- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
Yemeni prisons have been criticized as overcrowded and undermonitored radicalization factories where the government sometimes stuffs people it doesn’t know what to do with — at times without trial. And every few years, a spectacular mass escape makes headlines. The latest breakout came today in the southern city of al-Mukalla. Somewhere between 40 and 60 prisoners — who reportedly had ties to al Qaeda — attacked the guards and seized their arms from inside, while armed gunmen attacked from outside, according to news accounts. Al Jazeera reported that among the prisoners were convicted terrorists and men being held in protective custody pending trial.
Some of the escapees might have been militants who had returned from Iraq, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, an analyst at Princeton University and a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.
"The fact that they have experience fighting in Iraq makes them particularly dangerous," Johnsen said. "Plus, they’ve been in a Yemeni prison for quite some time. People go into prison and come out much more radical. Many of the suicide bombers we’ve seen in Yemen in recent years have come out of prison."
"It goes to show the situation is deteriorating in the country," said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. "The U.S. has been concerned about the prison system in Yemen for a lot of reasons. They don’t know who is there and how long they are being held for. The Yemeni prison system is not very transparent at all."
In fact the only time the outside world tends to get a glimpse of it is when militants are able to break out, which happens alarmingly frequently. Here are three of the biggest breaks in the past few years.
June 2010: Aden
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took credit for a jailbreak at the country’s intelligence headquarters in the southern city of Aden. At least 11 people were killed during the raid that freed about 10 people.
The details were the most shocking: The armed gunmen were dressed in military uniforms and were able to storm the headquarters during the morning flag salute. The gun battle lasted for at least an hour.
Boucek and Johnsen said the names of the escapees weren’t ever released. But the raid was an embarrassment for the government and showed AQAP’s ability and daringness.
February 2006: Sanaa
In perhaps the most consequential moment in the evolution of AQAP into the potent force it is today — Johnsen calls it the "genesis moment" for the group — 23 prisoners escaped through a tunnel and into a nearby mosque. There were suggestions that they had help from the inside.
"Al Qaeda had been basically defeated before that," Johnsen said. "They didn’t have the infrastructure in the country before. This was when the organization got its start."
In particular, two men who got out that day became integral leaders of the group — Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi. Wihayshi, who once served as Osama bin Laden’s secretary, merged the al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, creating what many U.S. officials believe is the biggest terrorist threat in the world today.
April 2003: Aden
This escape happened from the same building as the 2010 incident — the intelligence headquarters in Aden. Abdul Rauf Nassib, an al Qaeda leader in Yemen, reportedly helped 10 militants — who were suspected of taking part in the USS Cole attack — escape.
One of the prisoners was Jamal al Badawi, who might be the most escapee person in Yemen. He was later recaptured, sentenced to death for his involvement in the Cole attack, and then escaped again in the 2006 breakout. In 2007, he turned himself in and was set free again by Yemeni authorities after pledging loyalty to the president and vowing not to carry out other attacks.