Al Qaeda’s Big Prison Break

After the spectacularly successful prison break in Iraq last week, rumours and recriminations are flying in Baghdad. Did security forces know about the break before it happened? Have all the Al Qaeda-connected escapees fled to fight in Syria? And how exactly is this connected to another prison break in Libya? 

It was like a scene from the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Collateral Damage. During the movie Colombian guerrillas break into a prison to free their fellow members. In Iraq last week, there were similar scenes as armed extremists used mortars, rockets and suicide bombers to break prisoners out of the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons. 

A power cut, rioting in the prison by prisoners affiliated with the attackers and prison guards who colluded with the attackers were also part of the real-life incident. The attacks on Abu Ghraib were spectacularly successful, lasting ten hours and leading to the escape of around 500 prisoners; that number included senior members of the Sunni Muslim extremist group, Al Qaeda. 

Over 300 of the escapees have already been recaptured but others remain at large. The attack on Taji prison was not as successful – it resulted in the deaths of over a dozen soldiers and six militants but there were no escapes. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has connections with Al Qaeda. 

“The organization announced that hundreds of Muslim detainees, among them some 500 of the best fighters ever born, were freed,” the London-based Middle Eastern news website, Asharq Al-Awsat reported. Film clips were also posted on the Internet that showed the prison attack underway. 

The clips were posted on sites known for their affiliation with Al Qaeda and members of the sites wrote messages underneath the clips, congratulating each other on the success of the operation. But even as the events were being widely reported on, the recriminations and conspiracy theories had already started in Baghdad. 

Apparently the Iraqi National Intelligence Service actually warned local security forces of the attacks a few hours before they happened. The militants themselves apparently warned locals living nearby to stay away. 

Word leaked out that Iraq’s secret service had sent a total of seven messages to local security forces over a period of two months, which detailed, among other things, the date on which the attack was planned. 

According to investigators dispatched by the Iraqi government to find out why the Abu Ghraib jail break succeeded so well, the local security forces did not react quickly enough to the warnings they received nor did they take them seriously enough. 

Also in line for criticism was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Prime Minster didn’t comment on the attack until the following day and many said he didn’t treat the matter as seriously as he should have. 

At a meeting in his office that was organized by his office, to which three media commentators were invited, al-Maliki even sought to put the blame elsewhere, saying that he thought the Shiite Muslim militia, the Mahdi Army, were probably involved. 

The Mahdi Army is well known as the armed wing of the Sadrists, a political movement led by Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, which is often allied with al-Maliki’s own Shiite Muslim-dominated party. 

However these accusations were quickly refuted, particularly after a Sunni Muslim extremist group said it was responsible for the jail breaks, claiming it was part of a major offensive to free Al Qaeda members held in prisons. 

Anyone who is aware of the differences in ideology and theology between Al Qaeda, who are mostly Sunni Muslim, and the Mahdi Army, who are mostly Shiite Muslim, couldn’t imagine the two groups cooperating. Al-Maliki was apparently saying those things because some of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib were also followers of al-Sadr. 

But it became obvious that there was no connection between the Mahdi Army and Al Qaeda when sources from within the security forces noted that prisoners with known Sadrist leanings refused to come out of their cells during the jail break. 

Further criticism related to the government’s response to the spectacular prison escape was due to what appeared to be the responsibility-avoidance going on. 

Iraq's Minister of Justice, Hassan al-Shammari, usually takes every opportunity to mount the podium and speak to the press – but this time he left the task of reading a prepared statement about the prison break to a junior official. 

After preliminary investigations it was announced that a total of 105 people were killed during the prison break and that 349 of an estimated 500 escaped prisoners had already been recaptured and returned to prison. 

Also announced was the fact that some guards and prison officers had been detained in order to see if they were connected to the attack. 

Meanwhile other politicians went off on a completely different tangent, saying that, because of the complexity and execution of the prison break – prisoners inside diverted attention when they set fire to blankets, some guards were supposedly colluding with the attackers and the two prisons were attacked simultaneously and in a number of ways, including suicide bombers in cars – that there must be a third party involved. 

“Preliminary investigations have revealed that the terrorist gangs who launched the attacks on the prisons had a high level of training and were very well equipped,” the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Saad Maan, told local media. 

“These kinds of attacks required military-level capability, on-field coordination and logistical support. The attackers had all this. So it was not just about a scattered gang of fighters.” “There are certainly groups, and even nations, who have hostile feelings toward the Iraqi democracy,” Maan continued. 

“And they are the ones behind these attacks.”By this, many felt he was accusing countries like Turkey or a Gulf State like Saudi Arabia or Qatar of trying to destabilize Iraq. The Ministry of Interior issued a similar statement saying that: 

“Iraq is facing an undeclared war, waged by bloody sectarian forces, who aim to plunge the country into chaos and recreate the civil war”. The other frightening theory doing the rounds is that Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups are more coordinated and organised than ever. And it is not just in Iraq that this is a growing concern. 

The New York Times reported on the prison break, noting that: “the attacks on the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji were carefully synchronized operations in which members of the Qaeda affiliate used mortars to pin down Iraqi forces, employed suicide bombers to punch holes in their defences and then sent an assault force to free the inmates”. 

The newspaper also quoted “a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he did not want to be seen as commenting on Iraq’s internal affairs,” who said that, “we are concerned about the increased tempo and sophistication of Al Qaeda operations in Iraq”. 

This was followed by an editorial in the newspaper asking, among other questions, what use US training had been to the Iraqi forces and whether Iraqi forces’ skills had actually deteriorated. A source from within the Interior Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested to NIQASH that there was a link between this prison break in Iraq and a large prison break in Benghazi, Libya, recently. 

The prison break in Libya seemed to be the result of riots within the Queyfiya prison and around 1,200 prisoners saw the riots as an opportunity to escape. The link between the three prison breaks apparently has to do with the kinds of groups smuggling escaped prisoners across borders. 

The source said that these groups “were sending the escapees to troubled countries in the region so that they could be used in serving the groups’ own terrorist agenda”. At the end of last week, Interpol issued a warning to border police in neighbouring countries in the region, alerting them to the fact that the escaped prisoners would probably try and leave Iraq. 

And MP Hakim al-Zamili, a leading member of the Sadrist movement, and one of the three politicians who was overseeing the investigation into the escape, said that they already had information indicating that around 100 prisoners from Abu Ghraib had arrived in Syria and joined the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, which is fighting the Syrian government there. 

Al-Zamili refused to give any further information on the topic though. It’s also been suggested that the latest wave of deadly car bombs to go off in Iraq, many of them on July 29, a week after the prison break, could be attributed to the fact that there are now more extremists on the street than before. 

As rumours and recriminations do the rounds, there is one very concrete result of the prison break: security in Baghdad continues to get tighter and tighter – and particularly around the areas where the two prisons stand. And who suffers the most? 

The city’s citizens. Already suffering from power cuts and a lack of services during Iraq’s long, hot summer of terror, now they must also cope with increased traffic jams, more checkpoints and even more restricted movement for pedestrians. 

As one Iraqi writer put it recently, in an open essay directed at those terrorising the country: you kill us, you kill yourselves. Why don’t you tell us, what do you actually want with us? 

by Haider Najm
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