December 12, 2013
‘White Widow’ coverage lacks grace
Report from UK for the Herald
The recent tragic events in Nairobi, Kenya, where terrorists attacked a shopping centre and engaged in a bloody siege with security forces, has provided a dark counterpoint to the party political conferences that have dominated news in the last few weeks.
The progression of the story as the siege continued, and its uncertain ending, led to much speculation in the British press as it seemed to involve strands from narratives the public has become all too familiar with over the last decade: terrorism; assault on western targets; Al-Qaeda in Africa; instability in Somalia.
However, as the story gestated, it became one that focused on specific areas of particularly British concern: how many Britons were killed gave way to how many Britons were involved in the attack, culminating in coverage of the ‘White Widow’.
Samantha Lewthwaite, as she was known from birth and until after 2005, was by “all accounts” (in other words, everyone the media has been able to get hold of) a bright schoolgirl from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, the daughter of a British soldier. However, at some point, possibly due to the separation of her parents, Lewthwaite drifted towards radical Islam, converting to the religion aged 17 and meeting her future husband Germaine Lindsay at a Stop The War rally in 2002.
The pair married, and on July 7, 2005, when Lewthwaite was eight months pregnant with her second child by Lindsay, the latter blew himself up on a Piccadilly line underground train, killing 26. Lewthwaite was taken into police custody after her house was firebombed, at one point sold her story to The Sun, had another child and then disappeared with her three children in 2009, possibly hiding in Tanzania or Somalia.
Lewthwaite’s story, at a glance, is a patchwork of sadness, a mosaic of personal tragedies that would be beyond the rational tolerance of most. It is hard to imagine what she must have gone through in such a short period of time.
However, in disappearing to Africa, where she is believed to have become involved with radical Islamic group Al-Shaba and to have been personally responsible for the recruitment of terrorists, Lewthwaite no longer exists in the world’s perception as a human being. Her status has transformed her into a symbol.
Ever since reports emerged that a white woman may have been involved in the Westgate shopping centre attack, speculation leapt and soared towards Lewthwaite, who was awarded her nickname as the ‘White Widow’ after her alleged involvement in the bombing of a bar in Ethiopia in July 2012. (The nickname or alter-ego, by the way, is a play on words on the fact that she is white, a widow, and involved in terrorism, much like the ‘black widows’ in Chechnya.)
The rumours that swirl about Lewthwaite, about her connections with Jermaine Grant, currently on trial in Mombasa, Kenya, over allegedly planning to bomb targets, have created a figure who is vilified but equally romanticized by the British media.
Commentators have suggested that the focusing of so much attention on Lewthwaite’s possible role in the Westgate attacks is an example of the British media infantilizing serious issues for an under-engaged public.
As Marina Hyde put it in The Guardian on September 28, the “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.”
Much of this approach is related to our own relationship with terrorism. The British could sympathise with the US over 9/11, even to the point of involvement in misguided military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was the shock of July 7, 2005, (or ‘7/7’, as it is known) that showed the UK that terrorism was not limited to attacks on the other side of the Atlantic.
Furthermore, terrorism was not only possible on British shores, but homegrown participants could be involved. This is a shock that much of the UK has not fully dealt with.
However, while the British may or may not be struggling to come to terms with the realities of terrorism borne of radical Islam, what is certainly clear is that the press is setting the agenda. Why should we care about deaths, tragedy and terrorism, when one of the people who may have been involved could have been British?
Why focus on the grim realities of the world, or seek greater understanding of the motivations that lead people to choose this way of life over more peaceful options, when we can ghoulishly recount the possible acts of an individual in almost hero (or villain)-worshipping terms?
The construction of Lewthwaite as mysterious, shadowy, terrorist mastermind seems at odds with descriptions of her as a mother-of-three (possibly four) on the run in Africa. Yet to this has been added tales of stolen identities, work in South Africa, and midnight disappearances that would not be out of place in a Hollywood thriller. The construction of a dramatic narrative from scraps of unverified information is barrel-scraping at its finest.
This hasn’t prevented the media from trying. The Sun depicted Lewthwaite last week as the World’s Most Wanted, while all newspapers have been guilty of overusing pictures of her: from photos taken when a schoolgirl in Aylesbury, to pictures of her in hijab, to CCTV pictures of her crossing borders in Africa.
The focus would appear to be on the loss of innocence of the student-turned-terrorist, but one can’t help but see that the photos show an innate cultural incongruence: it’s still odd for the British public to see a white girl wearing Islamic clothes.
The coverage is useful for the security forces in all countries, because it can now appear that things are being done to prevent this evil mastermind from perpetrating further acts of wickedness elsewhere. The Kenyan security forces have not shied away from using Lewthwaite’s involvement as a shield for their ineptness, with reports emerging on September 30 that she had rented a commercial unit in the shopping centre for six months prior to the attack and, more gruesomely, disguised her appearance by “smearing her face with blood” to escape the siege.
Better to focus on this, rather than the 67 confirmed dead with more to come, or the inability of counterterrorism in Kenya to have prevented this atrocity from occurring.
Interpol, meanwhile, also reacted: by issuing an international arrest warrant, although not for the events in Nairobi, but for the bar bombing in 2012. The CIA are also apparently interested in the search.
This turning up of the heat in terms of international antiterrorism appears to be a reaction to last week’s coverage of the events in Nairobi which is strange, because it has yet to be even confirmed that Lewthwaite was definitely involved.
Terrorism experts in the UK, however, have suggested that her real use to radical Islamic groups like Al-Shaba is more figurative: Lewthwaite, the girl whose father is a British soldier and who converted to Islam, is a public relations coup. Her actual involvement in events such as last week’s or any other is hard to quantify, but no commentator is letting that get in the way of a good story.
In a world where the majority of people do not have a grip on even the slightest fraction about what is really going on, it is understandable that we should look for the easiest answers to hold onto - but this should not happen at the expense of our rational understanding of events or of our compassion.
What happened in Nairobi is yet another tragic example of the failure of societies to truly understand the threats that they face; looking for the equivalent of quick wins by laying the blame elsewhere or focusing on cardboard cutout villains is not the solution.
In the end, the use of Samantha Lewthwaite as a person or cipher as scapegoat for the murderous acts of terrorists is just as low as the same group’s use of human shields. The British media should really be better than this.