By Rafia Zakaria
ON Friday, Sept 4, a magistrate presiding over a courtroom in Mombasa, Kenya, made a ruling. The case against Samantha Lewthwaite, dubbed the ‘White Widow’, should be dismissed, he said, because the prosecution had taken too long to produce her in court.
Lewthwaite, a 31-year-old widow from the United Kingdom and a Muslim convert, is allegedly a member of the Somalia-based militant group Al Shabaab, and has been accused of possessing explosives and planning terror attacks along Kenya’s tourist coast. She is also said to have had some involvement in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi.
The magistrate in Mombasa, however, was forced to rule that the case must be dismissed; legally speaking, he reminded the lawyers before him, “This case is just like any other case and if the suspect cannot be found, then the case should be closed”.
Stories of the prowess of Samantha Lewthwaite or the ‘White Widow’ abound.
However, while legally the case may be like others (all are, at least technically, equal before the law), the Lewthwaite case reveals some interesting facts about transnational terror groups and their new leadership. How did a white and Western woman, who until recently led a fairly ordinary life, rise to the leadership cadres of a Somali terror group? What motivated her to get there and what does her selection for leadership say about the racial dynamics of terrorist groups?
The story begins ordinarily enough: Samantha Lewthwaite is the daughter of a British soldier from Buckinghamshire in England. Apparently hit hard by her parents’ separation when she was 11, she converted to Islam after taking her A-level exams. In 2002, she married Germaine Lindsay, also a convert to Islam. On July 7, 2005, Lindsay blew himself up in a London Underground train, killing himself and 26 other people. At the time, Lewthwaite said she was “horrified” by the atrocities. She admitted, however, to having visited Mohammad Sidique Khan, allegedly a veteran jihadi and a ringleader of the London bombers.
Following the London bombings, Lewthwaite’s perspective seems to have changed fast, and so did her whereabouts. In 2008, she moved to South Africa, where she met and subsequently married her second husband Fahmi Jamal Salim. A radical preacher was said to have introduced them. Hence, it seems, Lewthwaite’s jihadi career in Africa began in earnest; she travelled from South Africa to Kenya on a fake passport and under an assumed name.
In December 2011, she was named in a charge for conspiracy to commit a felony and being in possession of explosives. It is that charge that remains pending before the Kenyan court. In September 2014, Interpol issued a notice asking countries to apprehend Lewthwaite on sight, given her alleged involvement in the plan to bomb tourist resorts.
For the moment, Lewthwaite seems to be on the run, but stories of her prowess abound. One links her with the Al Shabaab attackers who orchestrated the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi. Others also allege that she has been part of training battalions of women for the self-styled Islamic State (IS). For every rumour there is a counter-rumour: the Al Shabaab allege that no women were involved in the Westgate attack; the IS has not avowed any particular mentions of her. From the few pictures available of her, she appears hijab-clad, fleshy faced and beaming, appearing far more like a well-fed housewife than a terrorism maven. Looks, of course, can be deceiving, and it could well be the case here.
A BBC documentary made on Lewthwaite questions whether Al Shabaab would support a white woman as a frontline soldier. After all, the group does not seem to have any other examples of prominent female fighters, let alone a white woman in their midst. Its general position on women tends to prescribe exclusively domestic roles for them, casting doubt on their ability to even take a step out of the domestic sphere, let alone occupy visible roles in the public sphere of battle.
All this may well be so, but perhaps what is being forgotten here is the fact that the white woman has always enjoyed a sort of special status amid the patriarchal norms of formerly colonised men. Whether it is Gertrude Bell in the Middle East at the time of the British Empire or more recently Sarah Chayes in Afghanistan, many of these women have used their white privilege as a means of flouting gender barriers. Their ambiguous status, imbued as it is with the residual superiority of the once colonial master, can in contemporary times be transformed again. The banal and mediocre teenager from Buckinghamshire could find herself incarnated as the seductive and mysterious White Widow, with an array of assassin husbands from which to take her pick.
There is evidence to back up this ‘jihadi’ predilection for white women, as fighters and/or wives. In the materials that were seized in the case of deceased cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, he expresses his preference for a white woman as his wife to join him in Yemen. Similar examples can be found in statements seized from the social media traffic of IS fighters. White women, it seems, were and continue to be a catch, excused from the exclusion. Potentially, Lewthwaite can marry one man and then another, participate in plots and reign over the African fighters of Al Shabaab.
For all their anti-colonial leanings, then, the world of transnational ‘jihad’ seems as radicalised, and as wedded to old power structures, as ever. Al Shabaab and IS fighters may be ranting incessantly against the West, enslaving and raping women by labelling them war booty; but where it comes to white women, different, more lenient standards apply. For all other women, there may be exclusion and derision, rules that limit and laws that punish; but if Samantha Lewthwaite’s case is an example, for the white and Western woman on the ‘jihadi’ frontline there is only praise and adulation. Despite what the magistrate in Mombasa might say, a white woman’s case is not a case like all the others.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2015