Op-Ed: ‘Searching for Samantha’ and the bits terrorism narratives leave out

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On Sunday night, Carte Blanche broadcast the BBC documentary ‘Searching for Samantha’, about the so-called ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite and her connections to terrorism. Included in the documentary is mention of Lewthwaite’s time in Johannesburg and the alleged “red carpet” welcome she received from Joburg’s Muslim community. There are undeniably alarming elements to the story, but the documentary raises perhaps as many questions as it answers, writes REBECCA DAVIS.

Why is the notion of a white female terrorist so fascinating to many? In simple terms, it’s because it doesn’t fit the stereotype: terrorists are supposed to be bearded brown men. For a start, this conveniently ignores the number of terror attacks carried out by white men. Until 9/11, the deadliest act of terrorism committed on US soil was Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing in 1995. Between 1995 and 2011, 56% of domestic terror attacks and plots in the US were perpetrated by right-wing extremists as compared to 12% by Islamic extremists.

Female terrorists are also far from unprecedented. Since the Chechnya independence movement began using suicide bombers in the early 2000s, a Discovery report from January this year notes, more than half have been women. Female terrorists are less likely to be the leaders of movements, however, which is perhaps why they register less on our collective radar. One of the reasons why they are actually extremely useful to terrorist movements, it’s speculated, is because they are better able to get past security checkpoints undetected.

So yes, white people are terrorists and women are terrorists too. Yet the dominant tone of BBC documentary ‘Searching for Samantha’ is incredulity. “Can this English Rose really be some kind of terrorist mastermind?” asks the voiceover. Samantha Lewthwaite is referred to repeatedly as “your typical, innocent English Rose”; a “suburban English schoolgirl”; “your average British girl”.

How can an average British girl go on to become a terrorist? Terrorists don’t come from Aylesbury, in the Home Counties; terrorists don’t grow up in terraced houses with their mums and dads. They are birthed in caves in Afghanistan. The sub-text is not just that terrorism is an unlikely occupation for a white girl – it is also that there is something terribly un-British about terrorists. We are shown a tweet allegedly composed by Lewthwaite while running an “Islamist” Twitter account: “In Islam there’s no choice. It’s not like do I watch Eastenders or Corrie [Coronation Street] tonight.”

It seems almost comically incongruous, partly because Islamic terrorists aren’t generally thought of as being keen soapie-watchers, but also because the two soapies mentioned are British institutions, and terrorism is, again, un-British. (Judging by the recent rise of British far-right party UKIP, maybe Islam itself is un-British too: earlier this year the party’s immigration spokesman called for British Muslims to have to sign a special “code of conduct”.)

In fairness to the producers of the film, it’s hard not to watch ‘Searching for Samantha’ and think that Lewthwaite is an intriguing and contradictory personality in some ways, however. A computer retrieved from a Kenyan house abandoned by Lewthwaite reveals her online browsing history: reviews of cosmetics, fashion advice portals, Beyonce fan sites. All this frivolity does seem at odds with a woman desperate to make her second husband a jihadist.

But presumably one of the reasons why figures like Lewthwaite have been able to move around the world with such ease – even after her first husband blew up 26 people in the London tube bombings; even when Kenyan police tracked Lewthwaite down to a house and then inexplicably let her go – is because we are far too attached to preconceived ideas of what terrorists look like and how they act. If anything, rather than obsessing over the unlikeliness of Lewthwaite turning into a terrorist, her story should perhaps be a smack in the face to a rigid adherence to racial and gender profiling in these matters.

Carte Blanche screened the pretty alarming ‘Searching for Samantha’ documentary on a Sunday night after one of the most violent weeks in Gaza’s history, when world sympathy was mounting for Muslims in a way we rarely see. Inevitably, there were suggestions on social media that the timing of the broadcast was not coincidental. Carte Blanche’s executive producer George Mazarakis denied in the strongest possible terms that there was anything untoward behind the scheduling, when Daily Maverick asked him about it.

“It was actually meant to go out two weeks ago, and we didn’t have a chance for it,” Mazarakis said. “We realized we were sitting on an African premiere. Often things like that are defined by the need to get the story out, because if you don’t, you lose exclusivity.” He added that they regretted that the timing might have offended people, however.

It’s easy to see why the documentary may have discomfited some South African Muslims, because it fingers the “Muslim community” of Johannesburg in particular as offering material assistance and an enthusiastic welcome to Lewthwaite and allied figures.

