On July 7, 2005, Germaine Lindsay boarded a London subway train at King’s Cross station carrying a backpack full of explosives. As the train traveled between the St. Pancras and Russell Square stations, he detonated the bomb, killing himself and 26 others, and injuring more than 340 people. He left behind his pregnant wife, Samantha Lewthwaite, and a child.
At the time of the subway bombing, Lewthwaite claimed to have known nothing of her husband’s plans, and said he had been manipulated into carrying out the gruesome attack. "How these people could have turned him and poisoned his mind is dreadful," she told the Sun newspaper. "He was an innocent, naive and simple man. I supposed he must have been an ideal candidate."
But that was only part of the story. In the wake of Saturday’s brutal attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, which left nearly 70 dead and 175 wounded, rumors are swirling about Lewthwaite — better known as the "White Widow" — participating in the assault. The evidence? A remark by Kenya’s foreign minister that a British woman was involved in the incident, and witnesses saying they saw a white woman barking commands in English, which were then translated into Swahili. Whether or not the speculation turns out to be true, the allegations are casting a spotlight this week on one of the most fascinating characters in the annals of 21st-century Islamic terror. So just who is the woman the world has come to know as the White Widow?
Born in 1983, Lewthwaite is the daughter of an English soldier who met her mother while serving in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. The parents separated in 1995, and the trauma of their divorce allegedly led Lewthwaite to turn to Islam. She married Lindsay, a devout Muslim whom she met in an Islamic-oriented chatroom, in 2002.
Three years later, Lindsay participated in the London subway bombings, a horrific, coordinated attack on the London transit system that left 52 people dead. In the aftermath of that attack, Lewthwaite and her family quickly distanced themselves from Lindsay. "I am the wife of Germaine Lindsay, and never predicted or imagined that he was involved in such horrific activities. He was a loving husband and father," Lewthwaite said in a statement. "I am trying to come to terms with the recent events. My whole world has fallen apart, and my thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation."
In 2009, however, Lewthwaite disappeared from England along with her three children. The motivations behind her disappearance and her exact role in the 2005 London bombing remain unclear, but two years later she resurfaced after traveling into Kenya on a fake passport. The following year, she completed her transformation from grieving widow to suspected terrorist when, as part of an investigation into an al Qaeda-linked plot targeting Western tourists, police in Kenya recovered Lewthwaite’s fingerprints and launched what was ultimately an unsuccessful manhunt to track her down. It was police in Mombasa who gave her the unforgettable nom de guerre: the White Widow.
As police began adding up her alleged misdeeds, her legend only grew. In 2011, she narrowly avoided arrest when police raided two apartments in Mombasa where she was believed to be residing. Investigators found explosives, an assault rifle, detonators, and trash bags filled with cash, along with the same types of chemicals used by her husband in the 2005 London bombing. That same year, Kenyan anti-terror police interviewed her after they found her staying with a known al Qaeda associate, but she managed to convince them that she was a tourist by using a fake South African passport, and escaped. Then, in 2012, she once more evaded Kenyan security forces and slipped into Somalia, where, according to Kenyan police, she linked up with al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group responsible for the attack on the Nairobi shopping mall. From there, the tales only grow more fantastic. One rumor has it that she serves as al Qaeda’s chief financier in the region. Another has it that she has worked to build her own all-female jihadi gang. As if that weren’t enough, her children are thought to still be with her.
Between the fake passport and the martyred husband, Lewthwaite’s case is something of a Bonnie and Clyde story with a jihadi twist. And her name — the White Widow — calls to mind a rich history of female terrorism. After all, the fierce female fighters among Chechnya’s Islamic groups are known as the "Black Widows" — and they, too, frequently take up arms after their husbands fall in battle. The life arc of a woman born to a British veteran of the Irish Troubles turned Islamic terrorist is as inscrutable as it is fascinating.
But what is the evidence that she actually participated in Saturday’s attack? So far, it is deeply contradictory. Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told PBS that a British woman had been involved in the assault, adding cryptically that "she has, I think, done this many times before." Mohamed didn’t identify Lewthwaite by name, but her comment was enough to spark a torrent of speculation that the identity of the unnamed British woman was in fact the White Widow. Then, however, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku squashed the idea that there were women among the attackers, saying that some of the male assailants had dressed like women and that no women had actually participated. On Tuesday afternoon, al Shabab appeared to confirm that the White Widow did not take part in the attack. "We have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed and we do not employ our sisters in such military operations," the terrorist group wrote on Twitter.
Regardless of whether Lewthwaite actually helped carry out the attack, the frenzy over her participation illustrates a deeper, more important question about al Shabab. Is the group just a ragtag insurgency trying to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, or a more sophisticated regional terror group capable of inspiring radicalized Westerners to join their cause? European security officials are scared stiff that Muslims in their countries will become radicalized and take up arms against the state, and few people personify that trend as well as Lewthwaite.
For now, the White Widow remains what she was prior to Saturday’s attack: a fierce, enigmatic symbol of how a Westerner might become disillusioned with her home country and be inspired to take up arms against it — and everything it stands for.
Whether she has also become a seasoned, bloodied commander in the field remains to be seen.