The White Widow is the new Black Widow

Samantha Lewthwaite is the latest example of the media’s desire to iconicise women accused of involvement in violent crime


Nothing fills the tabloid media (and certain members of the public) with such unbridled joy as the prospect of a woman to demonise. When the woman is one who converted to Islam, married a 7/7 bomber, and then went on to allegedly mastermind a terrorist atrocity of her own – well, it’s safe to say Amanda Knox can take the rest of the year off.

The trouble with the “White Widow” hypothesis that is proving so popular with the public and the media is that the evidence linking Samantha Lewthwaite to the horrific Nairobi shopping mall attack, which left a reported 67 people and five militants dead, is still rather tenuous.

Other than the Interpol red notice – effectively an international arrest warrant – issued for her on unrelated explosives charges at Kenya’s behest last week, all we know for certain is that that country’s foreign minister believes a British woman had been involved in the mall attack 10 days ago, and that witnesses reported seeing a white woman.

Even the Kenyan prime minister has said he has no “direct evidence” of her involvement. The foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, has said a British woman who had allegedly taken part in terrorist activity “many times before” was among the militants. If she has harder evidence than that, she hasn’t shared it.

Little known about Lewthwaite
About Lewthwaite herself, hard facts are almost as scarce. She was born in Banbridge, Co Down, 29 years ago. She had an unremarkable childhood in Britain, at some point converted to Islam, and married the 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay. In the aftermath of the London attacks, she claimed she had no knowledge of his role in them, but then she supposedly disappeared “off the intelligence radar” – although there is at least one Twitter account and a blog linked to her.

Oh, and we know she is both white and a widow, which – at least as far as some tabloid subeditors are concerned – may be enough to seal the deal.

Almost everything else you’ve read about her is conjecture. But conjecture, when facts are hard to come by, is what some news organisations and the internet do best. Take the Daily Mail, whose more colourful recent claims have included speculation that the “marriage of Samantha and Germaine was a union of two already poisoned minds”; that Lewthwaite’s “Irish Catholic mother” has been spotted in a hijab; and that Samantha herself was sometimes heard shouting at her children (an accusation that, if evidence of terrorist inclinations, could send several mothers of my acquaintance straight to Guantanamo.)

Then there’s the stuff that’s just confusing. Was she a “very, very clever” and “bossy” teenager, as some reports suggested? Or “an average girl” and “a follower, not a leader”? Is she really “using her children to avoid detection”, as the Mirror states – and if so, how does that work? (Wouldn’t a white woman wandering around east Africa with – depending on which report you read – two, three or four kids in tow be inclined to stand out?)

And would a terrorist mastermind really spend her time posting bad poetry online or tweeting about “making jihad cool”? On top of all that is the stuff that is simply bizarre: reports that she idolised Margaret Thatcher and once led a debate at school in favour of the Hiroshima bomb.

The public fascination with Lewthwaite goes far beyond that usually reserved for terror suspects. In many ways, this is understandable. Her story is both shocking – daughter of a British soldier from a Catholic family who converts to Islam and becomes a jihadist – and has the
all-important “local angle”.

But more importantly, it taps into the media’s desire to iconicise women accused of involvement in violent crime. The “White Widow” joins a cast that includes the “Black Widow”, Catherine Nevin; “Lying Eyes” Sharon Collins; the “Scissors Sisters”, and “Foxy Knoxy” – women whose cartoon-villain portrayal in the media both demonises them and distracts attention from the victims of their alleged crimes.

One of 160 wanted women
It turns out that Lewthwaite isn’t even the “world’s most wanted woman”. She is on a list of 160 females for whom red notices have been issued by Interpol, a list that includes women wanted for tax evasion and abducting their own children, as well as members of the Mexican Tijuana cartel.

Yes, she is a potential suspect in the Nairobi shopping mall attack – she may even prove to be the mastermind behind it. But that is something the international security services are more likely to get to the bottom of than the self-appointed Hercule Poirots of the international press.

In the meantime, the relentless focus on the “White Widow” is likely to be playing right into the hands of the terror group al-Shabab, for whom Lewthwaite’s symbolic value must now be enormous, regardless of whether or not she was involved.

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