- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
It’s officially jailbreak season. In a little over a week, inmates in Iraq, Libya, and now Pakistan have escaped from what were supposed to be secure prisons (the phenomenon has even reached Arkansas). Just this morning, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement promising to "spare no effort to free all our prisoners" held at Guantánamo Bay.
While jihadists have orchestrated several jailbreaks in the past year, the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s Aaron Zelin tells FP in an email, what’s different now "is the scale and sophistication of these jail breaks and how it could affect the organizations and countries where they occurred." Of the recent string of prison breaks, he says, the one in Iraq is likely the most daunting. On Twitter, James Skylar Gerrond, an Air Force veteran who served at the Camp Bucca detention facility in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, described the jailbreak in Iraq as his "recurring nightmare for about 8 months." The escape "essentially erases all of the gains the United States made during the Sahwa [the "Sunni Awakening"] and Surge," Zelin writes, and will bolster the ranks of jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.
The spate of jailbreaks began on July 21, when attackers armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades pushed through gates breached by car bombs at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At least 500 inmates escaped with the help of jihadists who entered the prison wearing suicide vests. Of the escapees, "most of them were convicted senior members of al-Qaida and had received death sentences," a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee told Reuters. Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Then, on July 27, a riot broke out in the al-Koyfiya prison in Benghazi, Libya, as gunmen gathered outside and fired into the air. The prison break came amid nationwide protests (which may or may not have been related to the prison riot) against the killing of Abdelsalam al-Mosmary, a political activist and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, Libyan officials have announced they will reorganize the government in an effort to better confront the proliferation of militia groups in the country. A security official in Benghazi told Reuters that at least 100 escapees have been recaptured and still others have turned themselves back in. But perhaps more than 1,000 convicts, some of them with ties to the Qaddafi regime, remain at large.
Fast-forward to Monday night, when, in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, perhaps as many as 150 Pakistani Taliban militants assaulted a prison. During a three-hour firefight that continued into the early morning, the Taliban used megaphones to locate specific inmates and blow open their cells, according to a Pakistani official cited by the New York Times. As in Iraq, militants wearing suicide vests entered the prison to help others escape. Four inmates were found dead in what appear to be sectarian-motivated killings and 243 prisoners escaped; of those, only six have been recaptured. The attack bore many of the hallmarks of another assault on a prison by the Pakistani Taliban in April 2012 farther north in Khyber Pakhtunkwa that freed 348 prisoners, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Zawahiri’s statement, which was posted online on Wednesday morning, did not specify what actions al Qaeda would take to free prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, but it would probably take a different approach than the raids in Iraq and Pakistan. "[M]ilitants have in the past kidnapped Westerners and sought to trade them for jailed comrades," Reuters observed in its report on Zawahiri’s comments.
Prison breaks have aided jihadi groups in the past. In February 2006, for instance, 23 inmates at a Yemeni prison escaped by burrowing from their cell into an adjacent mosque. Among the escapees were Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Qassim al-Raymi, who would become founding members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in January 2009. Since their escape, several other jailbreaks have occurred in Yemen, including some facilitated by al Qaeda attackers. "[P]rison breaks like this have a way of breathing new life into faltering organizations," Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar and author of The Last Refuge, a history of al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Yemen, tells FP by email. "It acts, like it did in Yemen, as a shot in the arm, an injection of fresh talent that can have long and deadly repercussions."