Skip to main content

Did 'White Widow' Samantha Lewthwaite spy on Kenya mall?

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 2:06 AM EDT, Fri October 25, 2013
  • British-born terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, or "White Widow," has eluded Kenyan police
  • Landlord of "White Widow" says Lewthwaite "changed her phone number" several times a day
  • Lewthwaite was married to one of the bombers who attacked London in 2005
  • Authorities say Lewthwaite became part of a terror cell linked to the Somali group Al-Shabaab

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Only last week Kenya police sources say officers investigating the Westgate mall massacre were called to a meeting to explain why Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called "White Widow," continues to elude them.

The pressure is on, and they almost caught her two years ago in a series of raids in the coastal city of Mombasa. She slipped through their fingers but left tantalizing clues to her life on the run on her lap top.

It's been cat and mouse since. Lewthwaite first hit notoriety in the UK eight years ago when her husband and the father of two of her children blew himself up on a crowded London commuter Tube train, killing 26 people early on July 7, 2005. She claimed to be appalled by his suicide bombing but has since disappeared, her name resurfacing connected to the Somali al Qaeda-allied terror group Al-Shabaab.

In June this year a Kenyan Cabinet briefing paper delivered to officials named Lewthwaite as a suspect in a 2011 Kenyan terror plot sanctioned by al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan targeting government buildings, U.N. offices and top politicians.

Video shows terror attack in Nairobi
Soldiers looting at Kenya Westgate Mall?
How to fight terror recruiting

But she seems to keep one step ahead of the law.

When security services arrived at the upmarket Oakpark apartments in the capital Nairobi two years ago she was gone. She had fled the $1,000-a-month property in tears just a week earlier according to the building manager, who does not want to be identified by name. He remembers Lewthwaite well. She was fleeing, no notice given, breaking the terms of her tenancy. As he was squaring it with the landlord as she was trying to drive away, she let rip at him, he says. "She opened the window and she says, 'This man I can kill you and people will forget you from today.'"

When I asked David Kimaiyo, Kenya's Inspector General of Police, about Lewthwaite's seven-month stay in the affluent middle class neighborhood, he told me: "He was not aware" she had been there, adding "it's all rumors." Oakpark's manager would disagree. Lewthwaite and the man he believed to be her husband had him doing all sorts of odd jobs, from fixing water pipes to fetching groceries, he says. They were the sorts of odd jobs he used to do for all his tenants, but the woman he now knows as the "White Widow" was anything but ordinary.

The building manager told me she would change her phone number several times a day. "She can give me a number in the morning at 8. At 9 if I call her she has changed to another line ... at 10 or 11 another line, at 4 [p.m.] another line." She did other things that were odd too.

Her apartment overlooked Junction mall, one of the city's more upmarket destinations for shopping. Nakumatt department store there sells everything from freezers to frozen peas, and is popular with expats and rich Kenyans. He says she would spend a lot of time there just watching people.

But it's what her "husband," whom he knew as Mick, did that now he says he finds chilling. He asked him to watch the mall and figure out if many Muslims used it. "He is asking me: Can you monitor the people who are coming in this Nakumatt? Are they Muslims? Can you tell me which people are coming there in number?" Junction mall is much like the Westgate mall that was attacked by terrorist gunmen last month, leaving 67 people dead. The gunmen spared those who could show they were Muslim. And these days no corner of Kenya is spared the speculation that Lewthwaite may have played a role in that attack.

It never occurred to the building manager that Lewthwaite might be anything other than the employee of a French "intercom" company that she claimed to be. She had explained to the building manager that even though she was a Muslim, her mother was Christian and that's why she had given Christian names to her children.

Of course now he knows it's all lies, her eldest son whom he knew as Adam was tough, he says, and ready to protect his mother. "This boy is bad. 'I will kill you,' he said. 'I will kill you,' He was tough-talking, like a big person".

What names Lewthwaite and her family go by today is anyone's guess. At Oakpark she had signed the tenancy agreement using a fake South African passport in the name of Natalie Faye Webb, a British nurse from Essex. Police seized that passport in the raid in Mombasa that netted her computer a few months later.

On the heels of the Westgate mall attack Kenyan authorities asked Interpol to help track her down, and they promptly issued a red notice demanding she be detained at any border she tries to cross.

If she is still in Kenya, and that certainly seems to be the working assumption of the police here, finding a place she can hide now will not be easy. A white woman with four children in tow, whose ages are all well documented, would seem easy to spot.

But when I asked the harassed-sounding police inspector-general how the search for Lewthwaite was going, he hung the phone up on me. The answer, I inferred, is not well.

Part of complete coverage on
Kenya mall attack
updated 9:55 AM EDT, Thu October 17, 2013
As they strolled through the mall, guns strapped to their torsos, the attackers chatted on cell phones while they sprayed bullets at shoppers.
updated 7:32 AM EDT, Tue October 22, 2013
A leaked video footage from inside has sparked anger amid claims that it shows soldiers looting from stores as they hunted for the gunmen.
updated 3:08 PM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Elaine Dang pretended to be dead, and maybe because she did, she is alive to tell her story. She moved away from the crowd because she thought it would be most vulnerable.
updated 6:29 AM EDT, Mon October 7, 2013
U.S. Navy SEALs entered the southern Somalia stronghold of Al-Shabaab, the group behind the Kenyan mall attack, in a mission targeting one of its leaders.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
Investigators have determined the attackers or their associates rented and operated a small store in the mall a year before the Kenya mall attack.
updated 4:45 PM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
Propped up by strangers, a woman wails outside Nairobi's main city morgue, unable to control her grief.
updated 1:01 PM EDT, Sun September 29, 2013
Loved ones mourn the lives lost in the Westgate mall attack. Dozens of civilians and 6 security officers died in the four-day attack.
updated 4:58 PM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
The attack at Westgate mall lasted for four deadly days, with store-to-store siege.
updated 8:38 PM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
There is evidence that replicating the 2008 Mumbai, India, attacks has become a major priority for al-Shabaab and al Qaeda.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Sat September 28, 2013
Twenty men are engaged in fiery debate on a sidewalk near Nairobi's Westgate mall, where terrorists stormed the shopping center and killed at least 67 people.
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
It was the first major terrorist attack in history in which the group that mounted the operation used Twitter to announce to the world it was responsible.
updated 10:42 PM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
Photos from the attack as it happened.
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
A safe distance from Nairobi's Westgate Mall, several Kenyans stare through a stand of trees at the site of one of the nation's worst terrorist attacks.
updated 10:59 AM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
British-born Samantha Lewthwaite was once seen as a kind of victim of the July 2005 London terror attacks -- the pregnant wife of one of the suicide bombers.
updated 10:22 PM EDT, Wed September 25, 2013
Some answers may be revealed in blood-stained halls or deep in the rubble of Nairobi's Westgate Mall. Others may never be known.
updated 9:25 PM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
The Westgate mall's parking deck collapsed leaving a crater full of destroyed and burned cars in Narobi, Kenya.
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
Of all al Qaeda's affiliated groups, the Somali terrorist organization Al-Shabaab has over the years had the deepest links to the U.S.
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Mon September 23, 2013
Kenyan soldiers take cover after heavy gunfire near Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 23, 2013.
It's hard to imagine a softer target than an enclosed, easy-to-enter space with large numbers of civilians milling about.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked militant group based in Somalia, is believed to be responsible for the deaths of aid workers and peacekeepers
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Tue September 24, 2013
What the mall looked like before the attack.