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South Africa was placed on a high security alert last Sunday after “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite – believed to be the mastermind behind the terrorist attack in Kenya – was allegedly seen doing surveillance of embassies in Pretoria three weeks ago.
This comes as it emerged that scores of Somali youngsters targeted by al-Shabaab in Mogadishu had fled the country and found refuge in South Africa for the past three years.
Intelligence sources this week told The Sunday Independent that, as a result of the sighting, South Africa’s preparedness rating escalated to level 4 last Sunday, a security alert colour-coded orange.
Only a red alert – which defines the security risk as “severe” – is more intensive, and could lead to the evacuation of foreign diplomatic personnel.
According to security analyst and forensic investigator Chad Thomas, the sighting was brought to the attention of South Africa’s police intelligence by a security organisation linked to the Jewish community in South Africa.
However, efforts to contact the organisation’s representatives – on the Jewish Sabbath – for confirmation, proved unsuccessful.
Responding to questions State Security Agency spokesman Brian Dube remained non-committal, pointing out that “countries around the world continually assess and monitor security environments and grade them in line with their national interests”.
As conveyed to the police’s crime intelligence, the information was characterised as “uncorroborated, but from a reliable source”.
While Nairobi battled the aftermath of the Westgate mall shooting, in which 67 people were killed, Lewthwaite dominated headlines this week, after reports that the 29-year-old mother of two had lived in South Africa and Kenya for the past four years, travelling between the countries with at least one fraudulently obtained passport in the name of Natalie Faye Webb.
Lewthwaite has figured for two years on intelligence watch lists after the discovery of this fraudulent identity.
After the claimed Lewthwaite sighting some three weeks ago, South Africa had been at a level 3 alert, compounding fears around the suspected presence of al-Shabaab and other al-Qaeda offshoots in the country.
And earlier this week, Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko confirmed that the top policing unit had been tracking the movements of al-Shabaab for the past year.
Amir Sheikh, chairman of the Somali Community Board in Southern Africa, said that between 2006 and 2010 large numbers of young people fled the country after being targeted by al-Shabaab.
The board estimates there are 50 000 Somalis in South Africa, of which 80 percent were young people aged between 18 and 35, targeted by the group.
The board was aware of the Hawks’ investigations into al-Shabaab.
The probe, said Sheikh, had been initiated after a phone conversation in Somali between a Somali national in Khayelitsha in Cape Town and an al-Shabaab member was intercepted by policing agencies.
Sheikh said communication between the policing agencies and the community was on a good footing, and that they had been willing to assist the investigators.
This week, coinciding with the escalation of the terror security alert, an Interpol red notice was issued at the request of Kenya for Lewthwaite’s arrest as an internationally wanted person.
The red notice binds all of Interpol’s 190 members to arrest its subject, and is considered the most potent weapon at the disposal of the international policing umbrella body.
“By requesting an Interpol red notice, Kenya has activated a global ‘tripwire’ for this fugitive,” Interpol secretary-general Ronald Noble said.
“Through the Interpol red notice, Kenyan authorities have ensured that all 190 member countries are aware of the danger posed by this woman.”
Prior to the issuing of the red notice, Lewthwaite had been wanted in South Africa for identity fraud, and in Kenya for being in possession of illegal explosives, as well as for conspiracy to commit a crime.
Like the South African charges, those from Kenya date back to 2011 – four years after Lewthwaite first came to the attention of law enforcement agencies as the wife of British suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up with 26 commuters in the horror London bombings of July 7, 2007.
At the time, British investigators accepted her story that she had been innocent of all knowledge of the bomb conspiracy. - The Sunday Independent