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A British Woman Wasn't Behind al-Shabaab’s Westgate Mall Attack

The "white widow" is a mythic tabloid creature.

Photo of Samantha Lewthwaite via Interpol's Wanted Persons page

On September 21st, several bystanders allegedly spotted 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 published stories about “the white widow”.


On Saturday, Kenyan police announced that Samantha wasn't one of the terrorists who swarmed the Westgate Mall. According to the Telegraph, police chief David Kimaiyo said, “On Samantha we have also established that she was not part of the attackers in the building. There was no woman.”

The stories about Samantha expanded 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 the city. The attacks killed 52 people, including Germaine and three other suicide bombers. In 2005, Samantha criticised 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.

Little more information was available about Samantha. She gave birth to a third child in 2009 and was believed to have married Habib Saleh Ghani, who may or may not have fathered her fourth child. A Twitter account under the name Samantha Lewthwaite sent zero tweets, and another Twitter account was a parody account that described Samantha as an “Only Child, Daddy’s Girl, Middle Eastern Goth.”


On September 26th, Interpol issued a red notice, an international wanted persons alert, for Samantha’s arrest, but the alert was unrelated to the Westgate attack. Interpol listed 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 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 in the past week.

These statements didn't stop civilians from believing Samantha was involved in the Westgate attack. A Facebook page was set up to “find and stop this UK born terrorist”. In one post, the page’s administrator said, “[sic] Was anybody whos on this page actually in the shopping mall in Nairobi when the terrorists struck?” He then requested, “No bullshitters please!” Surprisingly, reddit never launched a manhunt. Prior to today's news, a reddit search for “the white widow” only resulted in posts about “dank” weed.

Despite this public witch hunt, Samantha’s involvement in the Westgate attack was mere speculation. All we knew was that the white widow was a dangerous woman wanted by intelligence agencies for planning other terrorist attacks.



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