Al Qaeda assaults Iraqi jails, frees hundreds of prisoners


Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, launched coordinated suicide assaults last night against two Iraqi jails, killing 26 policemen and freeing more than 500 prisoners.

The al Qaeda affiliate attacked prisons in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, and Taji, north of the capital, on Sunday in an effort to break out leaders and fighters being held by the government.

The attacks began as suicide bombers struck at the main gate to open a hole for assault teams, Reuters reported. The attacks were accompanied by mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades from supporting units, while blocking forces deployed on the roads to the prisons to fend off Iraqi forces attempting to relieve the besieged prison guards.

Iraqi policemen in Taji fended off the assault, but al Qaeda was far more successful at Abu Ghraib, where hundreds of terrorists escaped. Iraqi forces fought the al Qaeda assault team until Monday morning before regaining control of the prison.

“The number of escaped inmates has reached 500, most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences,” a senior member of the security and defense committee in parliament told Reuters. Some of the inmates were recaptured after Iraqi reinforcements reached the prison, but most have escaped.

Ten Iraqi policemen and four al Qaeda fighters were killed during the Abu Ghraib jailbreak. In Taji, 16 policemen were killed while fending off the assault; six al Qaeda fighters were also killed.

Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has targeted Iraqi prisons several times in the past in efforts to free its operatives and leaders. In one such attack, in September 2012 at the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit, more than 100 prisoners escaped.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, or Abu Du’a, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, announced the “Destroying the Walls” campaign in July 2012, and said that the group would place emphasis on efforts “to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere.”

Al Qaeda maintains the capacity to organize and execute large-scale, complex attacks such as the assaults on the prisons in Abu Ghraib and Taji. Another such attack, in Haditha in March 2012, killed 27 Iraqi policemen. Al Qaeda in Iraq was able to organize and train more than 100 fighters disguised as police commandos, block the roads into the town, and round up and execute the policemen.

The terror group has also demonstrated the ability to launch coordinated attacks and suicide bombings against security forces, the government, and civilians in multiple cities throughout the country.

The past 24 hours have been especially deadly for Iraqi security forces. In Mosul, 23 Iraqi soldiers and two civilians were killed in a suicide attack that targeted an Army convoy at a market. Also, four more policemen were killed in a separate attack in the northern city.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has stepped up the use of suicide bombers to conduct attacks inside Iraq. In the past 37 days, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has executed 22 suicide attacks and assaults inside Iraq, according to a count by The Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda has not only increased its operational tempo in Iraq after the US withdrew its forces at the end of 2011, but expanded its operations in Syria. The terror group’s Iraqi branch formed the Al Nusrah Front in Syria in early 2012, and has since been at the vanguard of some of the heaviest fighting against President Assad’s forces. Jihadists are in control of several cities and vast areas of the countryside, and, along with other rebel groups, have imposed sharia, or Islamic law.

Flush with success in Syria, al Baghdadi created the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in April in an attempt to consolidate his control over the Al Nusrah Front. The emir of the Al Nusrah Front rejected the merger, and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, weighed in against al Baghdadi. But al Baghdadi has rejected Zawahiri’s rebuke and has continued to operate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • EDDIED. says:

    Don’t ask the American troops to come back to help capture these guys for you again. As easy as it was for Al Qaeda to free them I am wondering how you managed to capture them in the first place.

  • mike merlo says:

    Very impressive on the part of AQ.
    Another fine example of the Obama’s Administration cluelessness & myopic narrow minded ‘vision’ of what can & has taken place in Iraq let alone the greater Middle East not to mention what the ‘future holds.’

  • Will Fenwick says:

    An entire battalion of militants added back to the ranks of al-qaeda, i imagine many will attempt to make their way though to salafi controlled areas of syria.

  • Birbal Dhar says:

    These kind of things are so common in Iraq, it wouldn’t even hit the major pages of world newspapers, let alone reported on television news outside the Arab world.

  • Memlik Pasha says:

    Yesterday’s complex assault on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons was probably one of the most complex and sophisticated operations conducted by the al-Qa’ida network in the post-9/11 era, on par with AQI’s March 2012 assault on Haditha and LeT’s 2008 Mumbai attack. The tide of war is receding, nation building here at home, etc., etc.
    It should be noted that the up to 500 escapees figure quoted by al-Arabiya, Reuters and other media outlets comes from the Iraqi interior ministry, which has history of under reporting casualty figures and spinning its counterinsurgency and security operations (i.e. the recent security sweep in Anbar and Jazirah).
    Abu Ghraib prison holds around 10,000 prisoners, and al-Taji around 6,000. If the prisons were completely overrun by AQI, as claimed by some jihadist reports, the number of escaped prisoners could number up to 10,000, with around 7,000 being the figure reported by jihadist sources. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq may have tripled its manpower with one stroke, and garnered significant publicity and respect in the jihadist community and among Iraq’s Sunnis. AQI/ISIS is now probably the largest, most battle-hardened and sophisticated AQ franchise, stronger then at any time since the height of the insurgency in 2006.

  • donowen says:

    The Iraqis must kill these folks in the field and stop this absurd revolving door capture program. These individuals are like our dope dealers, prison is a time to rest. AQ gives no quarter and expects none.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    Iraq: What a cluster!

  • Gaz says:

    Huge tactical victory by ISI/AQI here, hundreds of experienced fighters returning to their ranks is one thing, but they apparently are going to receive an influx of senior commanders to integrate them.
    The question is will they stay in Iraq or move to Syria?

  • BobbyD says:

    While in the end, this will cause more innocent Iraqis to die, the state of Iraq remains more than capable of outlasting Al Qaeda.

