Nairobi – One of the world’s most wanted women, a British-born convert to Islamic extremism, lived close to one of Nairobi’s major malls in 2011 but likely wasn’t carrying out surveillance on it, a Kenyan security official said Wednesday.
Last month Interpol, acting at Kenya’s request, issued an arrest notice for 29-year-old fugitive Samantha Lewthwaite, not in connection with the deadly terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall but over a 2011 plot to bomb holiday resorts in Kenya.
Lewthwaite – dubbed in the British media as the “white widow” after her extremist husband carried out a suicide attack in London in 2005 – was mentioned widely in connection with the 21 September attack on the upscale mall. But security officials have since said they have no evidence Lewthwaite took part in the four-day siege that killed 67 people.
She managed to escape Kenyan police twice in 2011, once in Nairobi and again in Mombasa.
In Nairobi, Lewthwaite lived near Junction Mall, another Nairobi shopping center, according to a caretaker at the apartment complex. She lived in a three-bedroomed apartment in the OakPark Apartment block for seven months in 2011 using the fake identification of Natalie Faye Webb, the building superintendent, Alfred Osiole, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. OakPark Apartments are about 200m from the Junction Mall.
Lewthwaite’s boyfriend, or partner, claimed to have worked with interpol when the couple and four kids moved in, said Osiole.
“She was a person who doesn’t say much. She looked unkempt but she kept to herself,” Osiole said as he gave AP journalists a tour of the complex. “She moved into the apartment on February 2011, with her boyfriend, and they told me that they were tired of staying in a hotel where they were paying ($105) a day.”
In the first days during her stay she spent up to three hours shopping with her children at the Junction Mall, he said.
Later she sent him to the mall to shop for her and she would tip him, he said. “But then she started complaining that the $2 tip was costly and so I pretended to be busy whenever she would want to send me,” said Osiole.
Lewthwaite’s boyfriend travelled a lot during their stay in the apartment, said Osiole. “Once when he was around he asked me to escort him to the Junction Mall for a meeting with his lawyers. As we waited in the parking he asked me about the composition of the shoppers at the mall. Among the questions the man asked was whether many Muslims shopped at the mall,” Osiole said.
Break this man
One day in October 2011, Lewthwaite and her partner called movers and started loading their household goods, including two beds, a dining table and clothes, said Osiole.
“I closed the gate to stop them from leaving because they needed a letter from the landlord permitting them to move out,” he said. He said Lewthwaite was crying claiming that they have to move out in hurry because her mother had died and they needed to travel back home to Yemen.
Lewthwaite was angered when he would not let the family move out and threatened to attack Osiole, he said. “I can break this man into small pieces,” he recalled her saying.
The landlord then allowed them to leave and forfeit their cash deposit, Osiole said.
A week later anti-terrorism police arrived with pictures of the woman who had identified herself as Natalie Faye Webb, Osiole said. Her real name was Lewthwaite police told him, said Osiole.
Osiole said he did not have paperwork to prove Lewthwaite had lived at his apartment bloc because authorities took them as evidence.
“I am still shocked that you can live with somebody only to discover that they are being accused of involved in such huge crimes,” he said.
A Kenyan security official confirmed on Wednesday that Lewthwaite lived near the Junction Mall but he said it was not likely that she was carrying out surveillance on the mall. Lewthwaite’s role in al-Shabaab is more of a courier and financier, said the security official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorised to speak about investigation.
A United Nations security expert said he has not seen any evidence to show that Lewthwaite was involved in the Westgate attack. The expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about this topic, said Lewthwaite is an al-Qaeda affiliate – someone who identifies themselves with al-Qaeda’s ideology and joins or assists regional terror groups.
He said in his assessment Lewthwaite had peripheral links with al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamic extremist group that claimed responsibility for the Westgate Mall attack.
Lewthwaite, the daughter of a former British soldier, converted to Islam – reportedly while in her teens – and went on to study religion and politics at the School Of Oriental and African Studies in London. It was around that time she met London bomber Jermaine Lindsay, first in an internet chat room and later at a London demonstration against the war in Iraq.
After it became clear that Jamaica-born Lindsay, who had become her husband, was a perpetrator and had died in the 2005 London suicide bombings, Lewthwaite told The Sun newspaper two months after the attacks that her husband had fallen under the influence of imams at radical mosques.
She became known as the “white widow.” After that, she stayed largely out of view until March 2012, when her name surfaced in a Kenyan terrorism investigation.
Kenyan officials said at the time that Lewthwaite and other foreigners travelled to Kenya in 2011 to plan a bomb attack on the Kenyan coast over the Christmas holidays.
Authorities said Lewthwaite, who at the time was pregnant by her new Kenyan husband, was in charge of finances for the planned attack, and they suspected she had rented several houses in Mombasa to assemble a bomb.
Detonator caps and bomb making materials similar to those used in the London transit attacks were found in a house she shared with an accomplice, according to officials. The group was allegedly collaborating with Kenyans sympathetic to al-Shabaab.
In December 2011, Kenyan anti-terrorism police found a woman they believed to be Lewthwaite in the house, but they let her go after she showed them a South African passport in the name of Natalie Faye Webb.
Police later realised the passport was fraudulent.