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Mysterious 'white widow' eludes police in Africa

Friday - 12/13/2013, 2:26am  ET

In this Nov. 3, 2013 photo, the exterior of the rented house on Northern Road in Aylesbury, England where Samantha Lewthwaite lived with her late husband Jermaine Lindsey before his death in a suicide bomb attack on the London subway system in July, 2005. She is called the most wanted woman in the world, a suspected terrorist charged with plotting to blow up resort hotels in Kenya packed with Christmas tourists, a westerner who wrote an ode praising Osama bin Laden, a jihadist who has eluded the law even as she has traveled through Africa with four young children in tow. The saga of Samantha Lewthwaite is one of betrayal and revenge in a murky world where, somehow, a white woman born to a British soldier becomes a Muslim convert and then an international fugitive accused of conspiracy. (AP Photo/Greg Katz, file)

GREGORY KATZ
Associated Press

AYLESBURY, England (AP) -- She is called the most wanted woman in the world, a suspected terrorist charged with plotting to blow up resort hotels in Kenya packed with Christmas tourists, a Westerner who wrote an ode praising Osama bin Laden, a jihadist who has eluded the law even as she has traveled through Africa with four young children in tow.

Samantha Lewthwaite's saga is one of betrayal and revenge in a murky world where, somehow, a white woman born to a British soldier becomes a Muslim convert and then an international fugitive accused of conspiracy.

Her first husband blew himself up as part of Britain's worst ever terrorist attack in 2005, an act she first condemned -- and her second partner adhered to the same militant brand of Islam and also apparently met an early death. Her notebooks, seized in 2011, are filled with lavish praise for extremists who slaughter civilians and hopes that her children will do the same.

And yet, since she disappeared some months after the London bombing, no one can say how the "white widow" became radicalized, moving from mainstream Islam to a "holy war" against the West -- or why she would embrace a movement that denies a woman's right to education and other basic liberties.

"That is the mystery," said Niknam Hussain, a community organizer and former Aylesbury mayor. There was never a hint that Lewthwaite had chosen jihad during her years in Aylesbury, the small English city 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of London where she grew up.

"What was the journey from there to here?" asked Hussain. "I don't think you wake up radical. One is educated, inculcated, pulled into it. This is a small community. One would hope that if anything unusual was going on someone somewhere would have noticed it. No one seems able to paint a picture of what happened. What is her role? What does she do?

"We're at a loss."

___

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite was born on May 12, 1983, in the violence-scarred British territory of Northern Ireland, where her father was a British Army soldier and her mother an Irish Catholic -- the Ulster equivalent of star-crossed lovers.

Before Samantha reached age 6 the family moved to Aylesbury, where her father worked as a truck driver until the couple's separation.

Raj Khan, a former Aylesbury mayor who knew Lewthwaite and her family, said she forged strong bonds with the city's Muslims, a group that includes many resettled Pakistanis. She converted to Islam as a teenager.

"Living in the neighborhood, she became very friendly," said Khan. "She came to enjoy the hospitality of the Muslim community."

Khan said Lewthwaite, through one of her girlfriends, became particularly close to a Muslim family that facilitated her conversion.

"The people who helped her were very pious, respectable, mainstream Muslims with no sign of radicalism," he said. "She would have understood it as a religion of peace that does not allow radicalism or killing."

Her embrace of Islam generated little notice, nor did her marriage in 2002 to Jermaine Lindsay, a British Muslim with Jamaican roots whom she first met in an Internet chat room and later in person at a demonstration against the war in Iraq.

And yet, on July 7, 2005, her husband stepped onto a subway train and blew himself up as part of an attack that killed 52 civilians and three other bombers.

It was the most lethal terrorist attack ever on the British mainland, marking a "before and after" divide in the country's halting embrace of a multicultural society -- since it was the work of British Muslims, not extremists from afar.

Aylesbury residents were unaware of Lindsay's role until dozens of heavily armed police descended on Lewthwaite's house just six days after the bombing. She became a national figure that night, viewed not as an Islamic extremist but as a wronged young mother, pregnant with her second child, shocked to discover that her husband had been part of a terrorist plot.

In a statement to the local paper, she condemned her late husband's actions even as she defended him.

"He was a loving husband and father," she said. "My whole world has been torn apart and my thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation." She could "never have predicted that he could be involved in such horrific activities."

The widow was taken from her home under police protection. That may have been prudent -- three vigilantes were arrested after trying to set fire to her modest rented brick house in apparent retaliation for Lindsay's actions.

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