Kenyan investigators knew two years ago that they wanted to question Samantha Lewthwaite, the 29-year-old widow of one of the suicide bombers who struck the London transit system in 2005.
They ran into her for the first time that December, while probing a foiled attack on tourist sites in Mombasa, when she convinced them she was a tourist. Within days, investigators realized their mistake, a prosecutor said.
Three raids on houses tied to al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants turned up bomb-making materials, cash from Somali pirates, AK-47’s and Lewthwaite’s personal diary, according to court proceedings in the trial of a U.K. citizen in Kenya, Jermaine Grant, and Kenyan prosecutors.
Only yesterday, a week after al-Shabaab militants attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 civilians and security personnel, did Kenya request Interpol to issue a Red Notice for Lewthwaite, asking police around the world to search for her and arrest her.
“The Interpol notice could have been issued over a year ago, and that might have stopped her as she crossed through borders,” said Valentina Soria, a London-based analyst for IHS Jane’s, who has tracked Lewthwaite as part of her research into al-Shabaab. “If she was supposed to be on a watch list after the Kenyan authorities disrupted a terrorist plot, then this paints a very concerning and worrying picture about intelligence sharing between authorities in Africa.”
While no government official has directly named her as being involved in the Westgate attack, the confusion over Lewthwaite’s whereabouts, and the possibility of her having traveled to and lived in South Africa, show the challenges of tracking a person wanted for questioning by authorities on two continents, and suspected by analysts and the Kenyan government of being involved with al-Shabaab.
Attempts to contact Lewthwaite on phone numbers listed under an alias, Natalie Faye Webb, were unsuccessful.
The years-long delay may have cost authorities a chance to capture Lewthwaite, nicknamed the “White Widow” by the U.K. press, who had already set up a base in Johannesburg, about 2,753 kilometers (1,710 miles) to the south.
As late as May 2012, records from the country’s deeds office show, she rented a house in the mainly Muslim area of Mayfair under a stolen identity known both to Kenyan and South African authorities. She traveled in and out of South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and probably Somalia, according to interviews with South African, Kenyan and American investigators, and al-Shabaab videos posted online.
Interest in Lewthwaite increased after Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed told U.S. broadcaster PBS that a British woman who has “done this many times before” was involved in the mall attack.
Kenyan Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lento today declined to comment on whether there’s a link between the Interpol notice and the mall attack.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said the Lewthwaite case highlighted what he described as the invisible threat of criminals and terrorists crossing borders on fraudulent papers. Of the 1.1 billion international trips made globally in 2012, documents for some 310 million were not verified against Interpol’s list of stolen or lost travel documents.
Lewthwaite, the daughter of a British soldier, was raised in Aylesbury near London and in 2002 married Jamaica-born Germaine Lindsay, like her a Muslim convert, and had two children with him, according to investigations by U.K. police into the London bombing. He was one of the four perpetrators of the July 7, 2005, attacks on London’s underground rail network - - exploding a device on the Piccadilly Line between King’s Cross and Russell Square, killing 26 people.
Lewthwaite, who converted to Islam as a teenager, was questioned but not charged with any involvement. At the time she said she was unaware of and horrified by the attacks.
She later traveled to Kenya and vanished in 2011. Since then, Kenyan prosecutors have described her as a member of al-Shabaab. The Interpol Red Notice doesn’t allege that she was involved in the Sept. 21 attack on the mall, and is limited to Kenyan charges of possession of explosives and another felony dating to December 2011.
Lewthwaite, with her children, entered Kenya via Tanzania in February 2011, and renewed her Kenyan visa in Nairobi in March that year, according to a time line of her activities compiled by Soria.
Lewthwaite stole Webb’s identity to obtain a South African passport in the coastal city of Durban by means of a rule allowing foreigners who were born in the country or have a parent from the country to gain citizenship, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor told reporters in Pretoria yesterday.
Lewthwaite traveled in and out of South Africa between July 2008 and February 2011, when the passport was canceled, Pandor said.
The last known sighting of Lewthwaite was in August 2011 when she was photographed at the Kenya-Tanzania border, IHS said.
In South Africa, in addition to the Mayfair property, Lewthwaite leased a house in Bromhof in northern Johannesburg. A man who lived nearby, who declined to have his name published over concern for his security, identified her from publicly available photographs shown to him by a Bloomberg reporter and said he only spoke to her once and didn’t know her by name.
Three fixed-line phone numbers and three mobile-phone numbers were registered under Webb’s name between August 2009 and September 2011, according to public records. While calls to four of the numbers didn’t connect and the fifth was not answered, one number was answered by a woman who said she hadn’t heard of Webb.
Lewthwaite, using Webb’s name, between February and August 2011 defaulted on 62,238 rand ($6,223) that she owed South African banks and stores, according to publicly available credit records.
Lewthwaite was employed by two companies, Khayroon Essay and Crown Pies, in 2009 under Webb’s name, the records show.
From there Lewthwaite may have begun working in East Africa, said Soria, the IHS Jane’s analyst.
“What we know is she moved to East Africa, probably to Somalia, where she was reported to be connected to Shabaab,” Soria said. “She worked not exactly as a fund raiser, but as a controller of the funding of the group, and was in contact with other operatives and affiliated individuals in the country.”
Kenyan authorities first encountered Lewthwaite in December 2011, when, while investigating the foiled Mombasa attacks, police arrested Grant, along with an alleged recruiter for al-Shabaab named Fouad Abubakar Manswab, saying they planned an attack. During the investigation, they questioned Lewthwaite, and let her go, according to Kenyan prosecutor Jacob Ondari.
“That was the last chance the government had to detain this lady,” Ondari, who’s the lead prosecutor in the case against Grant, said in a phone interview from Kenya.
The next day, Kenyan police raided an apartment rented by Grant, finding bomb-making chemicals, cash from ransoms paid to Somali pirates and documentation that led them to believe that the house was a headquarters for al-Shabaab in Kenya. Grant denies charges including passport and visa fraud, and planning attacks around Mombasa, according to court proceedings.
In another raid at a nearby house, Kenyan investigators found what Ondari described as Lewthwaite’s personal effects.
Since then, the only sightings of Lewthwaite have been photographs of her on websites affiliated to militant groups in east Africa including al-Shabaab.
“Al-Shabaab has focused on recruiting Westerners,” said Soria. “She was presented as a model of how to give up your life for the cause of jihad, which was very popular for recruiters.”