The film suggests that one of Lewthwaite’s radicalizing influences may have been a Jamaican cleric called Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, of interest to us since he introduces the South African aspect to the White Widow story. El-Faisal was convicted of inciting racial hatred and murder by a British court in 2003, after reportedly preaching that Jews and Hindus should be killed.

On camera, interviewed in Jamaica last year, el-Faisal says: “There are many people who have to be killed in Islam. You have to kill the apostates. You have to kill the homosexuals. You have to kill the man who dabbles in Black Magic. You have to kill the Highway Robber. It’s called a purge.”

Before el-Faisal settled back in Jamaica, he spent some time in South Africa in 2008. A BBC journalist tracked him down to Durban at the time, where he was preaching at schools and mosques. It was on this trip that he met a young Kenyan man living in South Africa who expressed a desire to marry a white British women. El-Faisal immediately thought of Lewthwaite, who he had befriended some years previously, and set the two up via telephone. It was this act that brought Lewthwaite to South Africa in the same year.

In “Searching for Samantha”, el-Faisal wishes filmmaker Adam Wishart good luck on his visit to South Africa to trace Lewthwaite’s path, saying he has fond memories of the warm embrace of his friends there.

“You know when I was in South Africa as well, I was able to drive a Mercedes Benz and I didn’t ask anybody for a penny,” he says.

“That’s because they gave you it, right?” Wishart asks.

“No, I bought the Benz cash,” he says.

“Did South Africans give you money?”

“It’s a huge secret,” El-Faisal replies. “Allah is great, isn’t it? Allah is really great.”

This is not the only example of El-Faisal’s boasting about the largesse of South African Muslim benefactors. El-Faisal was deported from Kenya in 2010 because he was deemed a security threat. In order to get home to Jamaica, however, he had to take a torturous route because of the number of countries which had refused him permission to fly over their air-space or acquire an in-transit visa. When he arrived in Jamaica, he told Jamaican journalists that his flight “had been paid for by a South African company”. A source claimed El-Faisal told investigators that his trip cost $500,000.

It would be interesting to know how El-Faisal was able to move into and around South Africa so smoothly given his persona non grata status with many other countries. It would also be interesting to know who El-Faisal’s South African patrons were, but this is an aspect that the documentary – at least in the form shown on Carte Blanche – apparently does not attempt to address.

It is El-Faisal who tells the filmmaker of the allegedly rapturous reception given to Lewthwaite upon her arrival in Johannesburg in 2008, apparently as a result of her status as the widow of a suicide bomber.

“When she came to Johannesburg, the Muslim community, they received her with open arms. And she was given the red carpet treatment,” El-Faisal claims.

Again, the documentary – in the form shown on Carte Blanche – makes no attempt to interrogate this allegation. On a rental form shown in the documentary, Lewthwaite – at that stage using the South African identity of “Natalie Webb” – listed her place of residence as Mayfair.

One Mayfair resident who takes strong exception to the idea that Lewthwaite was embraced by the supposedly “tight-knit” Muslim community is former Daily Maverick journalist Khadija Patel, now busy writing a book about the suburb.

“It is possible that some people in the community may have embraced her and offered her support but it is certainly not accurate to say the ‘Muslim community’ received her with open arms and gave her royal treatment,” Patel says. “If indeed she received support from some, that is certainly not indicative of her reception from the rest of the community. In fact I think it's quite telling that the vast majority of people here were shocked to learn that this woman was living among us.”

In an article for City Press last October, Patel reported that Somali residents of Mayfair were “annoyed at journalists who have beaten a path there, hunting for clues about Lewthwaite’s stay in Joburg”.

She quotes a receptionist: “Nobody knows this woman here. How will a white woman be here with Somali people and nobody can remember her?”

Patel pointed out to the Daily Maverick on Tuesday that the notion of a homogenous Muslim population in Johannesburg was deeply mistaken. “Suggesting that this mass of people collectively rallied around a woman from the UK simply belies the circumstances of the community,” she said. “[In the documentary], where are the voices of the people from this ‘tight-knit community’?”

Where, indeed.

The really disturbing message to be taken from the White Widow story is not the predilections of Johannesburg’s Muslims but the apparent porousness of South Africa’s borders, and the potential for corruption within Home Affairs. Minister Naledi Pandor said last year, when the news of Lewthwaite’s South African sojourn broke, that the fraudulent circumstances which allowed Lewthwaite to obtain a fake South African passport were now a thing of the past. Here’s hoping she’s right. DM

Photo: Samantha Lewthwaite's SA passport.

Read more:

  • The radicalisation of Samantha Lewthwaite, the Aylesbury schoolgirl who became the 'white widow', on the Guardian.