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
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
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 --
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.