstick perfectly applied, her bright blue eyes complemented by the headscarf that covers her hair and much of her forehead.

But what do we really know about Samantha Lewthwaite? She was born in 1983 in Ireland to a British soldier father and an Irish Catholic mother. The middle-class family moved to a new home in Aylesbury in the early 1990s, and when Samantha was 11, her parents split up. She was a pupil at the nearby Grange School, a 1960s-built mixed secondary school, with spacious grounds, surrounded by cherry and apple trees, and weeping willows, where - according to the explosion of unverifiable facts about her childhood printed in the past few weeks – she worked hard, enjoyed discos and idolised David Beckham.

She made friends with a Muslim girl who lived around the corner from the quiet cul-de-sac where she lived, and began spending a lot of time with the girl’s family. At some point during her teenage years, she told her friend’s father she wanted to become a Muslim too.

“He asked her to go and think about it deeply; he told her it was not something that she do without thinking,” recalls Niknam Hussain, a former mayor of Aylesbury, who knew the Muslim family well. Hussain used to bump into Samantha at this friend’s house regularly, ever since she was a young girl of about 12, he says, and remembers her decision to convert as highly unusual. “It was not very common at all. Her family wasn't happy. It wasn't something they wanted her to but they didn't actively stop her.” Samantha went ahead and at some point in her late teens began wearing a hijab.

samantha lewthwaite
Samantha Lewthwaite

Staff at her old school say Lewthwaite’s decision was unprecedented at Grange. The school has made no comment on the news that an ex-pupil is now featuring on Interpol’s wanted list; staff who were there when she left 12 years ago have only “very dim memories” of her.

According to media reports, she met her future husband Germaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born convert to Islam, in an internet chat room, before meeting him in person at the February 2003 Stop the War march in central London, protesting the invasion of Iraq; She signed up to study politics and religion at the respected School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS), but did not stay long.

After that the timeline is a bit unclear. She had a son with Lindsay, and was eight months pregnant with a second child when Lindsay detonated the bomb at Russell Square. The material published about her since that day indicates that for a while she remained in Aylesbury, initially under police protection, doing nothing more exotic than making a trip to Disneyland Paris with her father and her children. Hussain remembers seeing her in the park with her children, chatting to the other mothers. “She looked like a normal housewife.”

Then, sometime in 2009, she vanished.

Putting the puzzle together

Police are only now beginning to piece together Lewthwaite’s movements - and it’s still unclear how or when she came to be radicalized - but what’s certain is that by 2010 she had fled the UK for East Africa with her children.

There, she obtained a false passport under the name Natalie Webb, and began consorting with known terrorists and bomb-makers. In 2012, Kenyan police issued a warrant for her arrest on suspicion of her involvement in a terrorist plot to attack shopping malls and hotels in Mombassa. Soon afterwards, Lewthwaite’s father, Andy, issued a public plea for her to “get in touch”, saying the family hadn’t heard from her in months.

Facts about Lewthwaite’s life in Africa are hazy. Police have found evidence to suggest that she worked as an IT consultant for a halal meat pie factory in South Africa for a while. It is believed that she may have married a former Kenyan naval officer. She also had a third, and, according to some reports, a fourth child.

The characterisation of Lewthwaite as a shrewd terrorist ringleader has bemused former friends in Aylesbury who reacted to reports of her involvement in Nairobi with incredulity on Twitter. “How can it be Samantha? The last time I saw her she was shopping in [British department store] Wilkinsons,” one tweet says.

Hussain, who is well connected in Aylesbury and works as chair of the community liaison team for the local Thames Valley police, says he does not believe that there is any radical Islamist cell in the town itself. “This is sleepy Buckinghamshire. It’s a nice, small integrated town.” He thinks he would have known if Samantha had been behaving suspiciously. “No one has ever said to me, we have evidence that she's been spotted talking to the wrong people, or that she was going to meetings,” he says. “I’m not even sure that there are the wrong people in Aylesbury. I'm sceptical of the allegations that she's some sort of mastermind, or some sort of king pin, or the person who controls the purse strings for al-Shabaab [the terror cell that claimed responsibility for the Nairobi attack] in east Africa.” (Al-Shabaab has denied that Lewthwaite was involved in the massacre).

Yet Hussain is not surprised at the focus on the quiet girl he has known since her childhood. “Why the interest? That's easy. She's very pretty, very young, she converted, she's associated with a known terrorist. People think, ‘if this can happen here it can happen anywhere.’ They think, ‘if this can happen to a person like that, who can't it happen to?’”

The making of a very modern myth

There are few facts to tie Samantha Lewthwaite to the Nairobi bombings. Even Al-Shabaab has denied her involvement. And yet, since the September attack, news stories about The White Widow have exploded.

So why the rush to accuse Lewthwaite? Certainly, there can be little doubt of the huge fascination that female terrorists hold in the public imagination. For news media, the apparent involvement of a white, photogenic woman in a complicated remote political situation, is often easier to seize on and digest than the difficult political issues themselves.

“Samantha Lewthwaite is the white, western character we need in order to remain interested in a story that is primarily African,” The Guardian’s Africa correspondent Afua Hirsch writes. “You only have to look as far as Homeland – an entire series based around our fascination with western-born, white jihadist terrorists.”

Professor Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell, The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, says: “There is double fascination because she is both female and a white convert. This has been almost fetishised by the media. There is a refusal to believe that women can be violent or as violent as men. People have a hard time understanding how this western woman could become radicalised and get involved in violence.”

Lewthwaite is not the first white western woman to have been radicalized. “Women have been involved in terrorism since the very beginning, since the Russian anarchists... I think the shock about a white woman being involved in terrorism perhaps betrays a lack of knowledge about the history of terrorism,” Bloom adds.

A parallel curiosity about white female converts to Islam may also have slanted coverage. A Cambridge university study published in August, Narratives of Conversion to Islam, edited by Professor Yasir Suleiman, highlights some of the difficulties faced by white British Muslim converts. “Media interest in conversion has varied from fascinated interest to distorted portrayals of individual conversions… The small percentage of converts engaged in terrorist-related activity makes headline news,” the report states.

“While conversion to Islam happens in a number of ways to very different people, media interest in conversion has largely focused on white, educated, middle class women. These conversions cause shock and consternation, due to the assumption that educated women are giving up a liberated lifestyle to accept a way of life that is poorly understood by the public.”

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