Early this morning, a number of prisoners escaped from a Yemeni central prison in the eastern coastal city of al-Mukalla.
The details, as with most stories – particularly breaking ones – out of Yemen, are still a bit sketchy.
Most reports suggest that anywhere from 40 – 68 prisoners have escaped. Currently, there are four theories as to how this happened.
1. Tunnel: Of course, a tunnel was responsible for Yemen’s most famous prison break in 2006 – which I have called AQAP’s genesis moment. But still I don’t think a tunnel is likely here, and has been discounted by at least one user on a jihadi forum, who claims that the prison’s location on a mountain makes this impossible. (I have been unable to confirm the exact location of the prison.)
2. Uprising: This version has prisoners overpowering guards and breaking free – most of the reports claim that at least one prison guard was killed and possibly another one or two injured.
3. Outside attack: This version has AQAP members swooping down on the prison and breaking their comrades out of jail.
4. Inside Job. This theory argues that Salih and his allies are responsible for the prison break, and are attempting to use the threat of more AQAP attacks and future chaos in Yemen to blackmail the US and Saudi Arabia into letting him remain as president. I guess on the assumption that the US and Saudi Arabia think he has been doing a bang-up job so far.
My hunch is that today’s events are a combination of 2 and 3, that is an outside attack by AQAP members, who were then supported by some of the prisoners. But that is just a guess, and I have no inside information.
The reason I lean this way is that AQAP has tried this before. Last summer it attacked an intelligence center in Aden in an effort to free some individuals that were being held there. To me, this sounds like a similar operation and one AQAP thought it could get away with given the current state of security in the country.
For those who want to see a conspiracy theory, there are plenty of shadows to poke into. Salih is weak and the prison break just happened to take place on the day Jeffrey Feltman, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs came to town.
And of course as I have said before and will say again in a soon to be released bloggingheads on Yemen, Salih over-hypes AQ and the opposition downplays AQ to the point that it is just one more thing both sides use to attack each other with.
But regardless of how it took place – it seems to have taken place. And this means that both Yemen, the US, and regional countries are going to have to deal with the aftermath. And that, in turn, will depend a great deal on who these individuals are.
Identities are very important. After the 2006 prison break I spent a long time combing through jihadi forums and news reports to put together bios of the 23 (Part I and Part II) and as it turned out the two individuals the US was most worried about (Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna) were not the two most dangerous individuals (Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi). We rarely have perfect or even good intelligence on these figures, but their personal histories matter a lot.
My guess, based on early reporting, is that many of these individuals fought in Iraq. That is not to say that they are all members of al-Qaeda, because there is a difference. But I’m worried that these individuals – if the reports are true – are experienced fighters.
When they got back to Yemen they were arrested and thrown into prison – and prisons in Yemen are radicalizaton factories, where men are crammed into cells and where very often more experienced fighters educate and mentor younger ones. This is a dangerous and severely understudied phenomenon that has produced a number of the suicide bombers in Yemen in recent years.
So regardless of how it happened, this prison break is bad news. Seriously bad news.
Update: Of course, as soon as I post this, the bloggingheads session I did with Robert Wright went live on the site. You can watch it here, we spent much of it talking about AQAP in Yemen.