A weary calm is returning to Nairobi, Kenya, in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. The Kenyans have remained defiant and demonstrated a sense of unity that has occasionally shown itself in the face of adversity.
To many of the Kenyans, Al-Shabaab – the Somali Islamist group claiming responsibility for the mall attack – has always donned a male face; except that now it has seemed to have been dominated by an intriguingly female one going by the media focus on “The White Widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite.
Samantha is being hunted on suspicion of leading the Nairobi mall massacre, and currently holds the distinction of being the most wanted woman on Interpol list.
Concerns that Samantha was at Westgate were fuelled by members of the public in the mall during the attack who claimed they had seen a ‘veiled’ white woman wearing a burqa (Islamic cloth that covers the head and face) and hefting a gun.
At first, a Twitter message from Al-Shabaab proudly suggested that that Dada Mzungu (White Sister), as they fondly refer to her, was at the scene. She was nicknamed The White Widow by the British press.
In another of their Twitter messages, after several shutdowns of their accounts in a Twitter policy to deny terrorists their ilk a forum, the Islamist group “declared” that no woman was involved at Westgate and that it had a policy of “not employing sisters for such missions”.
It matters little what Al-Shabaab says. The White Widow has grabbed Kenyans’ attention, with every known aspect of her life having been featured in the media.
Samantha was born in Ireland to a British soldier and spent her early teens in Aylesbury, England. She became a teenage convert to Islam from Roman Catholicism before she had reached 18.
She met her first husband, Jermaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born Islamist, in an online chat room at age 17. They were married three years later in 2004.
Lindsay, also known as Abdullah Shaheed Jamal, became notorious just one year after they were married for being one of the four 7/7 suicide bombers who blew up three underground Tube stations and a bus in London on July 7th, 2005.
Together they had two children, nine-year-old Abdullah and Ruqayyah, eight. Their middle names are Shaheed and Shahidah, respectively, which means “martyr” in the male and female form.
It is believed that Samantha’s two younger children, four-year-old Abdur-Rahman and Surajah, three, were with Habib Saleh Ghani, a British Al-Shabaab recruit who was killed in Somalia in August.
Samantha fled to Kenya from Britain in 2007 and settled at the Coast until 2011 when police discovered that a flat she had rented in Mombasa had been turned into a potential bomb factory.
It is believed that from her hideout in Mombasa she was the chief financier, recruiter, coach and trainer of terrorists in the whole of East Africa
She has been a fugitive for nearly two years and is thought to hold a fake South African passport with the name Natalie Faye.
She has been charged in her absence by Kenyan police with “conspiracy to improvise an explosive device with the intent to cause harm to innocent civilians” with an alleged British co-conspirator, Jermaine Grant, who was caught in the Mombasa flat.
As a women terrorist, Samantha is not unique in history. Some of the most famous ones before her have been Chechen women suicide bombers known as The Black Widows, or the “Shahidkas” in the early 2000’s in Russia.
There was also Ulrike Meinhof of the Rote Armee Fraction, also known as the Bader-Meinhof group who committed a series of attacks across Germany in the 1970’s. Among others, was Fusako Shifenobu of the Japanese Red Army, responsible for a line of attacks on American consulates in the 1980`s.
All told, according to research, women have accounted for around a quarter of fatal attacks in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Palestine.
The author is a commentator on Rwanda and regional affairs.