Interpol has issued an arrest notice for Samantha Lewthwaite, the fugitive British national who has been dubbed the “white widow.” The international police agency says the notice was issued at the request of Kenya, where she is wanted on charges of possessing explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony in December 2011. There has also been speculation about her possible involvement in the Sept. 21 terror attack at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall — although there has been no evidence linking her to the attack so far.
Lewthwaite, 29, was labeled the “white widow” because of her marriage to the suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay who blew up a train on the London Underground at King’s Cross in 2005, killing 26 people. The accusations she faces in Kenya include plotting to attack hotels and restaurants. Together with her British accomplice Jermaine Grant, she was arrested in Kenya in December 2011 days before carrying out the attack. While Grant remains in custody, Lewthwaite escaped and has been on the run in East Africa with her children ever since.
In many respects, Lewthwaite is an unlikely terrorist suspect. Born in 1983 to British soldier Andy Lewthwaite – who met and married Christine Allen in the 1970s – she spent her childhood years in Northern Ireland and her teens in the quintessentially English town of Aylesbury in southeast England. Described by a family friend as an average girl who was “empty in confidence,” Lewthwaite is also the mother of three children who are all under the age of 10. While Lindsay is the father of the two older children, the father of the youngest child is unknown.
The youngest in a family of three children, Lewthwaite converted to Islam when she was 15 after becoming friendly with a local Muslim family. Within a couple of years, she was wearing a galabiya (the full-length gown that covers everything but the hands and face). Her interest in religion developed and she enrolled at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2002, although the BBC reports she dropped out after two months. She met her former husband — the Jamaican-born Germaine Lindsay who was also a convert to Islam — on the Internet during the same year and the pair were married after a few months.
Immediately after the explosions that killed 52 people on the London transport system, Lewthwaite distanced herself from the actions of her suicide-bomber husband. She claimed she knew nothing of the terror plot and condemned his actions as “abhorrent,” saying that trips to radical mosques had “poisoned his mind.”
But she disappeared shortly after the attack. She was known to be in Kenya and, last year, officials said she had fled to Somalia and police were hunting a woman who used several identities, including hers, reported the BBC. BBC journalist Peter Taylor, who has just returned from Somalia where he was making a documentary program about al-Shabab, the terror group connected to the Westgate attack, said that Lewthwaite had become an almost “mythological” figure. “She disappeared off the radar and turns up again in Kenya,” said Taylor, speaking to the BBC Today program on Tuesday. “It would appear she became involved with al-Shabab to fight jihad as her husband believed he was doing when he bombed the Tube.” It is also thought that she remarried while she was in East Africa.
Local councilor Raj Khan, who knew Lewthwaite’s family socially in Aylesbury, has spoken about his amazement at Lewthwaite’s involvement in terrorism. “She was an average British, young, ordinary girl,” Khan recounted according to the Irish Independent. “She had a very great personality. She didn’t have very good confidence. 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 organization.”
Khan added that he prays she was not involved in terrorism, adding that her family would be “very upset” if reports about her involvement in the Nairobi attack turn out to be true. “Of course like anyone else, they will be hurt, very upset, very, very upset, but I think they will be waiting for proof, not speculation,” he said according to the Irish Independent.
The BBC reports that it is understood Lewthwaite has had little contact with her relatives in Northern Ireland since her conversion to Islam. Newspapers reported that her 85-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Allen, was admitted to hospital after suffering stress over Lewthwaite’s notoriety although she has since been discharged. And the Mirror adds that Lewthwaite’s entire family have struggled to come to terms with the young woman’s disappearance shortly after the London suicide bombing attacks.