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British 'White Widow' terror suspect fooled Kenyan police in 2011

Law EnforcementSouth AfricaBombingsAfricaUnrest, Conflicts and WarReligion and BeliefInterior Policy

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Kenyan police investigating an alleged terror cell in the city of Mombasa in 2011 walked into a house associated with one of its suspects and confronted a British woman with small children.

She told them she was a tourist and showed them a South African passport with the name "Natalie Faye Webb." They let her go.

Twenty-one months later, at Kenya's request, Interpol on Thursday issued a red alert for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite, 29, dubbed the "White Widow" by Britain's tabloids. Police believe she has links with Shabab, the Somalia militant group that carried out the Nairobi shopping mall attack over the weekend, as well as to Al Qaeda.

The red alert, which obliges Interpol's 190 member countries to arrest Lewthwaite if she is found, does not relate to the shopping mall attack. It stems from charges of possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony in 2011.

Lewthwaite, daughter of a British soldier, is the widow of Germaine Lindsay, one of four suicide bombers who attacked three London subway cars and a bus in July 2005, killing themselves and 52 others.

The Interpol alert comes after Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said that a white British woman with a record of involvement in terrorism was believed to be among the weekend attackers. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said intelligence suggested the involvement of a British woman, but added there was no confirmation.

Some victims have claimed they saw and heard a woman among the attackers, according to Kenyan media.

South African authorities said Thursday that a South African passport used by Lewthwaite was canceled two years ago. Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor said the document was obtained fraudulently based on a stolen identity.

According to Kenyan police, officers stumbled across Lewthwaite when investigating the alleged terror cell in coastal Mombasa, where witnesses say radical Muslim preachers recruit jobless young Kenyans to fight with Shabab in Somalia.

In December 2011, police had arrested Jermaine Grant, a Briton who had been found with explosives at his house. He is facing trial for possession of explosives and intent to build an explosive device. After his arrest, Grant led police to a house owned by a top Al Qaeda agent in East Africa, Musa Hussein Abdi, where they found Lewthwaite.

Abdi had been killed in June 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia, alongside Al Qaeda's regional leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, who played a key role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Like Lewthwaite, Mohamed traveled on a South African passport. Lewthwaite was reportedly friendly with Abdi's widow, Nassim.

After failing to arrest Lewthwaite, police were later ordered to return to Abdi's house, only to find that she had fled, according to Kenyan media reports citing police.

British media reports say Lewthwaite converted to Islam at 17, after she was upset by her parents' 1994 divorce, and later married Lindsay, whom she met in an Internet chat room.

Following her husband's suicide attack in London, Lewthwaite was cited in the British media saying she abhorred the killing of civilians.

But a diary that Kenyan police found at Abdi's house, which police believe belonged to Lewthwaite, said that the wives of Muslim suicide bombers must be devoted, obedient and unquestioning because their lives would be "sweeter in the hereafter" because of the "sacrifices" of their husbands, according to 2012 reports in British media.

Lewthwaite, a mother of three, is believed to have escaped into Tanzania with British terror suspect Habib Saleh Ghani, according to authorities. Kenyan police said last year that they believed she was in Somalia. They described Ghani as highly dangerous.

South Africa's Eyewitness News, which interviewed Lewthwaite's former South African employer, reported Thursday she worked as an IT specialist at a halaal pie factory.

The employer, who declined to be identified, said she lived a quiet life with her children. Lewthwaite accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card debt and loans in South Africa, Eyewitness News reported. She also rented several properties and had three cellphones.

Lewthwaite was active in South Africa as recently as May 2012, the report said, citing consumer records. The records imply she entered South Africa after fleeing Kenya into Tanzania, an embarrassment for South African authorities.

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Twitter: @latimesdixon

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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