Hundreds of suspected terrorists have been freed in a series of brazen jailbreaks that U.S. counter-terrorism analysts now suspect may all be part of an al Qaeda-coordinated “Great Escape”-like plot, officials told ABC News.
Just this week, a small group of the escaped showed themselves to be back to their old ways, captured on video carrying out an attack against security forces in Iraq.
While firm connections between the jailbreaks have not been conclusively established, similarities in the tactics al Qaeda-affiliated assault teams used to free known militants in Libya, Iraq and Pakistan, which all occurred within a week of each other this summer, and a relevant message on jailbreaks from Osama bin Laden’s successor, lead many to suspect coordination.
At a minimum, the bloody external assaults that freed the jihadis, along with a subsequent uptick in violence in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, has caused alarm.
“We are very concerned about it,” said one of several U.S. officials tracking the jailbreaks who spoke to ABC News.
Officials said they feared the legion of terrorists sprung from behind bars could target U.S. and other western interests overseas — or even in the homeland.
The Westgate mall terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, which left more than 60 dead including Western shoppers, added to the jitters already felt over suddenly having to worry about hundreds of liberated inmates expert in assassination, making improvised explosive devices and leading terror cells.
The prison attacks also have become a rallying cry in public statements by Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Tunisia and Yemen, and prompted a global INTERPOL alert last August.
Prisons in Taji and at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad were assaulted July 21 by heavily armed terrorists, who freed comrades from al Qaeda-Iraq (AQI), according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Since then, a wave of suicide and vehicle bombings has slain thousands in Iraq — which officials partly blame on the freed inmates — while other former convicts have moved through al Qaeda staging areas in the western desert to fight in Syria.
“You can’t ascribe all of the violence to the jailbreaks, but it has replenished AQI’s stocks,” one U.S. official told ABC News. “They have given AQI an advantage with their numbers and experience.”
“There were more than 600 [escapees], most are AQI, ISIS and other terrorists,” Hakim Al-Zamili, a member of the Iraqi parliament who closely follows security issues, told ABC News in Baghdad. “Those AQI fighters have the ability to influence and to work in groups on the ground. The jailbreak operations have given them the motive and support to move on, and also the motive to free other [terrorist] inmates.”
Al Qaeda yesterday posted video online of armed former inmates who escaped from Abu Ghraib capturing and executing Iraqi military officers.
A week after the Iraq breakouts, more than 1,000 inmates escaped a prison in Benghazi, Libya, though many who overwhelmed the jail were said to be relatives of petty criminals held there, one of the U.S. officials cautioned. Other prisoners escaped in much smaller numbers in separate incidents elsewhere in Libya around the same period.
On July 30, a prison in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, was attacked by Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan using almost identical tactics, techniques and procedures as in al Qaeda’s Iraq assaults. The attackers liberated a dozen or more known terrorists picked up in the tribal areas.
The sophisticated D.I. Khan operation was claimed to have been carried out by former Pakistani air force officer-turned-extremist Adnan Rasheed, who was busted out of a prison in Bannu, Pakistan last spring. He subsequently helped form a special terror unit in the tribal areas, Ansar al-Aseer, to stage more attacks to free terrorists in Pakistan, he declared in a video online.
“The first purpose of this group is to make your release possible by all means,” Rasheed said, addressing those locked up, as he squatted with two European mujahideen cradling Kalashnikov rifles in their laps.
Violence has continued in Pakistan, but links to the hardcore extremists freed in the recent jailbreaks has not been firmly established, sources said.
The incidents in the three countries coincided with a new propaganda tape on July 31 by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the reins of the terror group after Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011. Some may have laughed at his promise to free terrorists in the heavily garrisoned U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but he also repeated past vows that al Qaeda “will not spare any effort until we free them and all our captives.”
Some U.S. officials told ABC News that the attacks particularly in Pakistan and Iraq suggested a coordinated operation by core al Qaeda, led by Zawahiri. Other officials said most of those who escaped the prisons were more a threat to the region or American interests overseas than the U.S. homeland, and evidence of any coordinated strategy was only circumstantial.
But the incidents in Iraq and Pakistan involved assaults from the outside that bore distinct similarities, all the sources agreed.
At the D.I. Khan prison, the attackers used explosives to enter the old facility at a weak point and then gunmen charged inside, where they used loudspeakers to call out specific inmates who were well known terrorists held there. The two prisons in Iraq were attacked in similar fashion.
“You have to wonder why they did this and what they’re up to,” said another U.S. security source closely monitoring the events.
The success of the Westgate mall shootings last month that paralyzed the Kenyan government and its armed forces for days — perpetrated by as few as four gunmen from Somali militant group al-Shabab, including a European — has only heightened worries that U.S. interests will be targeted overseas. But officials focused on protecting the U.S. homeland also have been monitoring developments stemming from the jailbreaks for months.
“The spate of jailbreaks is likely to prove highly significant operationally,” terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told ABC News. An increased threat to the U.S. is possible, but in the case of Iraq, “a rather remarkable talent pool was returned to the streets.”
Al-Shabab in Somalia, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as well as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen each hailed the jailbreaks in messages last August and called for more.
“Imprisonment will not be for long and shackles will not remain,” promised AQAP leader Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi in an Aug. 11 statement.
Wuhayshi, a former aide to Osama Bin Laden, was among two-dozen terrorist inmates who escaped a Yemen prison in early 2006 and then with other escapees formed AQAP, now considered the number one threat to the U.S. homeland by the Obama administration.
“With suspected Al Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the INTERPOL alert requests the Organization’s 190 member countries’ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events are coordinated or linked,” the Aug. 13 message from the international law enforcement organization said.
ABC News’ Mazin Al-Mubarak contributed reporting from Baghdad, Iraq.