A holy terror in jihad’s embrace

SAMANTHA Lewthwaite’s face is one we all know. For two weeks we have seen images of her staring back at us from a bogus South African passport.

What we don’t know is how the hell this British national, a suspect in al-Shabaab’s Nairobi shopping mall attack, managed to flit in and out of our country while featuring on terror watch lists across the globe.

While the latest phenomenon, “jihad tourism”, that peddles jihad as the ultimate adventure, is drawing millions of young men from countries around the world to join rebel extremists in countries like Syria – women are also part of this tsunami. This does not refer to the alleged “sexual jihad”, but to those killed alongside male fighters. Included is a convert from Michigan, US, who Reuters reported dead in May.

Radicalising through the internet plays out in other ways. Roshonora Choudhry, the bright 21-year-old English student who stabbed British MP Stephen Timms with a kitchen knife is a case in point. Sitting at home listening to extremist sermons on her computer she “self-radicalised” within six months, transforming from a voluntary community worker into a woman prepared to kill.

“Whether radicalisation takes place face to face or over the internet, the outcome is always the same,” said the London expert.

While Lewthwaite’s story features both the internet and an unrequited teenage crush on a Muslim boy, her transformation from shy, gawky Samantha, a girl loved by her teachers, into Asmantara or Sherafiyah, the consort of suicide bombers and international fugitive started in a different way.

In fact, hers is a classic textbook example of the four-step radicalisation process described by Haras Rafiq, a director of the UK-based organisation CENTRI, which focuses on countering extremism at operational level.

He is quoted listing: a sense of perceived vulnerability owing to a personal crisis; exposure to a particular worldview (in this case, Islamism) that purports to offer solutions to the personal crisis; exposure to extremists who further exploit a person’s sense of vulnerability; and finally internalisation of violent values.

In this context, Lewthwaite’s trail goes back to her parents’ divorce. By all accounts it traumatised the 11-year-old who sought comfort from the tightly knit Muslim families in her neighbourhood. A little later there are reports of a crush on a boy. By 17 she had converted to Islam, was wearing the hajib and was well known by local imams at a mosque a little more than a kilometre from her home.

In 2002 she had enrolled in a degree in religion and politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, which the British media describes as “controversial for giving a platform to extremists and a campus that, like many in Britain, is regarded as fertile hunting ground for hardliners encouraging the radicalisation of young Muslims”.

It was here that Lewthwaite met her husband, Germaine Lindsay, aka Abdullah Shaheed, through an Islamic internet chat room. Three years after they married, when she was pregnant with their second child, Lindsay blew himself and 26 commuters up on a packed tube train in London.

At the time police regarded Lewthwaite as an ignorant innocent but in hindsight she may well have been the accomplice of her Pakistani-trained husband, said the London expert.

From events after 2011 there are clear suggestions that Lewthwaite had indeed internalised violent values. In that year she moved from Johannesburg to East Africa on her false South African passport under the pseudonym Natalie Faye Webb. There she left a trail that includes an arrest along with al-Qaeda members in a Somali refugee camp in northern Kenya, and two police warrants – one issued in January last year after bomb-making chemicals and documents showing her face were found in an al-Shabaab safe house in Mombasa, the second in connection with bombing a Mombasa bar during a Euro football match in June last year.

According to the Mail on Sunday Kenyan police also found handwritten notes for a book she was writing, titled I Want To Be a Mujahid. If correct, the contents leave little doubt as to her frame of mind:

“Recently, my beloved husband gave a talk to my eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. He asked them what do you want to be when you are older? Both had many answers but both agreed to one of wanting to be amujahid (holy warrior)....

“Allah blessed me with the best husband for me. In fact, exactly what I asked for when I made du’a (prayer) before marriage.

“I asked for a man who would go forth, give all he could for Allah and live a life of terrorising the disbelievers as they have us. This is what I wanted and Allah gave me this and better.”

The husband she refers to is believed to have been Habib Saleh Ghani, a contemporary at the Hounslow Islamic Centre of Asif Mohammed Hanif, Britain’s first suicide bomber.

Ghani is reported to have been killed in an al-Shabaab faction fight in Somalia shortly before the Nairobi attack.

That Lewthwaite has survived, outpacing not only the authorities but hardened jihadists in an organisation associated with brutal torture, rape, beheading and mutilation, suggests she not only has smarts, but remarkable strength and resilience, said the London expert.

But it would seem that she was not strong enough to have overcome a challenge among female converts to Islam that British Muslim Khadija Magardie says few care to admit.

Writing in The Guardian, Magardie, who converted to Islam at age 18, states: “A popular narrative, of a Damascene moment of some kind, is weaved by poster girls (myself at one point) telling of how we turned our backs on the materialism and nihilism of the west to find our true calling beneath the hijab. In “embracing” our new faith we say we were embraced in turn.”

But, she says, reality is more complex. Women converts seeking a “more cerebral experience”, one beyond the ordinary existence of attending mosque, raising children, praying and fasting, do not fit easily into communities that are fairly rigid in terms of interpreting Islamic scripture.

Rather, they find themselves alienated, “rebels in search of a cause”.

“Because of their need to prove themselves, they are the impressionable types targeted by fringe groups looking for recruits.... There are those converts like Lewthwaite who will show you just how committed they really are – by embracing militant Islam.”