What you need to know:
- She is wanted by Kenyan, British, and American security agencies for funding a Mombasa terrorist cell but every time they are about to pounce on Samantha Lewthwaite, she slips through their fingers. DN2 has been talking to people who claim to have seen her
A narrow road from the centre of a small town meanders through hovels and simple houses to a section with beautiful and exclusive houses in the Bula Mzuri area of Garissa town.
Local residents claim that a white woman and three children live in one of the houses that security agents have raided several times.
“Nobody comes out of the house during the day and the gate is always closed. I have only met her on a few occasions,” an elderly woman tells us, pointing at a photograph of Samantha Lewthwaite, who also goes by several other aliases, including Natasha Faye Webb.
A manhunt by the Kenya Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and FBI and British’s Scotland Yard and London’s Metropolitan Police that has lasted more than six months has not yielded any results. The British woman is accused of being a financier and planner for a terror cell.
The latest raid, conducted in June, yielded no trace of Lewthwaite.
“They found no trace of her or even the children,” a provincial security administrator said. He requested not to be named, fearing that he might be a target of Al-Shabaab militants associated with the British terror suspect.
Since Lewthwaite was linked to terrorist activities in Kenya, the police have received hundreds of calls from people offering clues and have interviewed dozens who might have met her.
But the greatest challenge is that few have testified to having met her in person. People who claim to have seen her say they identified her because of her burqa (the Muslim cover-all dress for women), which in itself raises questions of credibility.
“This white woman is a myth, she is a mystery. Nobody has ever said that they have met her or knew her,” says Abubakar Sharif Ahmed alias Makaburi, a confidant of the late Sheikh Aboud Rogo. Ahmed was arrested after the riots that rocked Mombasa following the gunning down of Rogo on August 27 this year.
Lewthwaite’s case file is open at the Mombasa Law Courts, where she has been charged in absentia. Every month, prosecutors update the court on the progress of the hunt for her. On September 6, a prosecutor told the court that she had not been arrested.
“She is among a number of terror suspects that we are still investigating. We can not divulge any more details about her,” ATPU commander Boniface Mwaniki told DN2.
Court documents indicate that Lewthwaite and Habib Saleh Gani (her current husband, a Kenyan) are charged with “being in possession of explosive materials, contrary to Section 29 of the Explosives Act, and conspiracy to commit a felony.”
Police allege that Lewthwaite is bankrolling a Mombasa terror cell whose members include Sheikh Rogo, Gani, Jermaine Grant, Faud Abubaker Manswab, and Wardo Brek Islam.
She was also connected to Musa Hussein Abdi, an aide of Harun Fazul, East Africa’s top Al-Qaeda operative who was killed in Somalia in June last year.
Anti-terrorism police reportedly found Lewthwaite in Abdi’s house during a raid in December last year but were fooled by a fake South African passport she was carrying that bore the name Rachel Faye Webb and released her.
Court documents indicate that Grant and Islam, a daughter of a Kisauni businessman, married a day before their arrest on December 20, 2011 in Mombasa.
According to the documents, the two were found in possession of acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sublimed sulphur, lead nitrate, batteries, an electric switch and an electric conducting wire, materials that the police said could be used to make a bomb.
“They found the materials in Grant’s house. The police investigated and guarded the one-bedroom house after their arrest for months hoping to find more evidence,” Ahmed Hassan, a resident of the Kisauni apartment block where the police found the explosive-making materials, recalled.
According to the security agencies, the Mombasa terror cell was plotting attacks during the Christmas and New Year festivities. Their targets included the Likoni ferry, the Nyali Bridge, and the Hotel Serena, Mombasa.
While being interrogated at the Port police station, Grant indicated that his name was Peter Tosh, for which he is serving three years at Shimo la Tewa prison for impersonation. Court documents and testimonies say Grant posed as a Canadian car and mobile phone dealer.
He is also facing charges of conspiring to commit a felony and possessing explosive materials. Grant’s lawyer Chacha Mwita dismissed allegations that his client had connections with “that European woman”.
Sheikh Rogo was also facing terror-related charges after security agents raided his house.
“On 29 January 2012 at Kanamai, (police found) AK-47, 113 rounds of ammunition, two hand grenades, two pistols, and 102 detonators (discovered) in circumstances indicating that he was so armed with intent to commit a felony,” court documents read.
Sheikh Rogo also faced another charge in Nairobi of being a member of an organised crime group. He was shot dead a few days before he was due to travel for the hearing of this case.
With the death of Sheikh Rogo, investigators face another challenge tying up the loose ends in their hunt for the British terror suspect.
Lewthwaite reportedly travelled to Kenya under a false name in August 2011. A forged South African passport found in one of the houses that were raided also hinted that she entered Kenya on November 21, 2011.
Kenyan police obtained a warrant for her arrest on January 4 from a Mombasa court, barely a week after police spokesperson Erick Kiraithe circulated her photograph.
Mombasa chief magistrate Lillian Mutende directed ATPU to “arrest Ms Natalia Faye Webb (Ms Lewthwaite) of Britain and Kenyan Habib Saleh Gani with immediate effect. Kenya cannot take any chance as far as acts of terrorism are concerned.”
Gani, whose nickname is Osama, is classified as “very dangerous”. Police say he played a crucial role in the kidnapping of French woman Marie Dedieu from her beachfront home on Manda Island, Lamu. The 66-year-old died months later in Somalia.
Lewthwaite is said to have escaped from a raid on one of her safe houses. She is said to have fled with her computer and bomb parts, but security officers found a diary detailing how to be a suicide bomber’s wife, diet tips, and forged passports.
Security agents also found large calibre ammunition, $40,000 (Sh3.4 million) in cash along with telephones, laptops, and medicine in a five-bedroom house in Shanzu.
Lewthwaite is said to have been tipped off by a party from the security agencies. An internal investigation was conducted, but the findings have never been made public.
Her first husband, Jermaine Lindsay, is one of the suicide bombers who attacked London’s transport system, killing 52 people on July 7, 2005.
When we visited the various houses where Lewthwaite was said to have lived, residents gave conflicting accounts of her life.
In Shanzu, we were told that the five-bedroom apartment was rented in August last year by a man who identified himself as Mark Coster. Information indicates that Lewthwaite entered Kenya at around that time.
“He looked like an Arab and spoke English,” a worker recalls. But a man who worked in the apartments refused to give more details, saying that anti-terrorism police had told him to stick to his story or risk imprisonment.
In another house in Nyali, a security guard said that he noticed the woman’s strange manner.
“She never wanted people to go inside her compound. When she sent me to get something for her from the shop, she gave me money through an opening in the gate,” he recalls. She never came out of her compound without the burqa, which Mombasa residents call Ninja.
According to the security guard claiming to have developed a rapport with Lewthwaite’s children who liked to play outside their compound, the woman vanished when security agents raided the house.
“Police only found utensils and tissue paper thrown around the house,” the security guard said.
The raid towards the end of last year followed the last clue to the whereabouts of the elusive Lewthwaite. Since then, investigators have found no trace of her despite hunting for her in several Kenyan towns and in neighbouring Uganda, Tanzania, and Somalia.
Meanwhile, stories continue to link her to several terror attacks around the country.
“Revellers said they saw a white women surveying the area shortly before grenades were thrown into the Jericho bar in Mishomoroni, Mombasa. Others say they saw the same white woman running away after the bombing,” Vincent Njau, a cook at a bar, said.
Three people died in the attack.