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Is a British Widow Really a Key Player in the African Militant Islamic Group al Shabaab?

Despite the tabloid-friendly idea that a violent Islamist group is run by a woman from England, security analysts believe these claims are silly.

Samantha "the White Widow" Lewthwaite. Photo via Interpol/Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, reports emerged suggesting that al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, which controls large swaths of Somalia from strongholds in the south of the country, is now at least partially led by Samantha "the White Widow" Lewthwaite, a British woman. Drawing on anonymous comments from members of the Somali security officials, one report published in the UK Mirror suggest that the since marrying an al Shabaab commander named Hassan Maalim Ibrahim (a.k.a. Sheikh Hassan) last May, Lewthwaite climbed the ranks, replacing leaders killed in US drone strikes to become the right hand of group leader Ahmad Umar (a.k.a. Abu Ubaidah).

A separate report in the Daily Mail Wednesday alleged that Lewthwaite personally commands a unit of nearly 200 "jihadi widow spies" who pose as street merchants and receptionists at businesses like hotels.

These stories further suggest that the 32-year-old mother of four is responsible for the deaths of more than 400 people by masterminding a series of raids and suicide attacks over the past few years, including the April 2 attack on Garissa, Kenya, that killed 148. It's also claimed that the White Widow surrounds herself with British commanders (as her Somali language skills are poor), including a dedicated suicide squad of 15 people, and has led the recruitment of teenage and female suicide bombers using cash and heroin as incentives and means of control.

But despite the apparently juicy idea that a traditionally male-dominated Islamist group features a woman in a senior role, security analysts believe these claims are silly and that most evidence suggests the White Widow is a low-level player at best.

"There is no way she is second in command," Veryan Khan, editorial director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, told VICE . "There's no evidence that she's actually in Somalia right now at all."

"I rather doubt [her leadership]," adds Stig Jarle Hansen, an associate professor of religious terror at Norway's University of Life Sciences in Oslo and author of 2013's acclaimed Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group. "The only reason [to believe this] is the media attention—an attention that has led to a lot of erroneous articles."

Born in Northern Ireland in 1983, Lewthwaite reportedly converted to Islam at the age of 15. Then, in 2002, she married a man named Jermaine Lindsay. It was through Lindsay that she first achieved international notoriety when he carried out one of the July 7 London subway bombings in 2005—an action that Lewthwaite denied any knowledge of to cops and the press, although subsequent reporting led some to suspect that she had a degree of insight into her husband's intentions, as she had met bombing ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan with him. Soon after, Lewthwaite reportedly moved to Kenya and then South Africa, where she apparently married a Kenyan al Qaeda affiliate named Fahmi Jamal Salim. But for the most part, she fell off the press radar for a while.

Lewthwaite came back into the spotlight two years ago, when Interpol named her a wanted person of notice for allegedly possessing explosives used in a bombing attack on Mombassa, Kenya, in 2011. Thereafter, Lewthwaite supposedly fled to Somalia to seek refuge with al Shabaab, whose leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane (killed by an American airstrike last summer), she'd expressed devotion to. Ever since, security forces have reported sightings of her (despite supposedly great precautions on her part) throughout the region, maintaining that she frequently narrowly avoids raids.

"She is protected in no-go areas by [Sheikh Hassan's] clan and she often poses as a camel herder," an unnamed member of Amison, the African Union's 10,000-strong peacekeeping force in Somalia, told the Mirror. "She is dressed all in black robes and gloves so her white skin does not give her away."

Almost as soon as she absconded in 2013, press outlets and analysts began to claim that Lewthwaite had become a high-ranking member of al Shabaab and a number of other terrorist groups. She was initially cited as a possible participant or mastermind of the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and an October 2013 Kenyan intelligence report argued that she was a major logistician in a six-person Kenyan terror cell run by al Shabaab leader Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir. Some media outlets claimed that as of 2014 she was guiding retaliatory killings in Kenya from Somalia as a logistics mastermind and bringing female recruits over to Somalia from Yemen. When al Shabaab commander Zakariye Ismail Hersi turned himself in to Kenyan authorities late last year and offered to turn over information on the White Widow in January, this was seen by some observers as proof of her stature within the al Shabaab machine.

