“Roho Mzungu,” shrieks a group of barefoot children in prayer caps as they run past a mildewed wanted poster, crudely plastered onto an ancient narrow lane on Mombasa Island. Translated from Swahili, the youngsters’ cries simply mean: White Ghost. It has become the latest moniker for perhaps the most unlikely international terrorist of our generation.
I am back in Mombasa after an absence of two years and there is still only one name on the lips of local people. Today, in the schools and playgrounds of coastal Kenya, a region that once welcomed a million tourists every year, a flame-haired British housewife plagues the nightmares of local children. To the local media she is also known as the White Widow and her name is whispered in fear in churches and teeming coastal markets.
Thirty-one-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, a white Muslim convert and the fanatical widow of Jermaine Lindsay, the 7/7 bomber who killed 26 people when he blew up a Piccadilly Line Tube train near London’s King’s Cross in 2005, remains at large in East Africa today, known to be in possession of significant quantities of explosives, cash, ammunition and a zeal so deeply entrenched her name is whispered in Al-Shabaab training camps with some reverence.
Kenya has been a primary target for Al-Shabab fighters ever since Nairobi sent thousands of troops to fight in Somalia. The Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has used troops from various African countries to fight the militants since 2007, but Kenya’s ramped-up involvement since October 2011, has been instrumental in pushing Al-Shabaab out of its most important strongholds, including Mogadishu and the port town of Kismayo.
The enduring role of a British housewife at the core of East Africa’s terror shows how complex the task of combatting the growth of attacks is. As we approach the anniversary of the Westgate Mall attack, global terrorist related deaths have leaped by almost one third as the world enters a deadly new phase in the cycle of violence.
Data compiled by Maplecroft, a British risk consultancy, found that over the last 12 months, global deaths have risen 30% compared to the previous five-year average. Africa, as a continent, has been among the hardest hit. With terrorism incidents in Libya doubling in the last year, violence is having a toxic impact on its economy, especially its oil sector, while attacks in Egypt have hit its tourism industry and of course Kenya, which has been hit by increasing attacks.
For Kenya in particular, there is arguably more to lose from adverse publicity. According to Maplecroft, June represented Kenya’s bloodiest month since the Westgate shopping mall attack, with 69 deaths and at least seven wounded, with a single Al-Shabaab attack on a Mpeketoni village in Lamu County responsible for 48 of the deaths.
In Mombasa, the impact of terrorism on the local economy was stark. Occupancy in most of the major resorts strung out along the coast was as low as 10%. Kenya’s tourism, which has provided 15% of GDP in recent years, is in tatters. Warnings last month by the British and other foreign governments prompted flustered tour companies to evacuate clients from Kenya’s coastal tourist hub, Mombasa. Today, the luxurious resorts on Lamu Island stand empty. Operators admit it could take years to restore confidence.
The reason? Mombasa is a fertile recruiting ground for Al-Shabaab, working through radical mosques and clerics. These leaders portray the conflict across the border as jihad, which has an energizing appeal to many youth. The myth of Lewthwaite has curiously become part of that dynamic.
Lewthwaite’s list of alleged cohorts is as deadly as it is long. United States (US) intelligence sources believe that networks linked to Dawood Ibrahim, one of the world’s most wanted men, are bankrolling the deadly Al Qaeda cell Lewthwaite is part of. Dawood, the head of Indian crime network D-Company, is currently the most wanted man in Asia and the ruthless driving force of 5,000 foot soldiers involved in everything from drugs trafficking to contract killing. Currently on the Interpol wanted list, his association with Al Qaeda in Africa has dramatically grown in the last two years.
What is undeniable is Lewthwaite has funding from somewhere and she is backing it up with action. Lewthwaite was recently identified as the brains behind a bold operation to free her terrorist lover, Jermaine Grant, who was arrested in Mombasa in December 2011 in a raid. Kenyan police believe the audacious attempt to rescue Grant, as he was taken from prison to a Mombasa court to face trial, was coordinated by Lewthwaite after two suspected terrorists were stopped crossing into Kenya from Tanzania with bullet-proof vests and face masks. Both men claimed they were acting under the direction of Lewthwaite.
A source from the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit told me that she could still be in Mombasa.
“We believe that for some time she was in fact hiding in plain sight here in Mombasa, working her identities between a now blonde western tourist and burka-clad Muslim. Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and she knows the city well. The problem for us is, although not quite a master of disguise, she is afforded the right to wear a hijab or a burka and this simplest of methods allows her to travel. To catch her we must lift the veils of 100,000 women and she knows this is her biggest weapon.”
Lewthwaite’s incredible life on the run is a remarkable twist to an enduring story that is made for Hollywood. Over three years ago, Lewthwaite was forced to flee a terrorist safe-house in Mombasa after Kenyan Police received a tip-off that an Al Qaeda-linked terror cell she was part of was planning to blow up hotels and shopping centers in the city over Christmas.
