Terror in Kenya: The ‘White Widow’ and the SA link

Evidence that Samantha Lewthwaite – dubbed "the White Widow" by the British press – led or was involved in the Kenya attacks remained thin this week.

But, at the same time, evidence mounted that Lewthwaite used Johannesburg as a base in recent years during a time when, the Kenyan government believes, she was involved in the planning of terror attacks.

Late on Thursday, Interpol issued a warrant for Lewthwaite's arrest. Her alleged accomplice, Briton Jermaine Grant, appeared in a Kenyan court this week to face charges that the two had planned to murder British tourists in terror attacks in Kenya.

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Authorities in that country believe the two were working with Somali terror group al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall.

Speculation that Lewthwaite was involved in the attack, in which at least 67 people were killed, hinges on reports of the involvement of a white "trigger woman" and vague statements by Kenyan officials, later firmly denied.

But Lewthwaite held a legitimate South African passport, albeit one obtained under false pretences, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor confirmed on September 26.

Birth-registration process
Lewthwaite had registered addresses in Johannesburg, as well as credit cards and store accounts under her assumed name of Natalie Faye Webb. Pandor said the passport had been issued in Durban but had been "cancelled" in February 2011 following an investigation. Lewthwaite had allegedly acquired the passport by fraudulently using the South African Webb identity in a late birth-registration process.

According to Pandor, the last reported use of the passport on the country's movement control system was in February 2011, prior to its cancellation. She said the passport had been flagged by Interpol and the country's monitoring systems for the possibility of it being used by a potential terror suspect.

The minister added that home affairs still had to make "a clear connection" to the passport, which was issued in Durban – how, and by whom – and that her department "hasn't been able to source that detail" as yet. She also did not rule out a more in-depth investigation to confirm or rule out the existence of a real Natalie Faye Webb.

Pandor confirmed that Lewthwaite had first used the passport to enter South Africa in July 2008, with additional visits to the country "on more than one occasion".

The department has also put all other "related passports" – it is understood that her children also hold South African travel documents – acquired under the assumed identity of Webb "on a stop list".

With South Africa's government seemingly intent on distancing itself from the bombings in Nairobi, Pandor said she "strenuously" denied any association between the attack and South Africa "until I have seen further evidence".

Intelligence insiders
Adding that there was no evidence before her to suggest the South African passport had been used by Lewthwaite to gain entry to Kenya, Pandor also said there had been "no formal request" made to South Africa's government by Kenyan authorities "to give attention to this matter" of Lewthwaite's alleged use of the passport.

Meanwhile the Hawks have confirmed that they are involved in a long-running investigation into al-Shabab activities in South Africa, and intelligence insiders said communications suspected of relating to al-Shabab was subject to electronic interception.

Questions were raised this week about why adherents of al-Shabab would operate from South Africa.

The Muslim Judicial Council said it wasn't because it would provide opportunity for easy radicalisation within the structures of Islam in South Africa.

"Radical groups wouldn't find an easy home in South Africa," said Nabeweya Malick, spokesperson for the council.

"It's not as if there would be a group of people ready and waiting for them. To everyone here it would be clear that these are the enemies of the People of the Book."

The same, she said, would go for South Africa's large Somali Muslim community, which would be more likely to blame al-Shabab for destabilising the country of their birth than to offer it succour.

The sentiment was widely echoed by Muslim leaders at a local level, who said their institutions would treat the preaching of radical views or exhortation to violence as a sin.

"They may say they are our fellows in faith, but we will not allow hate and hate speech within these walls," said a Johannesburg imam, who asked not to be named.

UK obsessed with ordinary girl turned radical

Samantha Lewthwaite, who in her younger days neatly fitted into the category of British every girl,  was again the subject of intense tabloid speculation in Britain this week.

"Sexy lingerie found at home of 'White Widow'," screamed the Daily Mail headline above an article describing court testimony in the Kenyan city of Mombasa that police had "retrieved a collection of pink, black and red lingerie" from a safe house Lewthwaite is believed to have used. "She is seen as being the first possibly violent, radical British female convert to Islam," wrote historian Jamie Gilham, who specialises in British converts to Islam, in the Guardian to explain the English fascination.

"Lewthwaite is white, English, female and university educated; a soldier's daughter who grew up in the home counties. Her transgressions are plentiful. She converted to Islam, took the veil and a Muslim name, married a black and notoriously radical convert, and is the mother of mixed-race children."

In 2005, Lewthwaite was painted as another victim of the suicide bombings in London; the death of her husband, one of the attackers, left her pregnant and fending for herself, and her public condemnation of the attacks elicited sympathy. It was not until Kenyan authorities linked her to a bomb-making factory in Mombasa in 2011 that perceptions in her homeland shifted.  

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author
Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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