The White Widow and other arch-villains

Mythologising terrorists obscures an unpalatable truth: that they are just people.

The Interpol website which features a ''Red Notice'' for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite in London, England [Getty]
The Interpol website which features a 'Red Notice' for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite in England [Getty]

The White Widow is alive. And she’s back. Like Jason Bourne’s evil, female twin, this woman seems to have a formidable capacity for comeback. The last we heard of the Muslim convert super-terrorist and wife of one of Britain’s 7/7 suicide bombers, she had been shot dead in Ukraine late last year. Before that, this security-evading terror mastermind, whose actual name, if anyone is interested, is Samantha Lewthwaite, was on Interpol’s most wanted list.

She was suspected of a key organisational role in the deadly explosions at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, which killed 67 people – and for which the Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility.  There was not then, nor has been since, any concrete evidence to support the allegations around Lewthwaite’s involvement.

She was briefly linked to ISIL (as would, presumably, befit any brutal, Islamist-convert-terror-villain these days) last year, and now is in the media headlines again – apparently as an al-Shabab right-hand woman.

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In that capacity, the White Widow is reported to have killed some 400 people and is also engaged in actively recruiting women and teenagers to act as suicide bombers in Somalia and Kenya.

Epitome of evil

So here she is again, this epitome of evil, dredged up to dress up the ongoingly horrific global terror narrative – you know, just in case we were getting bored of it. We quite reasonably recoil in horror when ISIL – and other terror groups: think al-Qaeda and the calculated spectacle of the Twin Towers attacks – revel in Hollywood production values to showcase their blood-chillingly brutal acts.

But what are we to make of the media taking up Hollywood’s tastes for villainous terror archetypes? And the “White Widow” moniker is a pretty irresistible evil-villain name, isn’t it? She is the widow of a suicide bomber, a nice, middle-class, white convert to Islam – lured by it, is always the implication with such converts – and she is maliciously deadly, like the black widow spider.

It’s a perfect fit and, as was pointed out when she first hit the headlines in 2013, it carries a particular scathing sensationalism that’s reserved for women engaged in violent crime. The White Widow, such a convenient white access point to a complicated Africa story, sparked a media frenzy – her quiet Home Counties background as the daughter of a British army soldier was pored over, as, of course, was her becoming a Muslim and marrying one of the men who would in 2005 blow himself up on a London underground train, killing 26 people.

Undoubtedly the idea of the female terrorist seems to inspire a more damning reaction - witness the condemnation piled upon the three British teenager girls who ran off to join ISIL in Syria earlier this year.


There was, at the time, a burst of screaming, scary headlines – including one about how she once allegedly used a fake ID card to secure a job in a halal pie factory in the UK, which seemed to neatly encapsulate all those hysteria-driven fears that the war on terror years have inflicted upon us, about the “Muslim terror threat” perpetually lurking in our midst.

Damning reaction

In 2014, a newspaper review of a BBC documentary about Samantha Lewthwaite (the person as well as the myth-making surrounding her story) observed: “…perhaps our own response to the idea of an English girl turned jihadi warrior has contributed at least as much to the myths surrounding her as any actions on her own part.”

Undoubtedly the idea of the female terrorist seems to inspire a more damning reaction – witness the condemnation piled upon the three British teenager girls who ran off to join ISIL in Syria earlier this year.

Rather than pointing out that these young girls had most likely been groomed and manipulated, sections of the media instead denounced the three as calculated, heartless and self-composed (because pure evil is always self-composed, isn’t it? Remember the icy cruelty of the Cold-War-created Soviet villain stereotype?) 

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly obviously that the block-capitals sensationalism of war-on-terror headlines and nicknames may be doing more harm then good – foreclosing any real attempts at clear analysis; stealing the focus from perhaps more significant (but less media packageable) suspects, and giving terror perpetrators a gruesomely elevated status.

When ISIL’s brutal executioner “Jihadi John” was exposed, revealing his real identity, it was an unmasking that took away the power and mystique that his media nickname had created for him.

That’s the trouble with these Bond villain media names – they create a myth around something that actively seeks to be mythologised. And they obscure the unpalatable truth about terrorists: that they are just people. Pretty ordinary people. And that is scarier, much harder to engage with and at the same time so much more requiring of our attention than any sensationalised media moniker.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.