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White Widow Samantha Lewthwaite: schoolgirl who grew up to become world's 'Most Wanted'

By Ivan Little

The thickset man in the shades and bulletproof Kevlar jacket cut a fearsome-looking figure as he stood, machine-gun cradled in his arms, beside a heavily armoured Mercedes outside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, which had been devastated a few years earlier in the Americans' shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad.

But, as the group of visiting Belfast journalists walked by, his Ulster accent cut through the silence as he wondered if anyone knew whether or not Linfield had won the previous weekend.

He stopped scouring the skies and nearby rooftops momentarily to explain that he was guarding visiting American diplomats – just one of hundreds of former RUC officers and UDR soldiers who had and still are exporting their expertise to warzones around the world as private contractors with international security firms which have massively expanded in numbers in the past few decades.

"We weren't fighting the good fight," says one ex-policeman. "We were just there to make a lot of money protecting high-ranking diplomats, or contractors, wherever and whenever we got the call. Some people saw themselves as the 'good guys' in the wars."

But, on the other side of the 'internationalisation of conflict' – as one Belfast academic calls it – more and more British and American subjects are said to be joining the 'bad guys', going overseas to fight for extremists in what might be dubbed the 'expatriates' game', where the stakes are high and the losers frequently pay the ultimate price for their beliefs, or for their perceptions of what the extreme Islamic causes are.

The most notorious of all the British fighters is, of course, Samantha Lewthwaite, who was born in Banbridge and whose grandmother, Elizabeth Allen (85), still lives in the Co Down town.

The daughter of a British soldier, who met her mother, Christine, while tackling terrorists in Northern Ireland's own war, Lewthwaite grew up in the Whyte Acres estate in Banbridge and attended Ballydown Primary School, before moving to England.

It was claimed, somewhat bizarrely, that, after her parents split up, she turned for comfort to Islam and, after her conversion, changed her name to Sherafiyah and married Germaine Lindsay, who was one of the 7/7 suicide bombers in London eight years ago.

Initially, she said she was horrified by the massacre when four terrorists detonated four bombs, three in quick succession aboard London Underground trains across the city and, later, a fourth on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. As well as the four bombers, 52 civilians were killed and over 700 more were injured in the United Kingdom's first suicide attacks. But observers now believe she may have been shedding crocodile tears.

They suspect Lewthwaite may actually have been pulling her husband's terrorist strings and, four years ago, she vanished, taking her three children with her. It's now thought she travelled to Africa on a false passport under the name of Natalie Faye Webb.

She was dubbed 'The White Widow' after the authorities in Kenya issued a photograph of a woman in a veil whom they wanted to question about the discovery of a bomb factory in Mombassa.

During her years on the run and on the Kenyan most-wanted list, there's been a seemingly never-ending stream of stories linking her to atrocities across Africa.

But the speculation that she was directly involved in the Nairobi attack on the upmarket Westgate shopping mall surprised many analysts, who believed she was a strategist, a financier, a mastermind who would never get her hands dirty in a terrorist offensive.

And it's been argued that Lewthwaite is too useful to the terrorists alive in the background, rather than 'wasting' her life in the sort of attack which could have been carried out by a more expendable volunteer.

The Kenyan authorities themselves appeared confused about whether or not Lewthwaite was in the shopping mall at all, with the interior minister saying the terrorists were all men and then the foreign minister claiming that one of the attackers was a woman who been identified as such by witnesses.

Late on Thursday Interpol issued a Red Alert for Lewthwaite, at the bequest of the Kenyan authorities.

In their own Twitter messages – another illustration of the growing power of the internet – al-Shabab said six of their jhadis in Kenya were Americans and named names, but the US State Department found no matching records, though one explanation could be that they were all aliases.

Another message purporting to be from al-Shabaab also claimed that Lewthwaite had been the commander of the Westgate assault, which appeared to contradict their earlier statements that they didn't use women on their operations.

At the heart of the media fascination with Lewthwaite, of course, is why an ostensibly ordinary British girl. who was raised as a Christian, would align herself with the aims of Islamic terrorists.

It's a question which may never be answered, though the motivation of other British subjects who pick up AK-47s for terrorist groupings isn't shrouded in the same mystery.

In a briefing the British Intelligence service, MI5, said a "significant" number of British nationals and residents are known to be linked, or sympathetic, to Islamist terror groups.

MI5 said they come from a wide variety of ethnically diverse backgrounds with a range of employment and educational achievements and they are "by no means exclusively young".

