The South Asia Channel

Al-Qaeda’s new strategy: jailbreaks

Al-Qaeda’s new strategy: jailbreaks

Recent massive jailbreaks in Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan, all occurring within days of one another, beg the question: what constitutes a coincidence in foreign affairs? Are these attacks happy coincidences for the newly freed criminals, or a connected series of events? And, with al-Qaeda affiliates already claiming responsibility for two of these assaults, should the United States consider the possibility that al-Qaeda leaders directed these jailbreaks or that the affiliates coordinated with each other? A closer look at the details reveals a common theme.

To begin, the tactics were similar. Suicide bombers and armed militants blasted through prison walls, wielding guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled or hand grenades. The militants used the element of surprise to overwhelm the prison staffs, or in the case of Abu Ghraib, the guards actually facilitated the attack. Some attackers were disguised in prison guard uniforms, some held megaphones and called out the names of prisoners, and some simply gunned down any prison official in sight.

And the numbers are astonishing. On Saturday, July 27, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped from the al-Kweifiya prison in Libya after gunmen fired shots into the air and prisoners started fires within the facility. In northwest Pakistan two days later, armed militants blew up the gates of a prison in Dera Ismail Khan, and around 250 inmates broke free, including 25 "dangerous terrorists." And on Sunday and Monday, two Iraqi prisons were attacked by suicide bombers in cars loaded with explosives – Abu Ghraib, located west of Baghdad, and al-Taji, located to the north – freeing over 500 inmates, including several senior members of al-Qaeda.

Though some of the details are still unclear, it’s indisputable that these attacks were well-executed. There was some level of coordination between the attackers and the inmates to create diversions, recruit inside help, and use local events to their advantage – for example, in Libya, protests against the assassination of a Muslim Brotherhood cleric diverted security forces. It is also clear that these attacks took months of planning.

With such synchronization and sophistication, it is difficult to believe the militant groups planned these attacks in isolation. So is there a possibility that the planners received guidance from the "severely degraded" al-Qaeda central? Al-Qaeda affiliates Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) recently claimed responsibility for the prison breaks in their respective countries. While there is still a question over who exactly is to blame for the nearly 1,000 escaped inmates in Libya, many are convinced that the attack was an effort planned with al-Qaeda assistance.

With this much crossover, could these jailbreaks be a part of al-Qaeda’s new strategy to destabilize state-run institutions while simultaneously freeing members and allies? Last summer, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of AQI, publicly warned of a new priority to free Muslim prisoners with an initiative called "Breaking the Walls," and several escapees from each of the three prisons have significant ties to militant groups and al-Qaeda. Perhaps this strategy even originates from the TTP’s successful 2012 attack on the Bannu Central Jail in Pakistan that freed almost 400 prisoners. Bannu is in the same province as Dera Ismail Khan; you can’t argue with success.

If the prison breaks are in fact related, they indicate a still very active al-Qaeda core. Rather than a diminished entity, it appears the organization is evolving and developing new tactics that have spread to its conglomerates in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, al-Qaeda recently arbitrated a power dispute between AQI and the al-Nusra Front in Syria, suggesting a leadership group that is still very much engaged with its affiliates.

Al-Qaeda’s ever-evolving strategies and methods warrant continued U.S. vigilance and pressure. Perhaps al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan is not as far back "on their heels" as the Obama administration would like us to believe.

Michael Waltz and Mary Beth Long are Co-Founders and Principals in Askari Associates, a strategy and policy firm serving clients in the Middle East and North Africa.