Forensic experts in Kenya are working to establish whether a British woman – rumoured to be Banbridge-born terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite – was among the Islamist militants who stormed a Kenyan shopping centre leaving more than 60 dead.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta last night said the al Qaeda-linked terrorists who overran the Westgate centre in Nairobi on Saturday have now been “defeated” – with six militants killed and 11 others in custody.
He confirmed also that intelligence reports had been received suggesting that a British woman and “two or three” American nationals had been involved in the attack.
“We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists,” he said in a televised address.
The confirmation that a British woman may have been among the attackers has fuelled speculation that it is Lewthwaite, who was married to the July 7 bomber Jermaine Lindsay.
Born to English soldier Andy Lewthwaite – who met and married Irish Catholic Christine Allen while serving in Northern Ireland during the 1970s – she has been dubbed the “White Widow”.
She is known to be in East Africa and is wanted by Kenyan police over alleged links to a terrorist cell that planned to bomb the country’s coast.
In March last year officials said she had fled to Somalia and that officers were hunting a woman who used several identities, including hers.
The Foreign Office earlier confirmed that it was aware of the claim, originally made by the Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed while attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“We continue to liaise very closely with the Kenyan authorities and to support their investigation into this attack,” a spokesman said.
While Mr Kenyatta did not say whether the suspected British woman was among those in custody, the fact forensic tests are being carried out would suggest she was one of those who had been killed.
Earlier, in a statement to the Associated Press news agency, al Shabaab, had dismissed suggestions that a woman had been involved in the attack.
“We have an adequate number of young men fully committed and ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Allah and for the sake of their religion, so there is no need for us to employ our sisters in the battlefield and thereby expose them to unnecessary risk,” it said.
Speculation as to Lewthwaite’s involvement in the Nairobi attack soared yesterday after Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed said that a British woman who was involved in terrorism “many times before” was among the militants who laid siege to the Kenyan shopping mall.
In an interview with the PBS NewsHour programme, Ms Mohamed said: “From the information that we have, two or three Americans (were involved) and I think, so far, I have heard of one Brit... a woman ... and I think she has done this many times before.”
Her claims directly contradicted the Kenyan interior minister Joseph Ole Lenku who told a news conference that all the attackers were male – although he suggested that some may have been dressed as women.
According to CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, it is unlikely that Lewthwaite was involved.
“Typically these groups are misogynist,” he said. “Their view is the woman should be in a home and shrouded in a body veil.”
Telegraph correspondent Mike Pflanz investigated the “myth” around Lewthwaite last year in Kenya and concluded that many colourful allegations about her were untrue.
“Instead, it is part of the myth of Samantha Lewthwaite that seems to have taken hold, benefiting propagandists on both sides of East Africa’s growing rift between security and terror,” he said.
Announcing three days of national mourning, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta last night said that 61 civilians and six members of the security forces had been killed in the fighting in Nairobi.
He added: “I promise that we shall have full accountability for the mindless destruction, deaths, pain, loss and suffering we have all undergone as a national family.
“These cowards will meet justice, as will their accomplices, wherever they are.”