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Did 'White Widow' Samantha Lewthwaite spy on Kenya mall?

By Nic Robertson, CNN
October 25, 2013 -- Updated 0606 GMT (1406 HKT)
  • British-born terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, or "White Widow," has eluded Kenyan police
  • Landlord of "White Widow" says Lewthwaite "changed her phone number" several times a day
  • Lewthwaite was married to one of the bombers who attacked London in 2005
  • Authorities say Lewthwaite became part of a terror cell linked to the Somali group Al-Shabaab

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Only last week Kenya police sources say officers investigating the Westgate mall massacre were called to a meeting to explain why Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called "White Widow," continues to elude them.

The pressure is on, and they almost caught her two years ago in a series of raids in the coastal city of Mombasa. She slipped through their fingers but left tantalizing clues to her life on the run on her lap top.

It's been cat and mouse since. Lewthwaite first hit notoriety in the UK eight years ago when her husband and the father of two of her children blew himself up on a crowded London commuter Tube train, killing 26 people early on July 7, 2005. She claimed to be appalled by his suicide bombing but has since disappeared, her name resurfacing connected to the Somali al Qaeda-allied terror group Al-Shabaab.

In June this year a Kenyan Cabinet briefing paper delivered to officials named Lewthwaite as a suspect in a 2011 Kenyan terror plot sanctioned by al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan targeting government buildings, U.N. offices and top politicians.

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But she seems to keep one step ahead of the law.

When security services arrived at the upmarket Oakpark apartments in the capital Nairobi two years ago she was gone. She had fled the $1,000-a-month property in tears just a week earlier according to the building manager, who does not want to be identified by name. He remembers Lewthwaite well. She was fleeing, no notice given, breaking the terms of her tenancy. As he was squaring it with the landlord as she was trying to drive away, she let rip at him, he says. "She opened the window and she says, 'This man I can kill you and people will forget you from today.'"

When I asked David Kimaiyo, Kenya's Inspector General of Police, about Lewthwaite's seven-month stay in the affluent middle class neighborhood, he told me: "He was not aware" she had been there, adding "it's all rumors." Oakpark's manager would disagree. Lewthwaite and the man he believed to be her husband had him doing all sorts of odd jobs, from fixing water pipes to fetching groceries, he says. They were the sorts of odd jobs he used to do for all his tenants, but the woman he now knows as the "White Widow" was anything but ordinary.

The building manager told me she would change her phone number several times a day. "She can give me a number in the morning at 8. At 9 if I call her she has changed to another line ... at 10 or 11 another line, at 4 [p.m.] another line." She did other things that were odd too.

Her apartment overlooked Junction mall, one of the city's more upmarket destinations for shopping. Nakumatt department store there sells everything from freezers to frozen peas, and is popular with expats and rich Kenyans. He says she would spend a lot of time there just watching people.

But it's what her "husband," whom he knew as Mick, did that now he says he finds chilling. He asked him to watch the mall and figure out if many Muslims used it. "He is asking me: Can you monitor the people who are coming in this Nakumatt? Are they Muslims? Can you tell me which people are coming there in number?" Junction mall is much like the Westgate mall that was attacked by terrorist gunmen last month, leaving 67 people dead. The gunmen spared those who could show they were Muslim. And these days no corner of Kenya is spared the speculation that Lewthwaite may have played a role in that attack.

It never occurred to the building manager that Lewthwaite might be anything other than the employee of a French "intercom" company that she claimed to be. She had explained to the building manager that even though she was a Muslim, her mother was Christian and that's why she had given Christian names to her children.

Of course now he knows it's all lies, her eldest son whom he knew as Adam was tough, he says, and ready to protect his mother. "This boy is bad. 'I will kill you,' he said. 'I will kill you,' He was tough-talking, like a big person".

What names Lewthwaite and her family go by today is anyone's guess. At Oakpark she had signed the tenancy agreement using a fake South African passport in the name of Natalie Faye Webb, a British nurse from Essex. Police seized that passport in the raid in Mombasa that netted her computer a few months later.

On the heels of the Westgate mall attack Kenyan authorities asked Interpol to help track her down, and they promptly issued a red notice demanding she be detained at any border she tries to cross.

If she is still in Kenya, and that certainly seems to be the working assumption of the police here, finding a place she can hide now will not be easy. A white woman with four children in tow, whose ages are all well documented, would seem easy to spot.

But when I asked the harassed-sounding police inspector-general how the search for Lewthwaite was going, he hung the phone up on me. The answer, I inferred, is not well.

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