April 6, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Wider Threat of Terrorist Prison Breaks

• Breaking their members out of prisons is one of the most effective tactics used by terrorist groups to reenergize and repopulate their ranks, and as more areas across the Middle East and other regions fall outside the writ of government control, the threat from these mass prison breaks will increase

• The April 2, 2015 Mukallah prison break by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula freed 300 inmates, including a senior AQAP member named Khaled al-Batarfi, adding to the group’s lethal influence at a time when Yemen and the region need it the least

• Prisons across the globe are incubators of terror, and places with high levels of violent extremism such as Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, have significant numbers of terror detainees but are least able to prevent their escape

• In addition to reenergizing terrorist groups with experienced members and their newly radicalized friends made in jail, these large-scale terrorist prison breaks greatly weaken global counterterrorism efforts, as the community understands the futility of helping law enforcement only to see them escape and wreak havoc on vulnerable people.


The symmetry is tragic. A terrorist group like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is formed in part by associations made in prison. Later, as the groups become operational, members are inevitably arrested, where they go to prison and infect as many inmates as they can with their violent ideology. When local security conditions allow, a group conducts a mass prison break, freeing not only their members but also a new cadre of recruits dedicated to the group that freed them. The cycle is then repeated.

There is never a good time to have 300 prisoners on the loose, but the April 2 AQAP attack and mass prison break in Mukallah, Yemen, is bad timing par excellence. Yemen is nearing civil war, with a regional coalition conducting airstrikes amid growing sectarian tensions; the introduction of hundreds of extremists, including a senior AQAP commander Khaled al-Batarfi, into the mix is a recipe for disaster. What eventually became AQAP was, in part, formed from a prison break, with current leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi and 22 other al-Qaeda members such as Qasim al-Rimi escaping from a Yemeni intelligence service prison in Sana'a in February 2006. Yemen has seen over 760 inmates escape from prison since 2006, many of them affiliated with AQAP or other extremist groups.

Yemen is not alone in seeing extremists who were arrested at great effort only to then break out and rejoin and rejuvenate their respective groups. The Islamic State’s 2012-2013 campaign called “Breaking the Walls” was a yearlong public effort by the group to free as many of its imprisoned members as possible to, in the words of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “refuel” his organization. The group claimed credit for three mass prison breaks, culminating in the July 2013 attack on Abu Ghraib prison that freed over 500 inmates, some who were experienced members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, and many more who would join the group upon their ill-gotten freedom. The Islamic State wouldn’t exist in its current state were it not for prisons, since its top leadership all met in prisons such as Bucca and Abu Ghraib, and the 2013 infusion of new and old members via prison break gave the group momentum to exploit the country’s worsening security and politics.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have consistently been able to break its members out of prison. In 2008, a complex Taliban attack on the Sarposa prison in Qandahar freed over 1,000 inmates, including 390 of its members. In 2011, the Taliban spent five months digging a 1,000-foot long tunnel from the same Qandahar prison in order to free 475 of its members. The damage done by these escapees is impossible to know but is certainly significant, as the surrounding communities and the country at large in effect lose their freedoms at the hands of those who shouldn’t be free.

From Libya, where 1,000 prisoners escaped from al-Kwyfah prison in Benghazi in July 2013, to Syria, where a February 2014 attack led by al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra on a prison in Aleppo freed over 300 prisoners (though in this case, the inmates were being held in truly miserable conditions by the Assad regime), the prison break is one of the most effective ways for extremist groups to repopulate their ranks. The threat from this will only increase in the coming years, as more areas in the Middle East and other areas fall into lawlessness and conflict. As governments arrest more people for terrorism-related offenses that weaken security and society, there will be more attacks on prisons, all while the inmates are forming networks and radicalizing others as they await their escape.


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