Over the past year or so, a determined and fanatical Islamist has been waging a deadly and bloody war against the western world. This enemy is capable of moving unnoticed across continents and inflicting savage violence in each of them; inspires young Muslim men to become suicide bombers and die in their thousands. The enemy is particularly horrifying for being a traitor, born in Britain and a woman to boot. The ‘White Widow’, remember her? Samantha Lewthwaite from Aylesbury, usually described by our tabloid press as one of the most evil and powerful women alive.
But is she really evil? Is she really even much of a threat? My contention is that what we’ve witnessed over the past year is the curious demonisation of a misguided young woman who certainly has a morbid track record but who is far from an important or influential enemy of the West. There’s a huge disparity between the hype over Lewthwaite and the reality that should make us wary of believing even so-called ‘insider’ reports about her.
The Daily Star, for instance, published a front-page report claiming that 30-year-old Lewthwaite has become ‘one of the most powerful women’ in the Islamic State network. The foot soldiers call her ‘the special one’, it said, and she has already started training a ‘special team’ of female suicide bombers to be deployed in the Middle East and beyond.
So should we mobilise special forces to hunt this woman down before she strikes again? No. Because we’ve heard this sort of thing about her before. Just over a year ago the ‘White Widow’ was deemed guilty of perpetrating the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, when armed gunmen killed 67 people and injured hundreds. Almost as soon as the attack began, word went out that Lewthwaite was one of the killers. Kenya’s foreign minister publicly pronounced the complicity of a white British woman who ‘has done this many times before’, and bloggers and journalists bandied her name around. ‘Eyewitnesses’, mostly anonymous, said they saw a woman matching her description barking out orders, while others claimed they saw her slip out of the mall, ‘face covered in blood’.
Within hours, Interpol had issued a ‘Red Notice’ against Lewthwaite, making her arrest a top priority. Back in Aylesbury, friends and former acquaintances were amazed. Lewthwaite had never been a born leader, they said, but a natural follower. Some people even pointed out that she was not known to have any military experience or training: to plan and execute an attack as brazen and brutal as Westgate would have needed much of both.
None of this calmed the frenzy. Reporters from the world over descended on the quiet road where Lewthwaite had once lived. There were endless stories, rumours and speculation about her past and present. Her private life came under scrutiny, and the strong insinuation was that she was not only murderous but spider-like, delighting in her victims’ suffering.
Less well reported, then and now, was the fact that as the siege dragged on, ministers and ‘intelligence sources’ began to retract their claims. The eyewitnesses and ‘intelligence reports’ had been mistaken, they admitted. There had been no white woman among the killers, just several young African men. In fact, there was and still is no evidence that Lewthwaite was involved in the Westgate attack, let alone that she was a ringleader.
What of the claims that she has now become an important commander in the Islamic State, planning and carrying out attacks in Syria and Iraq? I wouldn’t believe a word of it. After Westgate, Lewthwaite’s name and face became notorious. She was and is still regarded as the ‘world’s most wanted woman’, and at checkpoints and border crossings across the continent, security personnel watch for her, knowing that a capture, or even information about her whereabouts, could reap big rewards.
This makes it very unlikely that she would have risked travelling from Somalia, where she is thought to have been lying low for the past few years, to the Middle East. True, she could have had plastic surgery — as some Kenyan officials, perhaps keen to hide their own inefficiency, have claimed. But good plastic surgeons aren’t easy to find in remote parts of East Africa.
That Lewthwaite, even if she had made such a journey, could have then joined the ranks of IS and, within months, vaulted to the top of an Arabic-speaking organisation defies belief. So too does that claim about the ‘special team’.
Samantha Lewthwaite is certainly no angel. She probably knew something of what her first husband, Germaine Lindsay, whom she married in 2002 when she was just 18, planned to do on 7/7. Lindsay, who killed 26 people on that day, was utterly brainwashed by the message of jihad, and his beloved must have shared his convictions. Lewthwaite has written poems celebrating Osama bin Laden, and explosives were found at a flat she was renting, using a false name and passport, in Kenya in 2011. But, on the various frontlines of radical Islam — on 7/7, in Kenya, Somalia and the Middle East — there is no reason to suppose that she has ever taken more than a secondary role. Media reports have hugely inflated her importance and by doing so have obscured much more important actors, and issues.
How, then, do we explain the elevation of Samantha Lewthwaite? Perhaps it is partly because the story of fallen women has always fascinated men. We’ve been simultaneously repelled and attracted by the idea of sinful women since Eve — especially attractive woman, and there’s no doubt Samantha Lewthwaite has a photogenic appeal.
Equally, there’s something very ordinary about Lewthwaite, very girl-next-door. She comes from a normal market town in the south of England and was pulled, as so many youngsters are, into the clutches of Islam’s radical fringes by a desire for purpose and excitement. So perhaps we’ve wrapped around her this myth as a way of warding off the evil from our own ordinary lives. It scares us that a girl-next-door can be drawn into such a nefarious world, so we must imagine her to be different, evil — the White Widow.
Roger Howard is the author of Terror in the Tropics: Al-Qa’eda and the Attack on the Nairobi Shopping Mall.