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Was a British Woman Behind al-Shabaab’s Westgate Attack?

On the first day of al-Shabaab’s siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, several bystanders allegedly spotted a veiled white woman commanding the gunmen in Arabic. The next day, the British tabloid the Daily Mail identified the woman as “the...

by Gideon Resnick
Oct 5 2013, 2:14pm

Photo of Samantha Lewthwaite via Interpol's Wanted Persons page

On September 21st, several bystanders allegedly spotted a a veiled white woman commanding al-Shabaab as they sieged the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Some witnesses said she smeared blood on her face and clothes and fled the mall with survivors. The next day, the British tabloid the Daily Mail identified the woman as “the white widow,” a 29-year-old British woman named Samantha Lewthwaite. Since then, the story has dominated international headlines. In the past two weeks, the Sun, the Mirror, and other British newspapers have published stories about “the white widow.” But authorities have yet to confirm if Samantha was involved in the attacks. 

The stories about Samantha expand on her mythic tabloid stature. She first attracted international authorities’ attention—and tabloid notoriety—after her husband, Germaine Lindsay, blew up a London Underground train on July 7, 2005 as part of a series of terrorist attacks in London. The attacks killed 52 people, including Germaine and three other suicide bombers. In 2005, Samantha criticized her husband’s actions—she claimed she was an innocent girl who had happened to marry a terrorist and have two children with him.

Her story sounded suspicious but somewhat plausible. Samantha grew up in Aylesbury and converted to Islam as a teenager. She met Germaine in a chat room when she was 17, and they married three years later. After the London bombings, Samantha’s name quickly disappeared from the British media—at least until March 2012, when Samantha became wanted for questioning about a plan to bomb Kenya’s coastal cities during the 2011 Christmas holidays.

As of now, not much else is known about Samantha. She gave birth to a third child in 2009 and is believed to have married Habib Saleh Ghani, who may or may not have fathered her fourth child. A Samantha Lewthwaite facebook page is debatably fake. A Twitter account under the name Samantha Lewthwaite has sent zero tweets, and another Twitter account is a parody account that describes Samantha as an “Only Child, Daddy’s Girl, Middle Eastern Goth.” 

Even less information is known about Samantha's alleged involvement in the Westgate attack. On September 26th, Interpol issued a red notice, an international wanted persons alert, for Samantha’s arrest, but the alert is unrelated to the Westgate attack. Interpol lists Kenya's charges against Samantha as “being in possession of explosives” and “conspiracy to commit a felony” because of her suspected involvement in the 2011 Christmas bomb plot, not the Westgate Mall massacre. South African officials have stated that international authorities have the same information about Samantha, as what has been published in newspapers. “The information we have on the ‘white widow’ is no different from that which has already been reported in the media,” said Enocent Nemuramba, a public liaison officer for the Democratic Alliance, a South African opposition party that requested the South African parliamentary intelligence committee take further action against Samantha this past week.

These statements haven’t stopped civilians from believing Samantha was definitely involved in the Westgate attack. A Facebook page has been set up to “find and stop this UK born terrorist.” On one post, the page’s administrator said, “Was anybody whos on this page actually in the shopping mall in Nairobi when the terrorists struck?” He then requested, “No bullshitters please!” Surprisingly, the manhunt hasn't started on reddit yet. As of this morning, a reddit search for “the white widow” only results in posts about “dank” weed.

Despite this public witch hunt, Samantha’s involvement in the Westgate attack is speculative. Many journalists cited eye witness accounts of a white woman’s involvement in the siege, but there’s no concrete evidence that this woman was Samantha or if a woman was actually involved in the terrorist attack. All we know is that the white widow is a dangerous woman wanted by intelligence agencies for planning other terrorist attacks, and the international hunt to find her has begun. 

@GideonResnick

More about terrorism: 

The Westgate Attack Shows How Desperate Al-Shabaab Have Become

Al Qaeda's Somalia Cell Is Fractured and Dangerous 

What Does Terrorism Mean in 2013

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