23 terrorists escape from custody, including the leader of the attack on the USS Cole and 12 others
The escape of twenty three al Qaeda members from a Yemeni prison raises serious questions about the nation’s ability and commitment to fight the terrorist organization. Earlier in the week, Yemen announced the jailbreak, and Interpol immediately issued an “urgent global security alert” seeking the arrest of the terrorists.
The escapees included Jamal Badawi, the leader of the cell responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 U.S. sailors, and Fawaz al-Rabe’ie, the leader of the cell that attacked the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. Badawi has a $5 million bounty on his head. There is also the possibility that Jaber Elbaneh, a member of the “Lackawanna Six” al Qaeda cell from Buffalo, New York, may have been one of the escapees. [Elbaneh’s presence and escape has been confirmed].
Elbaneh has been indicted in U.S. criminal court for conspiring to provide aid to a foreign terrorist entity and also has a $5 million reward for his capture.
The details of the prison break are emerging, and it becomes clear there was assistance from within Yemen’s security services, and Yemen’s amnesty program for al Qaeda members is seriously flawed. Yemen’s security services are believed to be riddled with Islamist and al Qaeda sympathizers, and weapons used in an attack on a U.S. consulate in Jeddah in 2004 have been traced back to the Yemeni Defense Ministry.
News reports indicate the tunnel used in the escape was anywhere from 60 to 180 meters in length, extended from the prison cell block to a bathroom in a woman’s mosque outside of the compound, took two months to dig and was started from inside the mosque and dug towards the prison.
According to News Yemen, an investigation is underway. In the typical fashion of many Middle Eastern governments, the families of the escapees have been rounded up for interrogation. Yemeni governmental officials are also being interrogated. Two of those questioned are both officials of the Yemeni government and the mosque which the jailbreak originated; “Head of the specialized punitive prosecution Saeed al-Aqil is undertaking interrogation with the detainees after he has listened to testimonies of chief of the Political Security Ghalib al-Qamash and deputy of the Political Security Organization Rajih Hunaish and Imam of the mosque Riyadh al-Ghaili whom security arrested him for three days. He has also listened to testimony of Judge Hamoud al-Hattar, chairman of the Ideological Dialogue with those accused of extremism, who is also preacher of the same mosque.”
The Political Security Organization is Yemen’s main intelligence agency, and the Ideological Dialogue, according to the U.S. Department of State, is designed to “obtain assurances from detainees to repent past extremism, denounce terrorism, commit to obeying the laws and Government, respect non-Muslims, and refrain from attacking foreign interests.” The Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2003 indicates “More than 150 detainees have undergone the dialogue process since 2002, most of whom were released. At year’s end, more than 50 persons who were accused of specific crimes or unwilling to repent remained in detention.” Numbers are not available for 2004 and 2005, so it is unknown how many more members of al Qaeda have made their pledges and continued to serve in the name of jihad. Even Badawi’s sentence for murder of seventeen U.S. sailors in the USS Cole bombing was commuted from death to fifteen years of prison.
The hunt for the escaped al Qaeda members is being directed at the capital city of Sana’a, the port cities of Aden and Abyan, and the al-Jawf and Marib provinces, which are believed to be strongholds of al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia has stepped up security on its border with Yemen, which under ordinary circumstances is a source of arms and traffic for al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden’s family is from Yemen, and Yemeni fighters play an important role in fueling al Qaeda’s organization.
The U.S. maintains a task force across the Bab el-Mandab strait at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. Their purpose is to provide security for the critical transit chokepoint as well as participate in security operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Penisula. The escape of Badawi, al-Rabe’ie and other al Qaeda members with intimate knowledge of maritime terrorist operations has just made thier job a whole lot harder and much more dangerous.