Instead of the suspects they expected, the police discovered an empty shell. A hastily abandoned bomb-making factory containing batteries, hydrogen peroxide and wires. Crucially they also found a false passport left behind in panic by one of the alleged terrorists, a white woman, later identified as Lewthwaite.
Since then, it has been shadow chasing for the authorities. Relentlessly hunted by the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, and partially supported towards the end of last year by Scotland Yard’s elite SO15 anti-terror squad, the White Widow has remarkably eluded capture.
Frustrated at Lewthwaite’s sophisticated field skills, Kenyan investigators increasingly believe that the Aylesbury mother of three might have played a small, but influential, part in the 2005 London bombings and is now so mired in jihad she has abandoned her three young children to enable her to stay on the run.
The information surrounding Lewthwaite’s current whereabouts is believed to have been sourced under interrogation from known associates of the Briton, including Marianna Issa Mohammed, a female terrorist who was arrested in Kisamayo, Somalia.
Claims that she had boasted of prior knowledge of the London bombings within the terrorist community are particularly remarkable considering that in the wake of the tragedy, Lewthwaite went public on her horror at her dead husband’s act of terror and she was even placed into protective custody by Scotland Yard.
Suspiciously, it wasn’t until a week after the 2005 bombing, that Lewthwaite contacted her local police to register her husband missing. At the time, she claimed they were having relationship troubles. Lewthwaite then later refused to accept Scotland Yard’s insistence that her husband had been the bomber, until investigators produced evidence and she was apparently dragged screaming from her home claiming her husband’s mind was poisoned by radicals.
The White Widow’s journey from suburban Britain to Somalia is all the more astonishing because her father was in fact a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland. Her parents separated when she was 11, which friends claim badly affected her, leading to her being comforted by Muslim neighbors in the town.
After starting A-levels in religious studies, the teenage Samantha decided to convert to Islam, aged 15 and began wearing a hijab and swapped her jeans and T-shirt for a salwar kameez, a traditional Asian tunic and trousers. At 17, she went one step further, changing her name to Asmantara.
As her radicalization continued, Lewthwaite, described by her teachers as precocious and intelligent, enrolled for a degree in religion and politics at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Around this time, she met Jamaican-born Islamic convert Jermaine Lindsay on an internet chatroom for Muslims and they later met face to face at an anti-war rally in London. The couple married in an Islamic ceremony in the front room of a terraced house in Aylesbury in October 2002 before just four witnesses. None of Lewthwaite’s family attended.
“My father Andy didn’t approve and stayed away and my mum just couldn’t make it. I was his youngest daughter. He found it hard enough when I converted to Islam, without marrying a Muslim I had hardly met,” she later recalled.
In 2004, the couple’s first son was born, which is when Lewthwaite claims her husband started to spend time at radical mosques. She has said he was a peaceful man before these visits. Lewthwaite was seven months pregnant with their second child when Lindsay launched his 7/7 attacks. Police believed that she was also a victim of the terrible events and placed her in protective custody after her house was torched in an arson attack.
But her precise movements since the bombings are harder to follow. Within two years of the London attacks, the widow met a new lover, identified by her family only as a Moroccan Muslim from Birmingham, and she later gave birth to her third child in August 2009. It was shortly after this point that Lewthwaite went off the grid.
In late 2010, Lewthwaite is believed to have traveled to South Africa on her own passport but later left with a new identity: that of Natalie Faye Webb, a 26-year-old South African-born nurse based in Essex, England, who was later confirmed as a victim of identity theft. At this point, it is believed Lewthwaite spent time at a training camp in Somalia.
By August 25, 2011, the Briton entered Kenya from Tanzania with her three children, also on false passports, where she is believed to have met with her current lover, Habib Saleh Gani, an Al-Shabaab sleeper, in Mombasa. Lewthwaite is also thought to have made contact with a third British terrorist, Jermaine Grant, 29, from Newham, East London.
By linking herself to Al-Shabaab, Lewthwaite had chosen one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations on the planet. The group, which has imposed a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control, including the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves, was responsible for a double suicide bombing in Kampala, which killed 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup final at a local rugby club.
Chillingly, a cache of intelligence, found on the body of Al Qaeda’s African leader and inside the bullet-ridden truck he tried to ram through a Somali government checkpoint, provides a chilling look at the global aspirations of Al-Shabaab. The meticulously prepared documents that detail plots for a kidnapping and attacks on London’s prestigious Eton College, Jewish neighborhoods and the posh Ritz and Dorchester hotels, were uncovered last year when senior Al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was shot dead by Somali forces.
According to anti-terrorist police, Lewthwaite seemed the perfect operative. Able to seamlessly mix with tourists on surveillance trips but also able to revert back into strict Muslim society in a burka, her logistical skills proved to be invaluable.
