White Widows, Black Widows and Jihad Janes: What Does A Terrorist Look Like?

The recent arrest warrant issued by Interpol for Samantha Lewthwaite has fuelled media fuel speculation that she was involved in the attack that killed more than 60 people in Nairobi’s Westgate mall. Since speculation always makes a good story, there has been an overwhelming amount of coverage on the woman dubbed “The White Widow.” The stories seem eerily familiar. Perhaps because, like Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane), Lewthwaite has her own alliterative alias. Or because like Katherine Russell (widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev), Lewthwaite was once married to a man who became known as a terrorist. In fact, comparing the coverage of Lewthwaite in 2005 to the coverage of Russell, the parallels are striking.

As a CNN article on Lewthwaite puts it:

“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 who killed 52 people, now left alone to care for her children.”

Like Katherine Russell after the Boston bombing last April, Lewthwaite was perceived as a naïve kind-of-victim-widow of 7/7 suicide-bomber Germaine Lindsay following the attacks; however, this seems have changed, at least in the media landscape, in the wake of the confusing, fast-proliferating allegations that she was involved in the assault on the mall in Nairobi. According to Interpol, the warrant was issued in connection with terrorist offences in 2011. However, this seems to have been buried by suggestions that Lewthwaite was one of the leaders of the attack, coming from other sources such as Amina Mohamed, the Kenyan cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, who told the NewsHour program that:

“From the information that we have, two or three Americans [were involved] and I think, so far, I have heard of one Brit … a woman … and I think she has done this many times before.”  

Samantha Lewthwaite pictured on the cover of a newspaper in 2005. [Source].

According to others, she has done it so many times (and gotten away) that she has now become a “mythical figure,” according to Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

What makes this surge of media attention confusing is that beneath the vast amounts of biography and psychoanalysis it is difficult to find much beyond vague statements or tidbits of detail, such as Lewthwaite allegedly using a South African passport under the name Natalie Faye Webb. In media stories at least, this has now been identified as a pattern among terrorists seeking not to be identified as terrorists. Apparently “the perception of South Africa as a neutral country” means that South African passports are “not easily flagged compared with a country like Pakistan.” Who knew?

Reading some of these stories that attempt to come to terms with how intelligence agencies should deal with the threat of non-terrorist-seeming terrorists, I was reminded of a debate a few years ago in which the case of LaRose was discussed as a potential wrench in the works of smooth-flowing racial profiling.  Here’s what one of the debaters against the motion identified as the “problem” with pulling people aside based on melanin levels:

Here’s the problem, Colleen LaRose, 46-year-old, blonde hair, blue eyes, Philadelphia, radical extremist, sought to recruit others to blow up a cartoonist in Denmark. On the internet she said, “I can evade detection because I do not look like everybody’s conception of what an extremist is.” And then there was Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, her co-conspirator, another blonde woman, this one with a six-year-old child, who was pregnant…”

The side arguing for profiling was pretty sure that not only that most terrorists were Muslim but a particular demographic of Muslim: “Muslim men who are 18 to 35.” Since profiling for religion is difficult, age and gender were the solid parts of their case. CNN security analyst Peter Bergen appears to agree at least in part, pointing out that women’s involvement in such groups is “very unusual” since “their view is the woman should be in a home and shrouded in a body veil.”

Perhaps one reason for the question posed by this article, “why do female terrorists perplex us?,” is that when it comes to Muslim terrorism at least, women are meant to be the victims, not the perpetrators. The article that asks the question concludes honestly but somewhat redundantly that: “Why women choose to become terrorists depends on the individual, the organisation, and the political goal or aim of the group.”  However, one of the causes identified was this: “In the case of some females – such as the Black Widows – it is to avenge the loss of a loved one such as a husband, brother, son or cousin.”

As Eren pointed out in a recent post, this reasoning is familiar, as “female violence is often attributed to the loss of male family members, emotional distress (which often goes unreported for their male counterparts) or brainwashing by male Islamists, especially when it comes to Muslim  female converts or young Muslim brides.”

As was the case following the arrest of LaRose, described as being “a cause celebre of so-called “home-grown” terrorism,” allegations about Lethwaite’s involvement in the attack have prompted a deluge of articles probing the possible causes of her apparent radicalization, with one article in The Telegraph, for example, tracing it back to an unrequited schoolgirl crush on a Muslim boy:

“The boy, who was several years older, was apparently uninterested and so nothing came of it, but the brief summer holiday infatuation in Buckinghamshire perhaps foreshadowed her conversion to Islam, marriage to a suicide bomber and eventual emergence as one of the world’s most wanted terrorism suspects.”

I couldn’t help comparing this to the coverage of the radicalization of male converts, such as John Walker Lindh, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, José Padilla or Craig Baxam. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine their conversion and terrorism being “foreshadowed” by a schoolboy crush.

Why do figures like LaRose and Lewthwaite inspire such reams of commentary? Perhaps because LaRose herself says, “I can evade detection because I do not look like everybody’s conception of what an extremist is.”As the side against racial profiling in the debate put it:

The enemy is acutely aware of what we imagine a terrorist looks like. And unfortunately, they’re having no difficulty recruiting people in prisons or in Western Europe or in the United States, including blond-haired blue-eyed women, to carry out terrorist acts.”

Coming from an efficiency standpoint, this suggests that the reason to avoid racial profiling is that it will allow “the enemy” to slip beneath the radar, rather than because of any notion of civil rights issues. The consequences of this both support and subvert that familiar formula which balances the case for not profiling against “the information that we have—the knowledge that, while not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslim.” This “information” provides the reassurance that we know what a Muslim looks like, and thus, what most terrorists look like.


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