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The hunt for the white widow
Monday, July 16, 2012
By Mike Pflanz
Lewthwaite, who was using a faked South African passport (above), is accused of being al-Qaeda’s chief financier in the region, funding training camps and coaching an all-woman terror squad
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In the feverish atmosphere of Kenya’s war on terror, rumours abound as to the whereabouts of Samantha Lewthwaite, the Muslim convert from Aylesbury who is on the run after a foiled bomb plot. Mike Pflanz reports from Mombasa.
Days after her husband blew himself up in a Tube carriage beneath King’s Cross station on July 7, 2005, killing 26 people, Samantha Lewthwaite professed complete “incomprehension” at his “horrific” act. Within weeks, the soldier’s daughter and teenage Muslim convert from Aylesbury 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 last year, and that surveillance was on again, this time far from England’s southern counties, in a rundown suburb of Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast, where Lewthwaite 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 up front, 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, also 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, on January 4, there has been “zero concrete information” about Lewthwaite, one senior anti-terror official in Mombasa told me this week. Lewthwaite herself remains free despite the combined attempts of Kenyan, Tanzanian, British and, allegedly, US anti-terror detectives to find her.
Into the vacuum of verifiable fact about this modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel of East Africa has rushed a clamour of speculation about the 28-year-old mother and her three children – or is it now four? She has been accused variously of being al-Qaeda’s chief financier in the region, funding the recruitment and smuggling of Muslim youth to terror training camps in Somalia, and coaching her own all-women jihadist squad there. She has been linked with senior al-Qaeda commanders’ alleged plots to attack Eton College and the Dorchester and Ritz hotels in London.
The threat she and her ilk pose is said to have moved Western embassies, briefly, to bar their citizens from Kenya’s coast, prompted pervasive security at supermarkets and hotels, and hit high-season tourist bookings.
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 the myth of Samantha Lewthwaite that seems to have taken hold, benefiting propagandists on both sides of East Africa’s growing rift between security and terror.
Whether Lewthwaite is a part of that drive to incite more and more Muslims to jihad, for example, is impossible to clarify, but it seems unlikely. Last week, a blog on a website used by a pro-jihadi Kenyan organisation linked to the Somalia-based al-Shabaab suggested that increasing numbers of young women were following Lewthwaite into militant Islam.
Under the title “An Example To Us All”, the anonymous but apparently female blogger wrote that “every Muslim sister wants to be like our dada mzungu [“white sister” in Swahili] and insh’allah I will join you”.
Yet finding other similar Lewthwaite fan-pages was difficult. After days of searching, Somali and Swahili speakers assisting The Daily Telegraph failed to find any reference on any East African jihadi website to Lewthwaite, to her Islamic name, Asamantara, or to the “White Widow” or “white sister”. Four separate al-Shabaab commanders, including Sheikh Hassan Yakub, its commissioner in its stronghold of Kismayo, denied that they were sheltering her, as has been repeatedly claimed, or even that they knew who she was.
Then there is the suggestion 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 last year. Diplomats, Kenyan police and Scotland Yard sources have all denied that Lewthwaite was linked to the most recent 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.
Yet several witnesses who spoke to The Daily Telegraph this week said they saw a woman in Islamic clothing, including a headscarf but not a veil, and several 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 straight 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 told The Daily Telegraph. “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.
“Truthfully, we cannot even say that she is someone that we fear. She is far away, she is hiding, she knows that if she comes back to Kenya she will be found and she will be taken to court.”
And yet, 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,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
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.
And then another twist. The next day, The Daily Telegraph learnt of reports, from credible sources, that Lewthwaite and her co-accused, Jermaine Grant, were linked to two men who were last week added to Washington’s terror sanctions list.
Aboud Rogo Mohammed and Sheikh Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, the US says, are the chief “radicalisers and recruiters” in Mombasa for Somalia’s Islamist army, al-Shabaab. And the money needed to pay for Mombasa’s incensed young Muslims to be sent to Somalia to train was funnelled to the two men by Samantha Lewthwaite, an anti-terror officer and a security source separately said.
Another denial followed: “That is ridiculous,” Sheikh Abubaker told The Daily Telegraph in his first interview with Western media. “I have never met this Samantha, I have never heard of her apart from in the newspapers. Her friend Grant, I met him in prison, he was quiet and we said nothing to each other really. There is no connection, even though the authorities want to create one.”
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. But at the same time, perhaps to camouflage weak policing, or gaps in terrorism intelligence, or to garner headlines, it has helped a wide cast of characters to link the name Samantha Lewthwaite to every actual and suspected terror outrage, from the Red Sea to Zanzibar.
There are two dangers here. First, there is the possibility that the myth created around her will take on its own life. “The fact is that every young Muslim here sees the double standards of the West,” said Sheikh Abubaker. “By accusing us of being terrorists when we are not, that will of course turn us into terrorists, through our anger and frustration. You must beware of what you create.”
The other danger, more chilling, is that Samantha Lewthwaite is everything that she has been accused of being.
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