Passport

Great prison breaks of the war on terror

In the Middle East and Central Asia, when suspected militants go to jail, they don’t necessarily stay there. This was very much in evidence this week when the Taliban built 1,000 feet of underground tunnels (shown above) to free nearly half the prisoners at the Sarposa prison in Kandahar. It was a brazen feat to ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the Middle East and Central Asia, when suspected militants go to jail, they don’t necessarily stay there. This was very much in evidence this week when the Taliban built 1,000 feet of underground tunnels (shown above) to free nearly half the prisoners at the Sarposa prison in Kandahar. It was a brazen feat to be sure, though not even the largest break in the history of that prison. 

That honor goes to the 2009 Taliban raid that freed nearly 1,200 prisoners from Sarposa, including 350 Taliban members. That break involved two truck bombs crashing into the front gates followed a group of fighters armed with RGPs and automatic rifles. Security upgrades were made after the attack and an American military officer told reporters just this year that the only way to break in would be would be to “put a nuke on a motorcycle.” Or, you know, build a really long tunnel — a method that was a pop culture cliché by 1963. 

Here are a few more notable great escapes of the war on terror. 

1999, Kandahar: The Taliban are now best known as the perpetrators of daring prison breaks, but they’ve been the victims of them as well. In 1999, Hekmatullah Hekmati, then a young Taliban intelligence officer, helped spring Ismail Khan, a former governor of Herat and resistance fighter who ranked as the Taliban’s most prominent political prisoner, from jail. The prison break itself was surprisingly easy. Hekmati simply disguised Khan along with two other prisoners as Taliban and led them out of the prison. But the group barely escaped their long journey to Iran after becoming lost on the desert and hitting an antitank mine.

Hekmati was later arrested by U.S. forces on suspicion of being a Taliban commander himself and died of cancer at Guantanamo Bay in late 2003.  Khan, then minister of energy in the new Afghan government, tried in vain to have him released.

2006, Sanaa: Twenty-three Al Qaeda members escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006 through a long tunnel built from the bathroom of a women’s mosque next door. The escapees included a veritable who’s who of Yemeni terrorism, including Jamal Badawi, alleged mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole bombing, who was recaptured several months later and Jaber Elbaneh, a U.S. citizen and member of the "Lackawanna Six"  who later turned himself in. There was also Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Hizam Mujail, who was involved in the 2002 attack on the French oil tanker Limburg. It was widely suspected that members of the Yemeni security services had played a role in the escape.

Beirut, 2009: For the Keystone Kops Kounterterrorism file is the 2009 escape of Taha Hajj Suleiman, a member of the al Qaeda affilianted group Fatah al-Islam from a high-security Lebanese prison. Suleiman escaped when he and eight of his fellow prisoners scaled the prison walls using blankets tied together, before standing on each other’s shoulders to reach freedom. His fellow Fatah al-Islam members were not so lucky. Most were recaptured and one broke his back when his blanket broke. Suleiman was later recaptured.    

Tikrit, 2009: Post-invasion Iraq’s overcrowded prison systems has forced authorities to cut a few corners in the housing of prisoners — with predictable results. In September 2009, 5 al Qaeda-linked inmates awaiting execution along with 11 other escaped from prison in Tikrit. The prison was a makeshift facility built on the grounds of one of Saddam’s former palaces where prisoners where housed in the classrooms of a former school of Islamic studies. Authorities found a wrench in a bathroom which the prisoners had apparently used to open a ventilation window.  

Basra, 2011: Applying the 1999 Kandahar method, 12 suspected al Qaeda militants awaiting broke out of jail in Basra earlier this year by obtaining police uniforms and simply walking out. The 12 were the only detainees held in the detention center of a fortified compound making it fairly likely that they had help from the inside. All of the prison guards were arrested.

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