In the White Widow, we are watching the creation of a modern myth

The Independent, Saturday 28 September 2013

The media finds Lewthwaite fascinating, as with all female terrorists

The White Widow has struck again – or has she? Dreadful though it was, the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi was not the first al-Qa’ida-inspired assault on Kenya, and it is unlikely to be the last. But speculation that it was orchestrated by the British terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the 7/7 bombers, has reached fever pitch.

As rumours flew, the presence of a British woman among the attackers in the Westgate shopping centre seemed to have been confirmed by Kenya’s foreign minister. But then Interpol issued a warrant for Lewthwaite’s arrest at the request of the Kenyan government – and it made no mention of last weekend’s attack.

Lewthwaite, 29, is wanted on charges of possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a crime. The Kenyan government believes she has been involved in terrorist plots, but the charges relate to 2011, and fall short of the spectacular claim that she is the mastermind behind al-Shabaab operations in East Africa. Before the warrant was issued, there were reports of a white woman among the attackers in the Westgate mall, giving orders in English which were then translated into Arabic or Swahili. That is puzzling, since witnesses heard gunmen talking to each other in English, and lends weight to the notion that legends are growing up around her.

Reporters tracked down her relatives in England and Northern Ireland, and declared that her family had been “torn apart” by the shame of her link to the Nairobi attack. But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about Lewthwaite’s supposed involvement in the siege, including a statement by Kenya’s President that he cannot confirm reports of a white woman among the attackers.

Even so, the narrative of a girl who grew up in Aylesbury, converted to Islam, married a bomber, sold her story to The Sun, disappeared with her children and finally reappeared as a terror suspect in East Africa is irresistible. Almost overnight she has become the world’s most wanted woman, the “quiet Home Counties girl who now tops the list of terrorism suspects”. Old photos  show an unremarkable teenager in school uniform, tie slightly askew, in contrast to recent images in which her face is almost always framed by a hijab. The subliminal message – how did that girl become this woman? – is hard to miss.

So is the enduring fascination with female terrorists. The hijacker Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, became instantly recognisable after an iconic photo of her was endlessly reproduced in the 1970s. In the photo Khaled looks pensive, with her eyes averted and her hands clasping the stock of an upright – and unmistakably phallic – AK-47 assault rifle.

Other terrorist organisations, including the IRA and the Basque separatist group ETA, used women in terrorist attacks; two sisters, Dolours and Marian Price, took part in the Provisional IRA bombing of the Old Bailey in London in 1973. A year later, an American heiress named Patty Hearst was kidnapped in California by a group of self-styled “urban guerrillas” called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Hearst was brainwashed by her captors, adopted the pseudonym “Tania” and was photographed in a beret, toting a gun, during a bank robbery in San Francisco. The image has endured more as a fashion statement than anything else; decades later, Madonna’s album cover American Life referenced the heiress in her brief incarnation as a bank robber.

These groups were secular, unlike al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. Islamist terror groups do not exactly have a reputation as champions of equal opportunities and that incongruity – actually less real than it seems – is driving an appetite for even the tiniest scrap of information about Lewthwaite. (The claim that she “stole ID to work in halal pie factory” is my favourite headline so far.) It is evidence of a longstanding fascination with women who turn to violence, whether accomplices of serial killers, like Myra Hindley, or involved in terrorist operations. Ideas about women as mothers and carers are so entrenched that individuals who challenge the stereotype make headlines, even now when women routinely serve in modern armies. There is a palpable longing in some sections of the media for the most lurid stories about Lewthwaite to be true.

In reality, she is not the only Muslim convert to find herself married to a terrorist, as Katherine Russell – widow of the Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev – demonstrates. Nor is her alleged involvement in Islamist terror unique, which suggests that groups associated with al-Qa’ida are more diverse – and certainly more opportunist – than conventional narratives suggest. Women have certainly carried out suicide-bombings in Iraq and Pakistan. Some studies suggest they account for 3 per cent of all successful attacks and al-Shabaab, which recruits from the Somali diaspora in the UK and US, may be more likely to use women in its operations.

The little we know for certain about Lewthwaite is that in 2011 she rented an apartment in Mombasa for a British man called Jermaine Grant, who appeared in court in Kenya last week accused of plotting terrorist attacks on tourist hotels. Confusingly, Grant shares a first name with Lewthwaite’s first husband, Germaine Lindsay, and like him he is of Jamaican extraction. According to some sources, she had a relationship with, or perhaps even married, a British man called Habib Ghani, also known as Osama al-Britani, killed earlier this month in an ambush 200 miles west of the Somali capital Mogadishu.

If true, the story makes her a widow twice over, and one who has stepped into her husbands’ terrorist shoes. This is the key fact about her, a role reversal – pious young mother into international terrorist – which the media finds endlessly fascinating. In real life, Lewthwaite’s long face is pink-cheeked and plain, and people who knew her as a girl describe her as lacking in confidence. “Her transformation into one of terror group al-Shabaab’s figureheads on the run in East Africa is something few can comprehend,” observed a Daily Mirror journalist, apparently without recognising the significance of what he’d written.

At the heart of this media storm is the transformation of a confused and fanatical young woman into myth. It was even reported last week that police found “sexy” underwear in the flat she rented for Grant, confirming she cuts a far more glamorous figure as the White Widow than she ever did as Samantha Lewthwaite. She is accumulating legends as fast as any Greek deity, and I suspect a lot of commentators are in for a shock if and when she is caught. The hijab-wearing terror mastermind in red underwear is almost certainly using fantasies of martyrdom to solve an identity crisis, and nothing like as fascinating as she seems.


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