By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
She is popularly known as “the White Widow,” but the truth about the blue-eyed jihadist suspected of orchestrating the deaths of hundreds of people across Africa is as shadowy as the cloaked world of international terrorism she inhabits.
No one knows the whereabouts of Samantha Lewthwaite, a purported ringleader with the Somali militant group al-Shabaab who is suspected in a string of grenade attacks, bombings and mass shootings in Kenya. Conventional wisdom has it that she put on 30 pounds and had plastic surgery to disguise her appearance. One theory is that she’s now in Syria with Islamic State insurgents, training suicide bombers. Another holds that she died in Ukraine, shot by a Russian sniper. Some say she is alive somewhere in Somalia, married to a warlord.
Lewthwaite, a British soldier’s daughter who converted to Islam as a teenager and later joined the terrorist underground, is one of the best-known of a growing cadre of operational women in the conservative and often patriarchal ranks of Islamic extremism. While significant numbers of women are believed to have flocked to Syria over the past two years to serve as home-base support for Islamic State, hardly any have been seen plotting and carrying out the executions, shootings and bombings that have become the militant group’s signature around the world.
The White Widow, as she was named by the British press, is an exception. So is Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband wielded a .223-caliber tactical rifle in the Dec. 2 attack in a San Bernadino, Calif., killing 14 people, and then sprayed a hail of gunfire at pursuing police.
While women have a long history among violent militant organizations in Europe and Latin America — even in the Middle East, women have been an important part of the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey and northern Iraq — female attackers have been far more rare in such organizations as al-Qaida, where women are normally encouraged to raise families and tend homes for male fighters.
Islamic State in recent years has established the all-female al-Khansaa brigade, and online propaganda glorified its role, featuring women clad from head to toe in black flowing garments and toting AK-47s. But the brigade’s role is merely to police other women’s veils and morals, ordering whippings for those whose face coverings are deemed too transparent.
But female operatives among Islamist groups are not unprecedented, terrorism analysts say, with examples of female suicide bombers dating back to the 1990s in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and in the Palestinian territories and northeastern Nigeria.
In the early days of Chechnya’s unsuccessful war for independence from Russia, women in the conservative Islamic region were so subservient they didn’t even eat at the same table as men. Yet there were dozens of female militants, who fought alongside men in rebel units, according to Mairbek Vatchagaev, analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. He said it was one of the few examples of Muslim women fighting beside men in war.
“It was their personal feeling in their soul that they must defend their homeland. But it wasn’t compulsory for women to fight. On the contrary,” Vatchagaev said. “The women in the first war (1994-96) didn’t talk about Islam. They talked about their patriotic duty to their homeland.”
The phenomenon of women taking up arms was unexpected in Chechnya’s conservative culture, and some women’s husbands divorced them for doing so.
In 1995, a group of Arab fighters steeped in conservative Islamist ideology, led by a rebel commander named Khattab, entered Chechnya and proclaimed it was a sin for women to fight. Still, they urged women to be suicide bombers, leading to the phenomenon of Chechen “black widows” who launched many suicide bombings in Russia.
“They taught them to blow themselves up and they told them it was good for Islam. The Arabs said if women blew themselves up, they’d go to heaven. But suicide bombings were totally alien to Chechens,” Vatchagaev said.
Thousands of Chechens are now in Syria, many of whom had been living in Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia when Islamic State declared it was forming a caliphate in the region and invited Muslims around the world to join. There are many Chechen women in Syria, but none are known to be in combat roles, Vatchagaev said.
In northwestern Nigeria, girls as young as 8 or 10 have often been used as suicide bombers by the group Boko Haram, but there are suspicions that their explosive vests may have been detonated by other people.
There have been scattered lone-wolf attacks by women.
In 2010, British student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed a member of the British Parliament in an attack said to be inspired by al-Qaida. He survived and she is serving life imprisonment for attempted murder.
There is also the lurid story of “punk rocker granny” Sally Jones, designated a terrorist by the U.S., who traveled to Syria to marry convicted hacker Junaid Hussain. Hussain, a key figure in Islamic State because of his technology capabilities, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in August. Jones is a prominent Islamic State figure on social media.
Lewthwaite took the name Sherafiyah when she converted to Islam in her late teens. She is the widow of Germaine Lindsay, one of four suicide bombers who attacked three London subway cars and a bus in July 2005, killing 52 others. Having met Lindsay at an antiwar march in 2002, she fled England after his suicide attack. She went to Africa and later joined al-Shabaab.
Lewthwaite is the best known among contemporary female extremists because of reports, never confirmed, that she planned the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 67 people; and the attack this year on a university in Garissa, northeastern Kenya, which left 148 people dead.
Interpol, at Kenya’s request, in 2013 issued a red alert for the arrest of Lewthwaite on charges of possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony in 2011.
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: An image made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Raqa on June 30, 2014 allegedly shows a member of the IS militant group parading in a street in the rebel-held Syrian city of Raqa