The ‘white widow’, like the black, looms larger in the imagination than in fact

Psst! I’m working on a crazy theory here. It’s maverick, it’s unconventional, and if it doesn’t pan out it’s likely to get my superior officer to bust my ass all the way back to whatever constitutes the armchair intelligence community’s equivalent of traffic duty. But here goes: a vague feeling in my waters suggests that “white widow” Samantha Lewthwaite was not the field commander of the Nairobi shopping mall attack, in which at least 72 people died and scores more are still missing.

It may be foolishly early to call this one, in which case what follows will only destroy this column’s hard-won reputation as the cognoscenti’s absolute first port of call on all matters of international intelligence. But did you ever hear anything so fishy in all your life?

That Ms Lewthwaite should already have been immortalised as the “white widow” is not wholly surprising. The infantilising position of much of the media is that the British public couldn’t possibly understand or be interested in such a trivial event as a massacre that held the world’s eyes for days, unless it is bowdlerised into something with catchy names. The white widow is a newly hatched relative of that old media staple, the black widow – AKA any woman involved in any sort of violent crime, ever.

Still, the hysterical speculation linking Lewthwaite to the al-Shabaab attack would surely have eventually fizzled out through lack of factual nourishment, had Interpol not obligingly issued an international arrest warrant for her on Thursday, making her what the Sun now dubs WORLD’S MOST WANTED (and if the paper really thinks she’d be a bigger scalp than the architects of various genocides, or even whichever unfortunate is currently occupying the ejector seat that is the al-Qaida No 3 position, then that is a matter for them).

You do have to take your hat off to Interpol, which somewhat undeservedly exists in the popular imagination as an elite, global crime-busting unit. I suspect it’s a lot to do with the name, which combines the sense of a state-of-the-art technical network with the plosive sound of justice. It’s certainly not to do with its more prosaic activities, which last year are alleged to have involved issuing an arrest warrant at the request of the Saudi government for a blogger who tweeted that he wouldn’t pray for Muhammad on the prophet’s birthday. Quite why the organisation has obliged the Kenyan authorities with one of their red notices is unclear. They insist it doesn’t relate to the attack in Nairobi, and concerns a possession of explosives charge dating back to 2011, so maybe all the hoopla just jogged their memory.

As for the “white widow” – perhaps finger air quotes should be deployed as standard – what do we know about her? Well, she’s white (which obviously makes her innately suitable for a management role in the attack) and she is a widow. Specifically, she is the widow of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who murdered 26 people on the Piccadilly line.

One of the many, many encouraging things to emerge via the laser-like focus on Lewthwaite over the past few days has been the phrase “dropped off the intelligence radar”. According to what security sources seem to have been briefing, the Widow Lindsay was questioned after the attacks but, despite police suspicions, she “dropped off the intelligence radar”. Or, as the official, redacted version of this assessment hopefully has it, “dropped off the intelligence radar despite the fact her husband SUICIDE-BOMBED A TRAIN”.

Thus we find ourselves in a depressing – and depressingly familiar – double bind. If Lewthwaite really is our best lead on Nairobi, you can’t help but wonder if we’ve really got anywhere much over the past few years, in any sense of the word “intelligence”. And if she isn’t, would it be possible to overstate how Clouseau-like we must now appear to al-Shabaab, with our front pages seemingly lost in some misty-eyed obsession with the Bucks-bred, “angel-faced” mastermind. Or should that be mistressmind? It’s unclear.

Other things that are unclear? Take your pick, from whether Lewthwaite was even in Kenya at the time of the attack, to why someone “fitting her description” (ie, maybe white) was reported to have been in the Westgate shopping centre “issuing commands” in Arabic to a bunch of Somalis and Kenyans, who have elsewhere been reported as speaking in English and Swahili to victims.

The entire thing has taken on the flavour of the worst Ian Blair-era Metropolitan police briefing, where the relationship between the truth and what was being presented as the truth could be so distant that it was perhaps best enjoyed, if you could call it that, as a piece of performance art.

Still, perhaps we shall gain greater insight into the precise characteristics of the “white widow” when the “global tripwire” laid by Interpol finally apprehends her. Do let’s hope they’re not as bathetically disappointing as the characteristics of her distant namesake.

As tends to be the way of these things, you see, the popular assumptions surrounding the behaviour of black widow spiders are somewhat exaggerated. In so few of the numerous different species of black widow does the female routinely kill the male after mating, that the entire “black widow” section of the public imagination is often described by experts as more myth than fact. – By Marina Hyde © Guardian News and Media 2013

Twitter: @MarinaHyde

Image – AFP

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