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Filmmaker Searches For 'White Widow' Of London Bombing


On July 7, 2005 - nine years ago tomorrow - a series of explosions in central London killed 52 people and injured over 700 others. One of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay, was married to Samantha Lewthwaite, a white, working-class girl from southern England. They had both converted to Islam. Lewthwaite denounced her husband's actions after the attacks, but then her life took another mysterious turn. She left England in 2008 and moved to South Africa and from there, to Kenya.

According to intelligence reports, she is now involved in terrorist activities. The British press regularly run stories linking the so-called White Widow to extremist attacks in Africa. I spoke to Adam Wishart, whose documentary about Lewthwaite aired on the BBC this past week. It is called "The White Widow: Searching For Samantha." I started by asking him whether Lewthwaite is indeed the Islamic jihadist she is often portrayed to be.

ADAM WISHART: Well, I think the conclusion of my documentary is that she's not the mastermind of terror operations. And probably, she's not a kind of operational terrorist in the sense that - you know, did she plant bombs or hold an AK-47 and spray into a crowd of shoppers in a Nairobi shopping mall?

But that said, she is a fellow traveler with these people. You know, she marries men who - one of whom bombed London. And she certainly was searching for another to be a kind of radical and probably violent jihadi. And she married into a family that's got very close connections with the upper echelons - the key people in al-Qaida in East Africa. So she might not be a bomber, but she sympathizes with their aims and intentions, and she lives and travels amongst them.

WERTHEIMER: Well, all of this is kind of, I suppose, magnified by the - by the fact that she is a very beautiful, young woman. And she - this mythology that's grown up around it makes her fascinating, I think.

WISHART: What's remarkable about Samantha Lewthwaite is you can't go a week without opening the newspapers here without seeing a new report about her involvement in shadowy plots in Yemen, in massacring elephants in order to fund Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida in Somalia. You know, it doesn't matter where the terrorist incident happens, but the newspapers here will report that she somehow had her fingers in it.

WERTHEIMER: But she's still at large. Is this due to incompetence? Is she especially skillful at being elusive, do you think? Or do you think these people just don't actually think she's a threat, and they're not chasing her?

WISHART: So in 2011, there was an indictment - a chargesheet against her for possessing explosives and being part of a conspiracy to kill innocent people in Mombasa, Kenya. You know, I mean, she is on the run from these - this chargesheet, but, you know, she's very well-protected, one imagines. They are probably wealthy Muslim families somewhere on the coast between Kenya and South Africa who are shielding her. And then, in addition, you know, the security services are very strapped for resources, and not many people are investigating her.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think she is a radical Muslim?

WISHART: Yes. If you read her writings, she says things like, Allah blessed me with a husband who would give his all to Allah and live a life of terrorizing the disbelievers as they have us. So I think it's pretty clear that she, you know, believes this ideology. And that's, you know - that's why she married a man who would become a suicide bomber. And that's why she's married into this family that has Al-Qaeda connections to the very highest level.

WERTHEIMER: "Searching for Samantha" aired on the BBC just this past week. Mr. Wishart, thank you very much for joining us.

WISHART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.