On arrival, it seems Lewthwaite blended quickly into the tourist capital of Mombasa where she operated three safe houses in high-end estates in the north of the city. In the Kisauni area, she lived in a house belonging to a wife of Musa Hussein Abdi, a British-born terrorist who lived in Africa for a long time and who was killed in Somalia last year alongside Fazul Mohammed. The latter was the mastermind of the bombings on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Lewthwaite then moved to Shanzu, a magnet for British tourists, where she lived in a five-bedroom villa paying four month’s rent upfront. She used her western appearance to mingle with holidaymakers and carry out reconnaissance on security in major hotels. But on December 19, 2011, anti-terrorism police raided the house. How Lewthwaite escaped before the raid is a mystery.
Police recovered 60 bullets, two magazines for AK-47 rifles and bomb-making material including acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sulphur, lead nitrate chemicals, AA-sized batteries, an electric switch and a piece of conductive wire.
Ahmed Hassan, a resident of the Kisauni apartment block, says Lewthwaite would leave the house in both western clothes and in her burka.
“Wearing a burka will not get you into an international hotel but wearing a bikini will and a sarong will. It is obvious now that she was the terrorist’s main spy,” he says.
Following the raid, Lewthwaite fled with a laptop, cash and bomb-making material to another safe house barely 20 kilometers away from where anti-terrorism officers believe she dished out equipment and money to field terrorists under the noses of unsuspecting neighbors and police.
But as the net tightened Lewthwaite’s London associate, Jermaine Grant, was arrested in central Mombasa. Grant’s arrest is significant. Within days the White Widow’s latest hideout was exposed again. But, when officers led a raid on the property in January, Lewthwaite had somehow left shortly before and was last seen driving towards the Tanzanian border crossing, Lunga Lunga.
Lewthwaite didn’t raise her head in Mombasa again until June 24 last year when witnesses claim they saw a white woman throw grenades into a crowded bar, killing three people, including a nine-year-old boy, and horrifically injuring 30. Since that last incident, she has been true to her nickname. A ghostly presence linked to sporadic attacks across Kenya including the Westgate Mall.
In Mombasa, Lewthwaite’s case file remains open at the regional Law Courts, where she has been charged in absentia. Court documents indicate that Lewthwaite and her lover Gani are charged with being in possession of explosive materials and conspiracy to commit a felony. The files also allege that Lewthwaite is bankrolling a Mombasa terror cell whose members include Grant.
Jacob Ondari of Kenya’s directorate of public prosecutions believes Lewthwaite is highly dangerous.
“She is not just a small cog in this terrorist machine; she has links to the top. I will be calling for the death penalty when she is finally caught. That would be our prayer,” he says.
In recent months, The Muslim Youth Centre, a radical Kenyan organization believed to have terrorist links, has used the myth of Lewthwaite as a recruitment tool, boasting of her escape from the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agencies. The group has also posted a recent video of a hooded British Al-Shabaab operative calling for holy war in Somalia in a bid to further boast their international credentials.
Perhaps most tellingly, using Lewthwaite’s image on its website and Twitter feed, the group recently referenced the Hollywood blockbuster, The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Pierce Brosnan plays an art thief who carries off a heist by dressing dozens of accomplices in identical clothing as him, allowing him to escape right under the noses of the police.
According to Phyllis Muema, director of the Kenya Community Support Center, a not-for-profit group in Mombasa that works on rehabilitating Somali fighters, Lewthwaite is a powerful recruitment tool.
“To have a white western woman on their side provides Al-Shabaab with a major weapon. For illiterate and impoverished young Muslim men it is easy to be radicalized, but to follow a white woman with access to money from abroad and with her education and intelligence is a significant allure,” she says.
For Lewthwaite’s family, the uncertainty of her children’s fate remains the hardest pill to swallow. Her grandmother in Northern Ireland, Elizabeth Allen, wears a panic alarm and has been told to contact police immediately if Lewthwaite arrives at her home in Banbridge, where she spent part of her youth. Her mother, Christine Allen, claims she hasn’t heard from her daughter in years.
My source within the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit reveals that they have believed for several months that although Lewthwaite is still with her lover, Gani, she is no longer on the run with her children.
“We believe that she is separated from her children at the moment to enable her to remain at large. Even under a burka her footprint is compromised by the children. We have artists’ impressions of them and Lewthwaite knows they are her biggest weakness. She cannot hide them under burkas. We believe they have been smuggled over the Somali border and are being cared for in a training camp.”
The claims are backed up by postings on the widow’s closed down blog which stated: “I advise you to raise your children in the cult of jihad and martyrdom and to instil in them a love for religion and death.”
The source added: “The truth is there was no mention of children from eye witnesses in the final property she was linked to and interrogations since have identified her as operating with Habib only. It wouldn’t be the first time a jihadist has made such a sacrifice. They sacrifice everything they have for this life.”
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