The sleepy English suburb of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, might seem an unlikely breeding ground for the world’s most wanted female terrorist, yet this leafy community is the hometown of Samantha Lewthwaite, a 29-year-old former model student who is now the subject of an international manhunt.
Lewthwaite (a.k.a. the White Widow) is a long-time terror suspect and fugitive who has been linked by the media to the shopping centre attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in which at least 61 civilians were killed.
A Muslim convert, Lewthwaite is said to have developed a keen interest in Islam while in her teens. She later married Germaine Lindsay, a British-Jamaican convert who killed 26 people and himself when he bombed a Piccadilly line tube train near King’s Cross station during London’s bombings on July 7, 2005. After that attack, Lewthwaite became a subject of fascination for the British press. The tabloids dubbed her the “White Widow” and widely reported her condemnation of her husband’s terrorism. Back then, she described the 7/7 bombings as “abhorrent,” and claimed that radical mosques had poisoned her husband’s mind. “He was an innocent, naive and simple man,” she told the Sun. “I suppose he must have been an ideal candidate.”
But now it seems Lewthwaite may have had more in common with her suicide-bomber husband than it appeared. Shortly after the 7/7 bombings, which occurred when she was seven months pregnant, she disappeared from Britain—where she has no criminal record—and was understood to have surfaced in Kenya with her three children before fleeing to Somalia. She is believed to be operating under several different identities including the assumed name Natalie Webb, and has travelled using a fake South African passport.
The BBC has called Lewthwaite an “almost mythological figure” and, indeed, the image of her wide-eyed, hijab-framed face stared eerily out from every British newsstand last week. Government officials at Whitehall advised caution over widespread speculation that Lewthwaite may have been involved in the Nairobi mall attack—but there is some evidence to suggest she may have been there.
At least one witness told the press of a “pale-skinned woman” with long dark hair opening fire from a balcony. There were other reports of a white, English-speaking woman giving commands in English that were then translated into Swahili for the gunmen to carry out.
The militant group al-Shabab, who have claimed responsibility for the attack, are believed to have cited Lewthwaite as the operation’s leader on Twitter. “We have received permission to disclose the involvement of Samantha Lewthwaite a.k.a. Sherafiyah [her Islamic name], she successfully overseered [sic] the mission,” read the tweet in question, though its veracity is still unproven.
The most compelling (and in some ways confounding) report of the White Widow’s involvement came from Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, who spoke to PBS of a female British terrorist being among the perpetrators, “who has done this many times before.”
If Lewthwaite was killed in the attack, she will have achieved the same radical Islamic martyrdom sought by her late husband. But if she remains at large—as seems to be the case—she will be watching her back very carefully.
The notice for her arrest put out by Interpol is classified as a red alert. Now that the notice has been put out in Interpol’s 190 member countries, Lewthwaite will have few places to turn.
Old friends from Aylesbury describe Lewthwaite as a quiet, mild-mannered young woman who had a keen interest in religious studies. “She was always really helpful and never in trouble—she was always helping out with the teachers, staying late to do stuff,” one of her former classmates recently told the Daily Mail.
So how did this apparently shy, good-natured adolescent girl go from being a model high school student to one of the most dangerous women on Earth?
Those who knew her are perplexed by the transformation. Her family, who have remained silent in the face of media uproar, are said to be extremely distressed. Ellen Allen, Lewthwaite’s 85-year-old grandmother, was reportedly rushed to hospital due to stress last week. And her father—a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland—has remained close-lipped on the subject of his daughter’s alleged terrorism.
Those who have spoken to the press are uniformly baffled. Aylesbury Councillor Raj Khan, who knew the Lewthwaite family, describes a shy, insecure girl lacking in confidence or will. “She was not strong-headed, and that’s why I find it absolutely amazing that she is supposed to be the head of an international criminal terrorist organisation.”
Amazing and terrifying by turns. And all part of the growing mythology of the White Widow, the world’s most wanted woman.