AYLESBURY, England – She is called the most wanted woman in the world, a suspected terrorist charged with plotting to blow up resort hotels in Kenya packed with Christmas tourists, a Westerner who wrote an ode praising Osama bin Laden, a jihadist who has eluded the law even as she has travelled through Africa with four young children in tow.
Samantha Lewthwaite’s saga is one of betrayal and revenge in a murky world where, somehow, a white woman born to a British soldier becomes a Muslim convert and then an international fugitive accused of conspiracy.
Her first husband blew himself up as part of Britain’s worst ever terrorist attack in 2005, an act she first condemned – and her second partner adhered to the same militant brand of Islam and also apparently met an early death. Her notebooks, seized in 2011, are filled with lavish praise for extremists who slaughter civilians and hopes that her children will do the same.
And yet, since she disappeared some months after the London bombing, no one can say how the “white widow” became radicalized, moving from mainstream Islam to a “holy war” against the West – or why she would embrace a movement that denies a woman’s right to education and other basic liberties.
“That is the mystery,” said Niknam Hussain, a community organizer and former Aylesbury mayor. There was never a hint that Lewthwaite had chosen jihad during her years in Aylesbury, the small English city 40 miles (65 kilometres) northwest of London where she grew up.
“What was the journey from there to here?” asked Hussain. “I don’t think you wake up radical. One is educated, inculcated, pulled into it. This is a small community. One would hope that if anything unusual was going on someone somewhere would have noticed it. No one seems able to paint a picture of what happened. What is her role? What does she do?
“We’re at a loss.”
Samantha Louise Lewthwaite was born on May 12, 1983, in the violence-scarred British territory of Northern Ireland, where her father was a British Army soldier and her mother an Irish Catholic – the Ulster equivalent of star-crossed lovers.
Before Samantha reached age 6 the family moved to Aylesbury, where her father worked as a truck driver until the couple’s separation.
Raj Khan, a former Aylesbury mayor who knew Lewthwaite and her family, said she forged strong bonds with the city’s Muslims, a group that includes many resettled Pakistanis. She converted to Islam as a teenager.
“Living in the neighbourhood, she became very friendly,” said Khan. “She came to enjoy the hospitality of the Muslim community.”
Khan said Lewthwaite, through one of her girlfriends, became particularly close to a Muslim family that facilitated her conversion.
“The people who helped her were very pious, respectable, mainstream Muslims with no sign of radicalism,” he said. “She would have understood it as a religion of peace that does not allow radicalism or killing.”
Her embrace of Islam generated little notice, nor did her marriage in 2002 to Jermaine Lindsay, a British Muslim with Jamaican roots whom she first met in an Internet chat room and later in person at a demonstration against the war in Iraq.
And yet, on July 7, 2005, her husband stepped onto a subway train and blew himself up as part of an attack that killed 52 civilians and three other bombers.
It was the most lethal terrorist attack ever on the British mainland, marking a “before and after” divide in the country’s halting embrace of a multicultural society – since it was the work of British Muslims, not extremists from afar.
Aylesbury residents were unaware of Lindsay’s role until dozens of heavily armed police descended on Lewthwaite’s house just six days after the bombing. She became a national figure that night, viewed not as an Islamic extremist but as a wronged young mother, pregnant with her second child, shocked to discover that her husband had been part of a terrorist plot.
In a statement to the local paper, she condemned her late husband’s actions even as she defended him.
“He was a loving husband and father,” she said. “My whole world has been torn apart and my thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation.” She could “never have predicted that he could be involved in such horrific activities.”
The widow was taken from her home under police protection. That may have been prudent – three vigilantes were arrested after trying to set fire to her modest rented brick house in apparent retaliation for Lindsay’s actions.
When Lewthwaite eventually returned to Northern Road, neighbour Ray Davies said she seemed to enjoy her newfound celebrity.
“She walked around here like she was on top of the world,” he said. “I hope they catch her. And I hope they kill her.”
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist at the Swedish National Defence College, doubts that Lewthwaite helped plan the subway attack, because the plotters would have been unlikely to jeopardize security by telling her about the scheme.
He also said detectives would have scrutinized all of Lewthwaite’s communications and prosecuted her if they found anything incriminating. But it is fairly common for converts like Lewthwaite to “overcompensate” by becoming more radical than the people around them.
“This comes up time and time again,” he said. “Being an outsider, they want to prove themselves. She would have had a lot of status as the widow of someone in a martyr operation. They usually raise their kids in their father’s footsteps. It was only natural that she would move into the region, marry someone else, and continue in their footsteps.”
And that is apparently what Lewthwaite did.
In late 2005, she and her two young children dropped from view, slipping off the public radar screen while the British press moved on to other sensations.
When she resurfaced in Africa a few years later, she was no longer the penitent widow apologizing for her late husband’s mass murder.
She was, instead, a jihadi in her own right, committed to waging war against the West.
She would not be seen in public, or grant interviews, but Kenyan police – and her own writings – describe a woman willing to die for her cause.
In July 2010, a white woman calling herself Asmaa Shahidah Bint-Andrews registered at the exclusive eight-room Genesis birth clinic in the well-to-do Saxonwold suburb just outside Johannesburg. She paid her deposit in cash – 27,500 South African rands, about $3,700 at the time.