They also said the fighters had been living right throughout the country, shattering the myth that certain parts of Britain, in particular, are hotbeds for luring young British subjects into the ranks of al-Qaida affiliate groups, like the Somali-based al-Shabaab organisation behind the Kenyan horror.

It's been claimed that many of the Islamist terror groups use the internet as their recruiting sergeant, targeting young men across the world who go online to find out more about global struggles in the name of Islam. Some have branded the practice Sheik Google.

The terrorists are also said to rely on what the FBI have described as 'peer-to-peer' recruiting, with young Muslims persuading their friends to join them in what are at first seen as romantic Islamist battles in far flung corners of the globe.

One security analyst says that people who find it hard to comprehend why Britons and American citizens would want to take part in wars, which essentially are none of their business, should reflect on the willingness of Irish-Americans to fight for – or, more likely, fund – the IRA at the height of the Troubles.

"A lot of it is emotional," he says. "They allow their hearts to rule their heads after seeing propaganda from the terrorists. It appeals to their patriotic and religious ideas and lures them into thinking that jihad and martyrdom are glorious."

Professor Adrian Guelke, from the Schools of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's University in Belfast, who has written a series of books about terrorism, says the number of foreign fighters is very small.

"The figures are so low that it's hard to say that it's a general social phenomenon. There aren't common characteristics," he says.

"The number of people who are radicalised is far larger than the number of people who will actually join these organisations. But it's all part of the internationalisation of conflict.

"In the past, there was greater adherence to the principles of non-intervention in other people's conflicts and groups wouldn't have welcomed the involvement of outsiders, because they didn't know them and they could easily have been overwhelmed by spies very quickly. That only changed fairly recently after al-Qaida as a globalist organisation were willing to attack anywhere in the world and wanted to recruit anywhere in the world.

"That was unusual, because most violent groups usually stay local and only recruit local. They don't normally welcome all-comers, who turn up on their doorsteps because of the obvious dangers of infiltration.

"But the circumstances where you have external intervention in a country creates a situation where violent groups believe they have nothing to lose by going outside to recruit."

Professor Guelke is also suspicious of reports that the internet is used as widely as has been claimed to headhunt new members.

"It would be open season for foreign intelligence agencies to put their own people into those organisations," he says. "My guess would be that 99.9% of people who see the organisations' propaganda and violent images on the internet and who would be radicalised by them may become armchair supporters, but they don't go off and join the groups."

Guelke believes that personal contacts are more likely methods for recruiting new fighters rather, than the internet. "They're not picked totally at random. Most of them have ethnic connections. When you read that the people who join these outfits are American, or British, they have usually become subjects by adoption, by naturalisation, or they are second-generation," he says.

"They usually have some sort of family connection back to the countries involved, or they may have married into a family."

The idea of foreigners engaging in wars a world away from their own isn't entirely new, of course. And mercenaries have long travelled the globe in search of a conflict and a fistful of money.

"But that certainly doesn't apply to most of the modern-day situations," adds Professor Guelke. "People don't join rebel groups on the basis of payment.

"The organisations recruit people ideologically who get drawn in, but, again, the numbers are very small. Just because they share a sense of belief doesn't mean they will get involved.

"It was the same here in Northern Ireland. People who had sympathy with the views of paramilitaries were always huge in number compared to the number of people who actually joined them."

The culture shock of war is said to have been too much for some recruits, especially those who left the likes of Somalia as babies during the civil war and had never set foot in the place until they returned to fight.

Security experts in America say the reality of the battle doesn't always match the fantasies of the foreign participants. One said: "They soon realise they are fish out of water. They have been raised as Americans and they quickly miss all things American, like McDonalds, but by then it's too late. They're stuck fighting battles in the most dreadful conditions."

In Syria, it's thought that more than 100 British Muslims are fighting in the civil war. The Home Office recently told MPs that hundreds of Europeans were in Syria after joining some of the most militant organisations like Jabhat al-Nusra, which are linked to al-Qaida.

The fear for nations like Britain is that foreign combatants who slip through the security net to return home may utilise the skills they have learnt to bring terrorism to their own doorsteps.

The director of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in London, Charles Farr, has spoken of the growing challenges for the Government who he said were trying to keep tabs on the situation by monitoring the patterns of travel of British citizens in and out of war-ravaged countries.

"The threat has dispersed and diversified to the point where it might require more resources, because we're having to spread those resources across a wider geographical area," he says.

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