Samantha Lewthwaite has been a prominent feature of mainstream news since the attacks on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi this September. However, when her name is entered into a Google search, the foremost entry is a link to the Wikipedia page for her husband, Jermaine Lindsay – one of the men accused of participating in the 7/7 bombings in London. Searches related almost exclusively to Lewthwaite are found when searching for information using her pseudonym, ‘White Widow’. Researching Lewthwaite’s involvement in terrorist activities reveals a string of speculations; despite being ‘target number one’[i] in the weeks following the attack, the police in Nairobi have officially listed their suspects for the attack at the Westgate Mall, and Lewthwaite was not among those named[ii]. What do the Western mainstream media outlets really know about the ‘White Widow’, and what are they telling the public? Why is there such a stark contrast between the two?
Following what is reported to have been ‘an unremarkable childhood’[iii], Lewthwaite converted to Islam at the age of 15. She is thought to have sought solace in religion following the disruptive impact of her parents’ divorce. Lewthwaite adopted the Muslim name Sherafiyah after marrying Jermaine Lindsay in a religious service. Her religious conversion led to a period of disassociation from her parents. Reports of her involvement in the Islamic community in her hometown demonstrated her desire to learn, but also her sheepish character – she was thought to be ‘a follower, not a leader’. Her late husband, in contrast, was portrayed as a concern for religious leaders in the community, who feared he was attempting to spread his radical beliefs to others within the community[iv].
In dubbing her the ‘White Widow’, comparisons are frequently drawn between Lewthwaite and the group of Chechen Islamist female suicide bombers known as the ‘Black Widows’. These women are typically understood to be seeking revenge after losing husbands and sons in conflicts against the Russian state. They are also understood to be women without agency. Bound by the structures of political and religious institutions, dominant understandings of the ‘Black Widows’ portray them as women without the ability to make independent decisions. Rather, the grief caused by losing male family members has driven them to insanity, which finds its outlet in political violence and suicide missions – the most prominent of which was an attack on a Moscow theatre in 2002. Does the similarity in names imply that Lewthwaite too, was under the influence of religious extremist individuals and was a woman acting outwith her own free will?
Western media outlets have described Lewthwaite as one of the most dangerous women in the world; indeed, Interpol published a Red Notice Alert[v] for the arrest of Lewthwaite in connection to the Nairobi attack last month, ‘at the request of authorities in Kenya’. However, these very same media outlets have also portrayed Lewthwaite as a woman who is unintelligent, and as a woman essentially brainwashed by her radical Islamist first husband. In actual fact, Lewthwaite met her husband whilst studying Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The large-scale portrayal of her as a woman without an awareness of current affairs is evidently a false one.
Lewthwaite has been named in connection to several terrorist plots and has recently has been linked to the terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab. Lewthwaite was arrested with British born Jermaine Grant in 2011[vi]. During Grant’s police interrogation, he allegedly named Lewthwaite as a member of Al-Shabaab, and provided details of her involvement in several of the organisation’s plots[vii]. Grant’s statements were clearly not treated with any level of credibility, as he remained in custody whilst the police did not hold Lewthwaite. This leads to the assumption that there was a lack of evidence to pursue a case against Lewthwaite, despite the connections to several plots. Prominent media reports focus on Lewthwaite in connection to the men in her life – her first husband the 7/7 bomber, her involvement with Jermaine Grant, and, more recently, her ‘ode to Osama bin Laden’[viii]; a poem discovered on a computer during a police search of Lewthwaite’s home in 2011. The focus on the men in Lewthwaite’s life again assumes that she is a woman acting under the influence of several male figures, and not out of her own political motivations.
An article by Sky News[ix] focusing on her pledge to continue the fight waged by bin Laden goes on to discuss intimate personal details – the searches she entered on her computer for ‘how to get hair like Taylor Swift’, and the ‘top tips for getting fit’. These facts have no bearing on her status as a speculated terrorist or her involvement with politically violent organisations. Rather, they may serve to further establish the notion that Lewthwaite is perhaps more focused on hairstyles than a political struggle in the name of Islam. This is precisely the problem with the focus on Lewthwaite as a woman, rather than as a politically violent person.
This article does not attempt to establish Lewthwaite’s involvement in terrorist activities. Deciphering guilt or innocence is a matter to be dealt with by the police and judicial system. However, it is important to note Western media’s skewed representations of Samantha Lewthwaite and the implications behind the White Widow narrative. When questioning the intent behind the presentation of information, we arrive at a simple conclusion: concrete evidence simply isn’t newsworthy. News organisations speculate about Lewthwaite’s agenda, and have focused on her role as both a mother and grieving widow; despite the fact that these may have no bearing whatsoever upon her political motivations. They are speculations, and must be treated as such.