  • Bill S. says:

    It seems that the current government of Iraq is slowly losing control, so the question is, who will step in to fill the vacuum? Or is there anyone? It doesn’t really seem that there is any outside force capable of stopping the slide of Iraq’s government into irrelevance. So what comes next?

  • M.H says:

    Significant attacks by AQI that reflect a long time planing and a good organization. No surprise if the attacks involve any direct or indirect participation from groups in Syria.

  • Evan says:

    Thid is text book AQ, suicide assault teams, prison breaks, multiple coordinated and simultaneous strikes. What makes it stand out to me is the use of “blocking positions,” as well as idf support units. Clearly well planned and executed, by it’s overwhelming success, even if Abu ghraib failed, it caused confusion and tied up resources.
    No one would have predicted this back in 2010 or 2011, cause no body really factored in the war in Syria, how could they?
    What I mean by that, is AQ’s massive resurgence, and battlefield victories in Syria. Everyone was predicting a resurgence of AQ, but not like this…..
    Final thoughts, the “mujahideen” or terrorists, that are leading and fighting in Al Nusra, abd probably a whole host of other extremist jihadi combat outfits have been fighting the greatest military on the planet for the last 12 years or so, so of course at least some of those guys are going to be pretty damn good at small unit tactics and command and control, fire and maneuver, and support by fire. They’ve planned and executed operations in the past, and against far better trained and equipped troops.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Oh good news then for Obama and Cameron.
    Hundreds of experienced fighters that will join the ranks of the rebel forces in Syria soon to help destroy the Syrian government and unleash massive ethnic cleansing and sharia rule. Maybe some of these AQ escapees will even obtain US weapons in the near future, easily buying them from the corrupt and irrelevant FSA.
    Middle East is heading for a bigger nightmare than ever.

  • Gerald says:

    Well we asked if we could stay and help with security and the Iraqis said they could handle it. So I guess they had best get to work handling it. Because it looks like its getting out of control over there.

  • Matt says:

    This is bad news but not that bad. Who doesn’t think Syrian rebels could use some more manpower? Now Iran will have to start pouring even more blood and resources into Iraq on top of Syria. The more terrorists are out of jail and killing each other in large numbers the better for us. The best part is US soldiers are out of the crossfire and terrorists of all sides are going to die in large numbers. The US should just control the movement of people outside the region to catch terrorists going to the EU or US but other than that let them kill each other for as long as it takes. This is just a repeat of the Iran/Iraq War but on a much larger geographic scale.

  • Solomon2 says:

    Most impressive. Next time the convicted terrorists will need to be executed promptly, I suppose.

  • weRalldoingtime says:

    Severely Poor Security~Huge Public Safety issue~who ever is in charge needs to be replaced immediately,starting with the Defense Minister.

  • Solomon2 says:

    The thought occurs that this event may have had rich Gulf sponsors, their purpose being to provide fanatic fighters for their anti-Shia war in Syria.

  • Moose says:

    @Bill S.
    To answer your question, the groups that will step in are the Shiite militias, supported by Iran of course.
    Exactly right. What you describe is the honeypot theory. The more Iraq unravels the more Iran will have to invest there and in Syria. We have to consider our own security first and foremost.

  • Not Convinced says:

    You (and others) are wrong thinking both sides will exterminate themselves. Is not a cartoon, were Tom and Jerry are blasting each other simultaneously to pieces. One side will get the upper hand (most likely Sunni, on the long run), or they will unite in the end towards the common enemy.
    For sure by then all moderates/minorities, as few as they are, will be all dead and the jihadis will have a very trained army numbering hundreds of thousands, but still fighting guerrilla style.
    If 100 muslim teenagers rioting can halt an European country like UK or France, and 2 Chechen terrorists can wreak havoc into a large city, imagine just 1000 trained jihadis going loose – each can easily kill a lot of civilians, especially in Europe were we are all disarmed and police/army useless, with US taking a following course at fast pace.
    Letting things degrade is not the way, after you stirred the pot. Leaving huge resources and land areas under jihadi control is a disaster. Not mentioning the local populace which will become a infinite source of man power, especially after 1 generation of brainwashing.

  • mike merlo says:

    the US isn’t capable of controlling anything. Like everybody else we’re just along for the ride

  • blert says:

    It has been the course of history that moderation occurs after intense periods of bloodshed. Such periods may last decades — but they do end.
    As we see with the mullahs of Iran, domestic politics can take a radical and reactionary turn at the exact same time that all of the other players are practicing moderate politics/ calls to reason.
    The AQ al Anbar campaign burned out its fanatics.
    Sometimes the only way to convince anyone of folly is through suffering. It seems to be the way humanity is wired.

  • Moose says:

    @Not Convinced
    As a military and political strategy, enemy infighting has always been highly effective. Read some Machiavelli.
    “the jihadis will have a very trained army numbering hundreds of thousands…
    Without prudent policies in other areas, such as immigration, these fighters will no doubt return and cause havoc in Europe. Did you read Matt mention that we need to control their return? Getting rid of jihadists in Europe and sending them to Syria without the chance to return is a small step towards fixing the mess that multiculturalists got us into in the first place. Of course, not only will they be allowed to return, but they’ll continue receiving government assistance and having multiple babies that’s going to alter the demographic balance. We’re headed towards disaster in about 50 years.

  • gb says:

    @not convinced…if there’s only bad guys left it removes discretion from the airial targeting ROE…as @ Matt mentioned and I agree, how long before Obama’s minions are cracking rifle cases and handing these savages American weapons? This region is a complete cluster and anything outside of Jordan and or Israel should be declared a free fire zone by NATO.

  • Veteran says:

    God bless our intelligence and elite, this is not going to be a “no problem deal” the Iraq prez is arresting , nice job , that will not close this chapter. Go Red berets .


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