She did not want to give birth in a regular hospital, with its impersonal wards, but chose instead a more expensive water birth. She picked the Sage room, which featured a marble birthing pool, leather chairs, and a private bathroom, recalled unit manager Tamzin Ingram.
A baby girl, Surajah, was born with no complications, aided by midwife Lesley Rose, and was duly registered with authorities.
Asmaa Shahidah Bint-Andrews turned out to be Samantha Lewthwaite using an alias. The infant was her fourth child – she had remarried.
Authorities later said she is believed to have entered the country using a South African passport issued to Natalie Webb.
Nearly two years later, in early 2012, Kenyan counter-terrorism police made the startling announcement that Lewthwaite had linked up with key figures in the shadowy al-Shabab terrorist networks, which has ties to al-Qaida and is branded a global threat by U.S. officials. Police said she and others had entered Kenya the year before to plan a bomb attack on a coastal resort over the Christmas holidays.
Police had nearly nabbed her in a raid on Dec. 20, 2011 – just days before the planned attack- but let her go after being fooled by the South African passport she was carrying.
The widow’s fraudulent passport sported her own photo in place of Webb’s – a hapless U.K.-based nurse who had apparently been a victim of identity theft.
Lewthwaite was said to have fled to al-Shabab’s base in Somalia after that close call.
Kenyan authorities issued an arrest warrant for Lewthwaite to answer bomb making charges, which had been kept secret for four months. The warrant said Lewthwaite possessed acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sulphur and lead nitrate, as well as batteries, a switch and electrical wire – preparations similar to the ones used so effectively by the London subway bombers.
Though the bombings never took place, the myth of the white widow was born.
Lewthwaite’s second husband, like her first, was a British-born Muslim.
It is not clear whether she and Habib Ghani met in England and went to Africa together or if they met in Africa.
It is clear that Lewthwaite treasured him, in part, for his embrace of Islamic extremism, or so she wrote in handwritten pages uncovered by Kenyan police after the raid in which they let her slip through their grasp.
The writings constitute the rough outline of a book Lewthwaite planned to write – “a message of hope, encouragement and light” – about the life of a jihadi.
“Allah has blessed me with being married to a mujahid and meeting many wonderful inspiring people along the way,” Lewthwaite wrote, praising her new husband for “terrorizing the disbelievers.”
She described him as talking with her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter – the children of her first marriage – about their goals in life and being heartened to learn that both children wanted to take up their parents’ cause.
Her new husband taught the children that to be jihadis, they had to actually live their lives with that commitment guiding all their actions, Lewthwaite wrote.
“We have to strive for what it is we want,” she wrote.
Then she outlined a chapter on the “reasons for fighting and leaving all you love behind.”
“The situation is such that many times your own families – mothers, fathers – cannot even know that you are a mujahid etc… What does it mean for you to be a stranger?”
These words may offer the only clues to her state of mind in Aylesbury when she is believed to have shielded her radical views from friends and family alike. And they may explain why people in Aylesbury had no inkling there were extremists in their midst.
On Sept. 21, al-Shabab terrorists attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi with grenades and assault weapons, killing at least 67 people. Early eyewitness reports that a white woman took part in the raid led to fevered speculation that Lewthwaite was involved.
“White widow exclusive: Mother of all terrorists!” read a front-page headline in London’s Daily Mirror tabloid.
Some British tabloids persistently referred to her as the mastermind of the slaughter – without a scintilla of evidence that she was even in Kenya.
At roughly the same time, her second husband was reported to have been killed in a shootout in Somalia between rival al-Shabab factions, making her a widow once again.
Lewthwaite became the subject of an international search on Sept. 26 when Interpol called for her arrest among its 190 member nations. But the “red notice” linked her to the failed 2011 Christmas plot, not to the Westgate Mall killings.
It says she is wanted for “being in possession of explosives” and “conspiracy to commit a felony,” though the timing of the Interpol notice – issued just five days after the mall attack – led many to assume that police believe she had a role in that as well.
Since then, the British press has tied her to other events, including the case of an al-Shabab prisoner in Britain who in November escaped by donning a woman’s burqa.
Headlines in the Daily Mail and others proclaimed the cross-dressing fugitive to be a disciple linked to “the white widow” and the Kenya mall attackers – again, with no evidence.
Still other papers said “the white widow” had been spotted in Somalia and was thought to be plotting fresh atrocities.
They quoted “intelligence experts” saying she might have been headed to Yemen, another spot with a weak central government where terrorist groups have flourished.
The constant reports of Lewthwaite at the fore of the al-Shabab movement – even though the group has denied on its Twitter account that it uses women recruits – has sparked some skepticism about her possible role.
In Mombasa, Kenya, where the trial of her alleged accomplice in one of the plots is ongoing, Islamic community leader Abubakar Shariff Ahmed said he thinks Lewthwaite’s story has taken on a mythology all its own.
“An English lady, with four kids, not by herself, and she can disappear?” he asked. “Scotland Yard is looking for her, the FBI, the ATPU (Kenya’s counter-terror police) and she’s still in Kenya? Come on.”
Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds and Cassandra Vinograd in London; Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya and Jason Straziuso in Mombasa, Kenya and Gillian Gotora in Johannesburg contributed to this report.