Over the past couple of weeks almost 2,000 inmates, including “hundreds of terrorists,” have escaped from prisons in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan. The series of ultra-violent, highly organized attacks has the US scared, al Qaeda celebrating in Iraq, and a whole load of embassy staff with a week off.
The party started with a bang. On the evening of July 21, suicide car bombs near Baghdad Central Prison (formerly known as Abu Ghraib) detonated, blasting open the gates. Military-grade mortar and rocket attacks followed and suicide-vested militiamen streamed into the prison. The assault was highly coordinated—while the apparent jihadists started freeing their brothers from Iraq’s nastiest correctional facility, others set up positions on the road outside, shooting police and security forces as they arrived on the scene.
At least 500 prisoners escaped, most of them “convicted senior members of al Qaeda” who’d been looking at death sentences, according to the Iraqi government. At least 25 cops and prison guards were killed, along with ten prisoners and six militants. At almost exactly the same time north of Baghdad, a botched escape using similar tactics killed 16 prison guards.
Fast-forward six days to al-Kwafiya prison near Benghazi, Libya. On the afternoon of July 27, while protests raged nearby, some 1,200 prisoners, most of them held on “serious” charges, and some of them supporters of Gaddafi, the country’s former dictator, escaped. Details are vague, but it seems a riot in the prison, combined with an assault from outside, allowed the prison gates to be smashed open. There’s no confirmed link between al Qaeda and the breakout, but that hasn’t stopped Interpol from hinting at one. Only a handful of prisoners have been recaptured.
Two days later in Dera Ismail Khan, central Pakistan, Taliban fighters launched another violent prison raid, attacking the city’s main jail with assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Like the Baghdad attack, the Dera breakout was sudden, ruthless, and professionally executed.
Video taken by the Taliban as they broke into Bannu city jail in 2012.
The walls of the prison fell quickly, and fighters ran inside. One used a megaphone to call for specific prisoners by name, and after a gunfight that led into the early hours of the following day, 248 prisoners had been freed. None were high-level Taliban leaders, but at least 30 were “hardened” Taliban foot soldiers. The breakout was near identical to another last year, in which 400 prisoners were freed in the nearby city of Bannu.
To get the view of someone with experience on the ground, I got in touch with James “Sky” Skylar Gerrond, a former US Air Force officer who worked in Camp Bucca, a jail in southern Iraq, from 2006 to 2007. He’d described a violent breakout as his “worst nightmare” so I asked him why. “I'm afraid that it will have a horrific effect on the levels of violence in Iraq,” he said. “July was, officially, the deadliest month in the country since 2008. I'm afraid that we are at the base of an upward trend in Iraq and that as soon as the leadership base that was in Abu Ghraib gets reestablished, there will be a new wave of sectarian violence and score settling.”
Gerrond dealt with “several” breakout attempts during his time at Bucca, meaning there was “definitely a constant threat of a violent escape.” While “some of them were so simplistic that they were almost laughable," he said, "several were amazingly well thought out and meticulously coordinated.” Luckily for him, “brute force” attempts were rare, and tunnels were the preferred option.
So it’s been an excellent couple of weeks for Islamist militants. About 30 of those who escaped from Abu Ghraib were commanders with the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” a particularly nasty Sunni group responsible for a spate of recent attacks across the country, and that has ambitions across the border in Syria. The Taliban who escaped in Pakistan look likely to regroup—after the Bannu mass breakout last year, attacks on government buildings, minorities, and police increased significantly.
It wouldn’t be the first time a jailbreak has bumped terrorist activity. In 2006, 23 suspected al Qaeda members tunnelled out of a prison in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Among them were founding members of the terrorist group “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” which has since become one of the most dangerous al Qaeda franchises—its projects include the 2009 “underwear bombing” attempt, and the fundamentalist zine Inspire. The recent escapes are much, much bigger than Yemen's in 2006.
The threat is being taken seriously. The escapes seem to be at least part of the reason behind the closure of US and British embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa this weekend, and the continued closure of some of them for the rest of this week. While the US government’s stated reason for the security measures is an intercepted message between terrorist leaders plotting an attack, the apparent mass of recently released terrorist fighters has played a part. Today, the US State Department urged “citizens currently living in Yemen to depart immediately," citing an "extremely high" threat level.
The big question, though, is whether the prison breaks in Pakistan, Iraq, and perhaps Libya were planned together—as veteran terrorist-watcher Daniel Drezner writes: “I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories… but I'm fully aware of 'the Rule of Three.'" Interpol would love to know—it wants help "to determine whether any of these recent events are coordinated or linked.” The global crime-busting organization also points out that August will see the anniversaries of terrorist attacks in India, Russia, and Indonesia, and of attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It could be a bloody month.
According to al Qaeda’s burbling nut-job “leader” Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an audio recording released last weekend (though recorded in June), the next, somewhat implausible, target is Guantanamo Bay: "We pledge to God that we will spare no effort to free all our prisoners,” the recording said, going on to list a number of Gitmo inmates.
The longer-term outlook is much more serious, especially in Iraq and perhaps even the unending nightmare of the Syrian civil war. Iraqi civilian deaths have spiked heavily in 2013, amid fears of a new civil war there, and the injection of new blood into the most violent factions is unlikely to end well. The situation in Syria seems to be exacerbating the Iraqi “destabilization,” and it’s highly likely that the flow of fighters, weapons, and ideology will increase in both directions. If it turns out the Pakistan and Libya breakouts were related to Iraq, al Qaeda may be much more connected and organized than anyone realized.
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