But at the same time that she was accused of masterminding attacks from Somalia, other accounts placed the White Widow in the Ukraine, where she was allegedly killed by pro-Russian rebels after volunteering to serve as a sniper with the Ukrainian volunteer Aidar battalion. Still other accounts placed her in Syria fighting with the Islamic State. Then there's the idea that she was somehow tied to the Islamic State executioner Jihadi John as far back as 2009.

All of which is to say that for the last year and a half, the White Widow has basically become a recurring terrorist meme.

"She has become relatively cognitively prominent" is how Hansen puts it, "an urban legend that many journalists use when Shabaab performs attacks."

In many of these cases, Lewthwaite's leadership roles have been debunked by subsequent investigations. By the end of 2013, Kenyan officials were denying that she'd had a role in Westgate. Her role in the Ukraine appears to be a complete fabrication. And a detailed BBC documentary on her life and exploits, which aired last summer, made a strong case that at least up until then, there was little to no evidence that she'd ever done more than carry out support functions with al Shabaab.

Given that officials have already tagged other individuals as the masterminds behind the Garissa attack and taken actions against them, it's unlikely the White Widow orchestrated that slaughter. And Ahmed Umar, the man whom she supposedly serves, seems to be against the idea of non-Somali leadership for al Shabaab. He likely supported his predecessor, Godane, in a massive purge of foreign fighters on the suspicion that they might be spies or splintering al Shabaab.

Related: Canada Is Bombing the Islamic State in Syria, and Cyberwar Centers Could Be Next

Ahmed Umar also shows no signs of breaking a global trend among jihadists of opposing leadership roles for women—much less for foreign women—in line with their (selectively) conservative religious doctrine.

"In Islamic militant organizations, we've never seen any women have [so much as] a rank-and-file position," says Khan, suggesting that most reports of the Islamic State training female fighters have been overblown.

Even if al Shabaab were to elevate a foreign woman, Hansen and Khan doubt that they'd be willing to show particular favor to Lewthwaite, given her lack of military experience.

"Al Shabaab has a lot of experienced terrorist and military leaders," says Hansen, "and she is not experienced. Why promote her?"

Khan also points out that al Shabaab is known for quizzing its fighters on their knowledge of the Qur'an to make sure they are devout Muslims—and that given the search history and photos found on the computer recovered from Lewthwaite's house in Kenya, she isn't all that religiously savvy—or at least not until now.

"There were all these Google searches for sun dresses," Khan says, "and pictures of her doing her hair and makeup... You look at the pious women of the Islamic State and they don't even take off their gloves to take a picture. She's not that."

For more on terrorism, watch VICE's interview with Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, the highest-profile radical sheik in Kenya.

Khan acknowledges that there's some evidence that the White Widow has acted as a courier in the past. And other reports suggest that, at most, she acts as a low-level recruiter, valued for her knowledge of the United Kingdom and English-language skills. Khan suspects that she's tolerated in this position in part because she may have money, in part because her notoriety could make her an asset to al Shabaab, and in part because her son, now a tween, may be a potential future asset undergoing grooming to become a well-trained and famous future jihadi. Hansen believes her symbolism powerful and suggests that she backed Godane during his internal crackdown, which could have saved her skin.

"But her being anything more than a courier or bagman," says Khan, "is something I can't see."

"Her operative value has not been indicated to be large by any of my sources close to Shabaab," adds Hansen.

Related: What Is Happening to Former Jihadists When They Return to Britain?

As to why people are so eager to believe reports of the White Widow's high stature in al Shabaab, IS, or even the Ukraine, Khan thinks that's somewhat common when Westerners join foreign radical movements. The local press almost always gloms onto the idea that their own monster must be in a commanding position, whereas most foreigners usually wind up in low-level posts. Hansen suspects that as a woman especially, the press takes the White Widow to symbolize the dangerous attraction of al Shabaab—that the group can snap up "one of us, even a mother."

But in Lewthwaithe's case, Khan suspects that her evasion of blame and escape from the UK after the London subway bombings probably makes distant observers inclined to inflate her significance.

"She fooled the police," says Khan. "She fooled the UK. She fooled everybody. That hurts."

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.