Northern Ireland-born woman potential suspect in Nairobi siege
Widow of London bomber known to be in Kenya
A Northern Ireland-born woman already wanted by Kenyan police has emerged as a potential suspect in the four-day siege of Westgate mall in Nairobi.
Witnesses to the attack, which has claimed more than 60 lives, have said the assailants included a woman who spoke English. Speculation has grown that it might be Samantha Lewthwaite, who was born and grew up in Banbridge, Co Down.
Dubbed the “White Widow” by the media, Ms Lewthwaite was married to suicide bomber Jermaine Lindsay, who killed 26 people when he blew up a Tube train during the July 7th attacks in London in 2005.
Ms Lewthwaite initially denounced her husband’s actions as “abhorrent”, saying time he had spent in radical mosques had “poisoned his mind”. But shortly after the London bombings she vanished, later turning up in east Africa. In March last year, authorities there said she had fled to Somalia and that officials were hunting a woman who used several identities.
She was already on the run for alleged links to a terrorist cell that planned a coastal bombing campaign in Kenya.
Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed said a British woman who had allegedly taken part in terrorist activity “many times before” was among the militants who struck the shopping centre on Saturday.
Ms Mohamed said the militant acted alongside “two or three” Americans during the days-long siege. Kenyan officials had previously claimed all the attackers were male.
A Kenyan newspaper reported that witnesses recalled a woman giving orders as the militants stormed the mall. “One said her face was covered but she had a woman’s arms and body. She was not carrying a gun but had a large bag around her waist,” the report said.
The survivors said she gave instructions in English which were then translated into Swahili as the attackers took over Westgate. The paper quoted a witness as saying: “The woman was not armed but as soon as she issued orders, the men would go on a killing rampage.”
Samantha Lewthwaite’s parents met when her English father Andy was serving as a soldier in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. She spent much of her childhood in her mother’s hometown of Banbridge. She was still at primary school when her family moved to Aylesbury.
After her parents separated in 1995, Ms Lewthwaite befriended a local Muslim family who helped her to convert to Islam when she was a teenager. Her interest in religion deepened when she began a degree course in politics and the study of religions in London in 2002.
She met Lindsay, a Jamaican-born Muslim convert, in an online chatroom the same year and the couple married shortly after. They had two children, the second born after the London bombings.
It is understood she has had little contact with relatives in Northern Ireland since her conversion to Islam. Joan Baird, a Ulster Unionist councillor in Banbridge who knows the family, said reports from Nairobi alleging Ms Lewthwaite was involved were “very distressing for everyone”.