Did a British Mother of Three Really Mastermind the Nairobi Mall Attack?

Lewthwaite on the cover of a September 2005 edition of the British newspaper the Sun.
Lewthwaite on the cover of a September 2005 edition of the British newspaper the Sun.

Courtesy The Sun/Handout

Was the Nairobi mall attack masterminded by a 29-year-old British mother of three known as the “White Widow”? Almost as soon as gunmen allegedly affiliated with the Somali group al-Shabab stormed the mall on Saturday, the media has been speculating that the White Widow—an Islam convert and suspected terrorist named Samantha Lewthwaite—was among the attackers. The Nairobi Star interviewed two eyewitnesses who claimed that “a woman appeared to be giving orders to the attackers on Saturday afternoon.” The Daily Mail and other British tabloids have cited various unnamed Kenyan officials claiming a “strong possibility” that Lewthwaite was involved in the attack, while the Telegraph notes that the British Foreign Office “cannot rule out the possibility that Lewthwaite was involved in the attack.” It’s a dramatic and fascinating story—but, for now, there’s little reason to assume that it’s true.

In 2005, a Jamaica native named Germaine Lindsay and three others suicide-bombed the London Underground in a series of attacks that killed 56 people. Lindsay’s wife, a young British woman named Samantha Lewthwaite, expressed shock and sorrow over the attack, and then dropped out of public view. Fast-forward to 2011, when Kenyan officials raided a Mombasa apartment and found bomb-making materials identical to those used in the London attacks. Further investigation revealed that Lewthwaite had rented that apartment, as well as another apartment containing weapons, ammunition, and cash. Kenyan police arrested a man named Jermaine Grant, who eventually claimed he had been operating under Lewthwaite’s direction, and that the plan had been to bomb hotels popular with tourists in Mombasa.

Lewthwaite has been on the run ever since, and the longer she’s lasted as a fugitive, the larger her myth has grown. The media quickly dubbed her the “White Widow,” and associated her with any number of alleged terror plots. As Mike Pflanz wrote for the Telegraph in 2012:

She has been accused variously of being al-Qaeda’s chief financier in the region, funding the recruitment and smuggling of Muslim youth to terror training camps in Somalia, and coaching her own all-women jihadist squad there. She has been linked with senior al-Qaeda commanders’ alleged plots to attack Eton College and the Dorchester and Ritz hotels in London.

And yet there’s a dearth of solid evidence connecting Lewthwaite to any of these schemes. Pflanz notes that for every official who suggests Lewthwaite might be involved in terror activity, there’s another one who completely denies that she’s even a suspect. Why the discrepancies? For one thing, officials simply don’t have all that much good information about al-Shabab and other East African terror groups. Unconfirmed rumor can flourish in an information void—remember the days after the Boston marathon bombing, when amateur Internet sleuths were convinced that missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi was one of the bombers? While it’s easy to float Lewthwaite’s name in connection with alleged terror plots and attacks, it’s not as easy to confirm that those connections are real.

As of now there’s nothing substantive to connect Lewthwaite to the Nairobi mall attack. The eyewitnesses interviewed by the Nairobi Star note that one of the attackers seemed to have a ponytail, but then they note that it may have actually just been a bandanna. According to the Mirror, a Twitter account connected with al-Shabab allegedly announced that “Sherafiyah lewthwaite aka samantha is a vrave [sic] lady! were happier to have her in our ranks!” But that hardly proves anything. It’s clear that Lewthwaite exists, and there’s good reason to believe that she’s been radicalized. Beyond that, though, it’s irresponsible to speculate as to her involvement in the Nairobi mall attack.