Life of mall terror 'mastermind' in SA uncovered

Graeme Hosken and Nashira Davids

FORMER US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned four years ago that suicide bombers were being recruited for terrorist group al-Shabab in South Africa.

By then, Briton Samantha Lewthwaite had been living in South Africa for a year already.

Lewthwaite, known as the "white widow" and the suspected commander of the bloody four- day siege of the upmarket Westgate Mall in Nairobi which left 72 people dead, also worked in South Africa.

At the request of Kenyan authorities, Interpol – which has called her a danger to the world – issued a warrant for her arrest yesterday.

Consumer records show Lewthwaite was active in South Africa as recently as May last year, according to Eye Witness News (EWN).

Lewthwaite worked as an IT specialist at a halaal pie factory in Lenasia. The company's owner, who did not want to be identified, said the Briton was a quiet woman who kept to herself, EWN reported.

Lewthwaite reportedly lived in a flat in Mayfair with her three children.

Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor did not say yesterday which name was used when Lewthwaite entered South Africa but confirmed she had obtained a passport under false pretences in the name of Natalie Faye Webb.

Lewthwaite allegedly claimed that her parents were South Africans who had moved to the UK.

She applied for her passport and that of her children using the late registration of birth documents.

"Our records show this woman applied for her passport and the passports of her children in Durban after she entered the country in July 2008," Pandor said. She travelled in and out of South Africa multiple times using the documents, before leaving for good in 2011.

Lewthwaite's former employer said she was shocked to learn her true identity. A string of bad debt accrued by her has since brought debt collectors knocking at the employer's door.

"Webb's" consumer records using the ID number on her passport showed that she owed as much as R60000 for unpaid credit cards, loans and clothing accounts, EWN said.

Lewthwaite was listed under two residential addresses, one in Mayfair and another in Randburg.

She had three different cellphone numbers in just one year.

Lewthwaite is the widow of Germaine Lindsay, one of the 2005 London suicide bombers.

Pandor, who called for further investigations into Lewthwaite's Webb passport, said when the passport was flagged as belonging to a terrorist suspect in 2011, the department had launched an investigation in conjunction with UK and Kenyan authorities.

Lewthwaite's father was appalled by the idea that his daughter might have masterminded the Kenyan mall massacre, neighbours told Britain's Daily Mail. "Andy is aware how appalling indiscriminate shootings are. For him to imagine his own daughter is involved in this is very painful," one neighbour said.

Lewthwaite's frail 85-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Allen2, has been admitted to hospital because of the stress of her granddaughter's notoriety.

Police and intelligence officers are involved in multiple investigations into the activities in South Africa of both Lewthwaite and al-Shabab, including recruitment and fundraising.

A police source said the second identity number Lewthwaite was using appeared to be assigned to a man. "At this stage, it appears that, although the passports and other identity documents seem genuine, at least one of the identity numbers is false."

She has been on the Central Intelligence Agency's radar since the beginning of last year, when the US intelligence agency started helping Kenyan authorities track her down for allegedly supplying arms to terrorists in the region.

Lewthwaite is also wanted in connection with alleged plots to attack hotels and restaurants in Kenya.

Clinton, meanwhile, met International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in August 2009. "The minister and I are well aware that al-Shabab is recruiting young Somalis from South Africa, Australia and the United States to become suicide bombers, to participate in their efforts to turn Somalia into a safe haven for terrorism, which the United States believes would not just threaten the Horn of Africa, but all of Africa and beyond," Clinton said at the time.

State Security Agency (SSA) spokesman Brian Dube said Clinton's comments were part of "an ongoing concern by world leaders who are committed to finding lasting solutions to such security matters".

The SSA is collaborating with global partners by sharing information about terrorism threats.

Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute of Security Studies, said South Africa authorities did not recognise the seriousness of "Islamic extremism as a credible threat" and were not ploughing enough resources into probing the issue.

Home Affairs immigration deputy director-general Jackson McKay said Lewthwaite's Webb passport had been returned to South African authorities by their Kenyan counterparts in the middle of 2011.

"She only used it to travel to Kenya. She entered that country on this passport, but it was recovered and given back to us. Her children's South African-issued passports were also flagged." – Additional reporting The Daily Telegraph, Sapa, Reuters, AFP