The recent series of prison breaks is not coincidental.
In less than a week, we have 500 senior Al Qaeda leaders escape during two assaults on prisons in Iraq, more than 1,000 in a prison assault in Libya, and another 250 in a particularly nasty Taliban assault on a Pakistani prison.
Former intelligence analyst Joshua Foust argues that these prison assaults are concerted, often well-coordinated, efforts on behalf of militant groups to capitalise on destabilized regions:
Al Qaeda warned us this would happen. Last summer the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi … [posted online] … “I bring you good news. We are starting a new phase in our struggle with a plan we named ‘Breaking the walls,’ and we remind you of your priority to free the Muslim prisoners.”
“At the top of your priorities regarding targets is to chase and liquidate the judges, the investigators and the guards,” he said.
These prisons have been targeted not only because of the men behind those walls, but also because the walls of security are crumbling. After all, the Arab Spring was not a boon for state security forces.
When Hosni Mubarek fell in Egypt, Western activists cried victory as unlawfully imprisoned political dissdents and journalists were released. At the same time, however, some of the most extreme militants on earth likely returned to the streets.
Escaped prisoners have caused serious damage in recent years.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula didn’t exist until a prison break in 2006. The Benghazi terrorist attacks were in part organised by Egyptian one-time inmates. A massive prison break which occurred in Afghanistan in 2011 multiplied the danger of that year’s fighting season.
Foust also points out that the recent prison breaks are part of a larger trend, dating back to America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the beginning of the Arab spring.
Often the breaks occur with inside help. Pakistan’s assaulters wore police uniforms. Abu Ghraib lost its lights in the moments leading up to the attack.
Whether the insiders were actual insiders or just policemen pressured mortal threat remains to be seen. Regardless, complicity by state security forces does not bode well for those governments.
Or neighbouring governments for that matter.
Syria’s civil war is due to get much hotter now, and Iraqi civil war could be around the corner. The international police organisation Interpol is freaking out. The U.S. has reportedly sent special operators to Baghdad, military advisers to Jordan, and Marines to Italy for potential action in Egypt.
President Barack Obama argued that Al Qaeda had been decimated, but with the rise of these prison breaks, we’re now seeing headlines like “Al Qaeda Is Back.”
Did it ever leave?
Certainly the game of global militant whack-a-mole has gotten significantly more, not less difficult — arguably as an indirect result of the toppling and restructuring of so many Middle Eastern and North African regimes.
On the other hand, rising from the ashes of that optimism, affiliates of Al Qaeda are very much alive.
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