Understand first the driving forces...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

I'm looking at a photograph of the front page of a South African passport.

It's one of the new passports that the Department of Home Affairs began issuing in April 2009. These passports contain supposedly unforgeable security features – there's a seven-layer polycarbonate page laser-engraved with personal details and the bearer's photograph.

The face gazing up at me is a white woman, dark hair severely pulled back into a bun. Her name is Natalie Faye Webb, listed as a South African citizen, born 29 October 1985. The passport was issued 31 January 2011 and expires in 2021.

Except the face looking up at me belongs to someone else – Samantha Lewthwaite, of Buckinghamshire, England.

And many have been speculating that she has been a mastermind behind the attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall which has left a trail of corpses over a three-day siege which continues as I write these words.

I've been reading up on Lewthwaite since. Here's a brief picture courtesy of Wikipedia, The Belfast Telegraph, and The London Times among others.

Born to parents Andrew and Elizabeth in Aylesbury in 1983, her father is a former British Army soldier who met her mother while he was stationed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Her parents separated in 1994. Friends said she was "badly affected by the break-up" and "sought solace from Muslim neighbours whom she believed had a stronger family network” .

By age 17 she had converted to Islam and went on to study towards a degree in religion and politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square, London, where she met Jerome Lindsay in an Islamic chatroom.

They married in October 2002.

On 7 July 2005, Lindsay blew himself up on a train killing 26 civilians in his suicide attack. Lewthwaite was pregnant with their second child at the time of his death.

Their first child, a son, was reportedly two years old at the time. At the time, Lewthwaite denied prior knowledge of the attacks.

She publicly denounced her husband for the attacks, and was granted police protection.

Lewthwaite is subsequently believed to have remarried. She gave birth to a third child in August 2009. She moved to the north of England, and then later disappeared with her children.

Cut to February 2012 when a woman using a number of identities including Lewthwaite's was being hunted by Kenyan police, after the discovery of the South African passport with her photograph in a house linked to terrorist activity in the country.

Two months later in April 2012 authorities confirmed that they believed the woman to be Lewthwaite herself.

They believed she had crossed the border from Kenya into Tanzania with her three young children on 26 December 2011.

In August 2013, they named her as a suspect in a grenade attack on a bar in Mombasa during a Euro 2012 soccer match between England and Italy.

Now I could have spent the past 400 or so words telling you about the history of Somalia with paintings dating back to 9000 BC with still undeciphered writings underneath. It was a civilisation that traded with Egypt and Greece around 2000 BC.

I could tell you about its colonisation by Britain and Italy in the early 20th century.

I could tell you about the US attack in 1993 which led to the movie Black Hawk Down.

I could then tell you how evil terrorism is and how it needs to be stamped out.

But "terrorism" as we commonly understand it today is a label couched in terms of ideology, religion, and politics.

It allows us to make stupid blustering statements such as that of the Kenyan Police who two days ago vowed to "finish and punish" the attackers.

It does not help us understand why these things happen in the first place and how to stop them.

I prefer the term "asymmetric warfare". It dates back to an article published in Princeton's World Politics journal in 1975 by Andrew J R Mack, titled "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars".

Essentially we are referring to any conflict where the adversaries are not equally balanced in terms of resources or skills or technology.

To understand how to win this asymmetric war (and let's be clear that I'm on the side of the mall victims, not the attackers), we need to get into the mindset that drives the likes of a Lewthwaite.

This should not be about Al Shabbab. This should not be about the "war on terror".

This should start with the very human story behind each of these very inhuman actions.