As we have commented upon before, converts to Islam are often more fanatical than those who were born into the cult. It is obvious that people such as Samantha Laithwaite are the ideal converts to Islam – dumb, needy, and easily manipulated (recall Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev). The the use of female terrorists by Muslims has been long established and the Chechens have in fact employed the “Black Widows” i.e. Muslim women whose husbands have been killed in war, women bent on revenge in many of their terror attacks in Russia.
by Maureen Callahan
She grew up middle-class in suburban Buckinghamshire, England, and was considered an average girl in every way. Her father, Allen, was a former British Army soldier-turned-lorry driver; her mother, Christine, a homemaker. She has one older brother, Allen, and friends recall that as early as junior high, Samantha Laithwaite was a pretty and popular girl. When her parents broke up in 1994, she took it hard but seemingly no harder than most of her friends whose parents had divorced. She wasn’t particularly ambitious or studious, but she was a good girl who was shy around boys, considered by classmates to be exceptionally warm and decent.
Today, she is known as the White Widow, wanted in connection with last week’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya. But Laithwaite, 29, has been known to law enforcement since July 7, 2005, when her then-husband detonated a bomb in London’s subway system, killing himself and 26 civilians; back then, she was the weeping, 8-months-pregnant widow who became the subject of national sympathy.
So, how did this nice young girl grow up to become one of the world’s most wanted terrorists?
BROKEN HOMES, BROKEN LIVES
As wild as Laithwaite’s story seems — the white woman from the West who decides to become a radical Islamic jihadist — it is not without precedent. There is Rabiah Hutchison, the former Australian surfer girl tuned “grande dame of terror,” once married to a bin Laden confidante. “I would defend Islam with my life,” she told ABC News in 2008, “so that makes me a filthy, dirty, subhuman terrorist.”
There’s also “Mama Shabab,” a Canadian woman who runs a safe house for terrorists in Somalia; Colleen Rose, a. k. a. “Jihadi Jane,” the American woman facing a life sentence for aiding and abetting terrorists, and Muriel Degauque, a Belgian woman who committed the 2005 suicide bombing of a US convoy in Iraq (only she was killed).
They all have certain things in common, says Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of the book “Bombshell: Women and Terrorism”: broken homes, low self-esteem, lost souls in search of purpose.
A photo of Samantha Lewthwaite taken from her fake South African passport
“For someone who has no structure and is lost,” Bloom says, “Islam has more structures than other faiths.”
One of the best predictors, she says, “is involvement with a man who is in the organization. It acts as a vetting mechanism for the terrorist organization: This isn’t going to be a police informant.” If and when those first marriages fail — due to death, planned or otherwise — these women continue to marry within their terror networks, rising in esteem for their devotion to martyrs. In an otherwise rigidly patriarchal society, this is how women derive their power: raising money, acting as couriers, goading men into jihad by accusing them of being weaker than women.
By all accounts, Laithwaite fits the profile. She was 11 years old when her parents separated, and she began spending more and more time with her Muslim friends, who she felt had more-solid families. The only subject that really interested her was religion, and she began seriously studying Islam. She has been described as “empty in confidence.”
By 15, gone were the jeans and T-shirts and makeup. Instead, Laithwaite wore a salwar kameez, the baggy tunics and trousers worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She hadn’t yet abandoned the Western world — at 16, she attended her high-school prom. She wore jewels and a tiara and a face full of makeup.
By the time she was 17, Laithwaite was a convert — not so unusual in her heavily Muslim area, where about seven girls a year convert to Islam.
“At first she just wore a headscarf,” but gradually she adopted full Islamic dress, the classmate said. Laithwaite then went on to study politics and religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, but she was more interested in getting married.
“Samantha just wanted the simple things in life — someone to support her and look after her,” the classmate says.
Around 2002, Laithwaite met Jermaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born Islamic extremist who was one year her junior. Accounts of their first meeting differ: one has them bumping into each other at a “Stop the War” rally in London; another has them meeting in a chat room for Muslims; and yet another has them the product of an arranged marriage.
“She had seen a picture of him and been told a lot about him,” said her classmate. “But they only spoke for the first time in a phone call on the morning of the wedding.”
