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A history of prison breaks in Yemen

Yemeni prisons have been criticized as overcrowded and undermonitored radicalization factories where the government sometimes stuffs people it doesn't know what to do with -- at times without trial. And every few years, a spectacular mass escape makes headlines. The latest breakout came today in the southern city of al-Mukalla. Somewhere between 40 and 60 prisoners -- who reportedly had ties to al Qaeda -- attacked the guards and seized their arms from inside, while armed gunmen attacked from outside, according to news accounts. Al Jazeera reported that among the prisoners were convicted terrorists and men being held in protective custody pending trial.

Some of the escapees might have been militants who had returned from Iraq, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, an analyst at Princeton University and a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.

"The fact that they have experience fighting in Iraq makes them particularly dangerous," Johnsen said. "Plus, they've been in a Yemeni prison for quite some time. People go into prison and come out much more radical. Many of the suicide bombers we've seen in Yemen in recent years have come out of prison."

"It goes to show the situation is deteriorating in the country," said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program. "The U.S. has been concerned about the prison system in Yemen for a lot of reasons. They don't know who is there and how long they are being held for. The Yemeni prison system is not very transparent at all."

In fact the only time the outside world tends to get a glimpse of it is when militants are able to break out, which happens alarmingly frequently. Here are three of the biggest breaks in the past few years.

June 2010: Aden

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took credit for a jailbreak at the country's intelligence headquarters in the southern city of Aden. At least 11 people were killed during the raid that freed about 10 people.

The details were the most shocking: The armed gunmen were dressed in military uniforms and were able to storm the headquarters during the morning flag salute. The gun battle lasted for at least an hour.

Boucek and Johnsen said the names of the escapees weren't ever released. But the raid was an embarrassment for the government and showed AQAP's ability and daringness.

February 2006: Sanaa

In perhaps the most consequential moment in the evolution of AQAP into the potent force it is today -- Johnsen calls it the "genesis moment" for the group -- 23 prisoners escaped through a tunnel and into a nearby mosque. There were suggestions that they had help from the inside.

"Al Qaeda had been basically defeated before that," Johnsen said. "They didn't have the infrastructure in the country before. This was when the organization got its start."

In particular, two men who got out that day became integral leaders of the group -- Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi. Wihayshi, who once served as Osama bin Laden's secretary, merged the al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, creating what many U.S. officials believe is the biggest terrorist threat in the world today.

April 2003: Aden

This escape happened from the same building as the 2010 incident -- the intelligence headquarters in Aden. Abdul Rauf Nassib, an al Qaeda leader in Yemen, reportedly helped 10 militants -- who were suspected of taking part in the USS Cole attack -- escape.

One of the prisoners was Jamal al Badawi, who might be the most escapee person in Yemen. He was later recaptured, sentenced to death for his involvement in the Cole attack, and then escaped again in the 2006 breakout. In 2007, he turned himself in and was set free again by Yemeni authorities after pledging loyalty to the president and vowing not to carry out other attacks.

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The Quotable Karzai: 5 statements that strained relations with the U.S.

As President Barack Obama prepares to announce the scale of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, one headache for Washington policy makers has been the increasingly incendiary and downright hostile statements coming from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

His latest attack came Saturday:

You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them. Now I have stopped saying that... They're here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they're using our soil for that.

Even as Karzai's rhetoric has turned sharply anti-Western and anti-American, it's not clear he actually wants foreign troops to withdraw, a step that could endanger his government's stability.

Still, his language has frustrated U.S. officials, who feel that he is undermining the war effort. "At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption," outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eichenberry said, in response to Karzai's latest verbal barrage. "The American people will ask for our forces to come home."

So what's behind Karzai's anger? A chorus of officials and analysts think he has simply become unhinged -- U.S. intelligence reports have reportedly voiced the theory that he is "manic-depressive."

But others believe that Karzai is calculating that anti-American statements will burnish his nationalist credentials and curry favor with the Afghan population.

"He doesn't want to be seen as a lackey of the United States, he cultivates a sense of separateness," said Vali Nasr, who served in the Obama administration on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy until this spring. "My read of him is he doesn't trust our strategy and doesn't believe we have a commitment to him."

The contested 2009 presidential election, during which he was accused of vote fraud by many observers, represented a turning point in his relationship with the United States, Nasr said.

"In the past two years, he's come to doubt our commitment and strategy," he said. "And he sees what we demand of him as counter-productive to his political ambitions. So he lashes out."

Still, Karzai is running the risk of undercutting support for the military intervention that is crucial for him to fend off the insurgency. Polls indicate that Americans are losing patience with the Afghan war. And when Afghanistan's leader vociferously condemns American soldiers as occupiers, their impatience only grows.

"He's systematically been creating the impression that we are wasting our time over there," Nasr said.

Below, Foreign Policy compiled some of Karzai's most notorious recent statements.


‘I might join the Taliban'

In perhaps his most infamous quote -- made in April 2010 at a closed door meeting, and reported secondhand -- Karzai threatened to quit the political reconciliation process and join the insurgency. The remark came in response to parliamentary refusal to back a proposal he favored, which he reportedly blamed on foreign conspiracy.

One parliamentarian in the room relayed the quote to the Associated Press:

He said that ‘if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban.

Some lawmakers said it showed Karzai was trying to pander to a hard-line, pro-Taliban block in parliament.

 

‘Afghans [know what to] do with occupiers'

At a news conference in May, Karzai issued a "last" warning to NATO that it must stop airstrikes responsible for the deaths of civilians:

If they continue their attacks on our houses, then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan. And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.

American officials were irked by the implicit comparison to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and by the fact that Karzai made little reference to the insurgent groups responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths. According to United Nation figures, NATO forces were responsible for only about 16 percent of the 2,777 civilians who died due to conflict-related causes last year.

 

‘Stop these operations on our soil'

In March, during an "emotional speech" to relatives of civilians killed in the fighting, Karzai said NATO should stop its operations altogether in Afghanistan.

With great honor and with great respect, and humbly rather than with arrogance, I request that NATO and America should stop these operations on our soil. If the war is against terror, then this war is not here, terror is not here...our demand is that this war should be stopped.

Karzai later backed away somewhat from his "demand," as a spokesman clarified that his comments only referred to NATO operations that killed civilians.

 

Get rid of the international reconstruction teams

Karzai called in February for the removal of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) - small groups staffed by civilians from the United States and other NATO countries -- which manage large-scale aid and development projects around Afghanistan. Karzai's gripe was that that the funds disbursed by the PRTs don't flow through his government, according to the New York Times, a step U.S. and NATO officials are leary of taking due to widespread reports of corruption within his government.

We seriously and insistently want them to be removed. I hope the international community would deal with us from Afghanistan's point of view, not from the point of view of their own national interest.

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