Nation & World

Key al Qaida members among escapees in Yemen prison break

More than two dozen escaped prisoners, including several convicted members of al Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, remained at large Friday after a daring attack on Sanaa’s Central Prison Thursday night.

Armed militants laid siege to the heavily fortified prison shortly after sunset, setting off two car bombs and exchanging fire with soldiers guarding the prison, killing seven. One of the explosions blew a hole in the prison’s wall near an area where inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses were housed. By the time reinforcements arrived and sealed off the area, 29 prisoners had escaped, including 19 who were imprisoned on terrorism charges, according to a statement by Yemen’s Interior Ministry.

At least three of the escapees were convicted in December on charges related to an assassination attempt earlier in the year against Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Five escapees had been sentenced to death, including Hisham Mohamed Assem, who was convicted for a 2010 attack on an oil company compound in Sanaa that left a French engineer dead, and Saleh al Shawish, a skilled bomb maker who vowed revenge at his 2010 sentencing.

Yemeni officials did not mince words when commenting on the potential implications of the prison break.

“It’s a disaster,” said an official briefed on security matters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. He noted that the escapees included “operational figures.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Yemeni officials and analysts were quick to point out that the attack bore the hallmarks of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al Qaida affiliate that U.S. officials have said poses the greatest terrorism threat to the United States. AQAP claimed a similar attack in December on Yemen’s Ministry of Defense.

Prison breaks have played important roles in al Qaida’s operations in Yemen. In 2006, a number of jailed al Qaida-linked fighters tunneled out of the Political Security prison in the center of the Yemeni capital. One of those escapees was Naser al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s founding emir, who remains at large despite continuing U.S. drone strikes targeting militant leaders in Yemen.

Escapes elsewhere also have helped bolster other al Qaida-linked groups. A Syrian activist recently released from a makeshift Aleppo jail run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria told McClatchy that many of the guards at the facility had escaped from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison during an al Qaida-engineered attack in July 2013.

“Prison breaks have been happening with alarming frequency in the Middle East this year,” said Gregory Johnsen, whose book “The Last Refuge” is about Yemen and AQAP. “Each time it happens, al Qaida gets a shot in the arm.”

In part, that’s because hard-line al Qaida militants are often able to recruit new members inside prison in a way they can’t on the outside, he said. “Then, when a prison break occurs, all these new members rush to join al Qaida and the problem grows,” he said.

Thursday’s attack underscored the lingering security vacuum in the Yemeni capital. Kidnappings of foreigners have begun to occur with alarming regularity, while assassinations of security officials take place on a nearly weekly basis.

Many have directed their anger at Yemen’s interior minister, Abdulqader Qahtan, and other security officials, sharply criticizing them for failing to increase security at prisons housing al Qaida-affiliated convicts, noting that the group’s intent to break their members from prison has long been common knowledge. In a message last August, Wuhayshi vowed to free imprisoned members of AQAP.

Others, noting the apparent ease with which the attack was carried out, have argued that it’s likely the attackers had inside help, repeating old claims that al Qaida has infiltrated Yemen’s security apparatus.

The escapes also are likely to further complicate Yemen’s efforts to persuade the United States to transfer home Yemeni citizens held at Guantanamo Bay. Yemenis make up the majority of the 155 men held at the detention center in Cuba, but U.S. officials have said they are concerned that Yemen could not properly hold them if they were returned.