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Originally published in LA Times
She is popularly known as “the White Widow,” but the truth about the blue-eyed jihadist suspected of orchestrating the deaths of hundreds of people across Africa is as shadowy as the cloaked world of international terrorism she inhabits.
No one is quite certain of the whereabouts of Samantha Lewthwaite, a purported ringleader with the Somali militant group Shabab who is suspected in a string of grenade attacks, bombings and mass shootings in Kenya. Conventional wisdom has it that she put on 30 pounds and had plastic surgery to disguise her appearance. One theory is that she’s now in Syria with Islamic State insurgents, training suicide bombers. Another holds that she died in Ukraine, shot by a Russian sniper. Some say she is alive somewhere in Somalia, married to a warlord.
In some ways, terrorist groups may be looking to use women to their advantage because of the effect on Western “audiences,” said Emily Dyer, analyst with the London-based think tank the Henry Jackson Society. “There’s an added shock factor,” she said. “Terrorist attacks in the West are all about Islamic State propaganda and gaining as much media attention as possible.”