Laithwaite’s new husband, who preferred to go by Jamal, was himself a convert to Islam at age 14. His transformation was similar to Laithwaite’s: He swapped his jeans and sweatshirts for Muslim robes, grew a beard, withdrew from his non-Islamic friends and was interested mainly in kick-boxing, martial arts and his new religion.
THE 7/7 ATTACKS
Laithwaite and Lindsay had their first child, a boy named Abdullah, in 2004. Not long after the baby was born, Lindsay spent a week and a half at two mosques in London, and in September 2004 the couple became close with another Muslim couple, Mohammad Siddique Khan and his wife, Hasina Patel.
In October Khan took off for Pakistan to undergo training at a terrorist camp; the goal was to send him back to London to carry out an attack. Around this time, Lindsay shaved off his beard and would disappear for days. When he was home, he played Islamic music and tapes of the Koran on a loop, the ceaseless noise disturbing his neighbors. Some reported the heavy stench of gasoline coming from the apartment Lindsay and Laithwaite shared.
On July 7, 2005, Lindsay descended to the Picadilly Line on the London Underground at rush hour. He was one of four suicide bombers who killed 52 commuters and injured 700 on that day.
In the aftermath, Laithwaite, now eight months pregnant, expressed revulsion, horror and no foreknowledge of her husband’s terrorist activities.
“I had everything,” she told the press through tears. “But if this is true, now I have nothing.”
Then she demanded DNA evidence to prove her husband’s involvement.
She also issued a written statement: “I totally condemn and am horrified by the atrocities which occurred in London on Thursday, July 7. I am trying to come to terms with the recent events. My whole world has fallen apart, and my thoughts are with the families of the victims of this incomprehensible devastation.”
Authorities interrogated Laithwaite and even placed her in protective custody for a time. She sold her story to the UK Sun for more than $50,000, then later married a London-born Muslim extremist named Habib Saleh Ghani.
In 2009, Laithwaite had her third child and at an unknown point she and her family fled the UK. Authorities believe she had joined al Qaeda the year prior, and today is affiliated with Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based offshoot.
THE TERROR WIDOW
Samantha Laithwaite finally resurfaced in February 2011, entering Kenya with a fake passport identifying her as a South African named Natalie Faye Webb. She had several addresses in Johannesburg and ran up nearly $10,000 in bad loans from local banks.
In December of that year, she was arrested and questioned by authorities in connection with a plot to blow up hotels and restaurants in Mombasa; of the four people detained, including her roommate, Jermaine Grant, only Laithwaite was let go. Authorities believed her when she said she was just an unsuspecting tourist.
By the time police realized their mistake — Grant cracked and gave her up — Laithwaite was gone. In their former safe house, police found Laithwaite’s diaries, in which she wrote of her intention to bring up her children as martyrs. They also found ammunition for AK-47s, a destroyed laptop and bomb-making materials. Interpol issued then issued a Red Notice, or global arrest warrant, and Kenyan law enforcement charged her in absentia.
While no one in the intelligence community doubts her importance, some are skeptical that she was physically present, much less operational.
Though these terrorist networks are beginning to recognize the strategic importance of women — al Qaeda has been soliciting applicants online for the past five years, with their younger cohort in Al-Shabab even more open to the role women can play — the intelligence community agrees that women would never be in a position to give orders. Al-Shabab has publicly said Laithwaite was not involved, and according to Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats project, “Al-Shabab hasn’t lied, except for inflating casualty counts.”
“Laithwaite’s more valuable alive,” says author and expert Mia Bloom. “Being an inspiration on the Internet and coordinating the attack — that I find more persuasive.”
As for the number of women — let alone white Western converts — involved in terrorist networks, no one really knows. There’s no centralized database, and women on the whole come under far less scrutiny at security checkpoints than men — precisely what makes them so valuable.
Al-Shabab in particular has been agitating for the role of women to expand, and since the late ’90s, jihadi women have become more active in the region — Bloom says there’s been a 15 percent increase in Pakistan and a 25 percent spike in the PKK in Turkey.
“Al Qaeda is just starting to use women,” Bloom says. “But I think we are at the beginning of the wave.”
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