Yemeni authorities were hunting Feb. 6 for 23 convicted al Qaeda operatives — including the mastermind of the deadly 2000 attack against the USS Cole — who escaped from a Sanaa prison Feb. 3. The breakout demonstrates not only that al Qaeda can establish contact with its operatives in Middle Eastern prisons, but also that imprisoning militants is not a sure way of taking them out of circulation. Moreover, this mass breakout could be the first step in a planned attack in the region. Jamal Mohammad al-Badawi, mastermind of the USS Cole attack, has escaped from a Yemeni prison once before — along with nine other prisoners. He remained at large for 11 months, until Yemeni security forces wounded him during an intense firefight in March 2004. In September of that year he was convicted and sentenced to death along with two other operatives for his role in the Cole attack, though his sentence was reduced to 15 years on appeal.
Given the complexity of the Feb. 3 escape, the plan likely was in the works for months. The inmates reportedly slipped through a 300-yard-long tunnel that started in the women's prayer room of a mosque in central Sanaa. For a tunnel of that length to be dug into the prison — nearly a third of it was inside the prison's perimeter — without being detected suggests the inmates had help from accomplices on staff. Militants on the outside also likely arranged assistance from mosque personnel. The Yemeni political system is based on tribal connections, which influence everything from law enforcement to foreign policy. Given that the death sentences of al-Badawi's Saudi accomplices were not also commuted, it is possible that al-Badawi's connections played a role in the decision in his case. With tribal connections influencing Yemen's security apparatus as well, Yemeni prisons likely are less than airtight. Tribal connections also might have played a part in al-Badawi's earlier escape. Given that this prison break, like al-Badawi's earlier escape, also included other seasoned operatives — among them Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeiee, who was responsible for an October 2002 attack against the French oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden — the escapees possibly are preparing for a future militant attack. If they can get out of Yemen, these operatives represent a threat to the region. Al-Badawi remained in Yemen after his last escape, but this time could opt to slip over Yemen's porous borders. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa is practically a fortress, while oil facilities in the country are protected by agreements with tribal leaders, suggesting that any attack would be attempted elsewhere, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan or Afghanistan. With security already tight on the Arabian Peninsula in the wake of attacks in Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, al-Badawi could attempt to link up with al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers in northern Yemen before reaching out to other al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan or Pakistan. To avoid having to deal with the political backlash that comes from extraditing terrorism suspects, Washington routinely allows Middle Eastern countries to incarcerate convicted militants. This supposedly gets the operative out of circulation — though it obviously is no guarantee they will remain that way, nor that they will not have contact with their colleagues on the outside. Many jihadists have escaped from prisons and detention facilities in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In Iraq, detainees have escaped from U.S.-run facilities, including Abu Ghraib prison. The only way to ensure militant operatives no longer present a threat is either to carry out their death sentences or incarcerate them at secure U.S.-operated facilities such as the Diego Garcia detention facility in the Indian Ocean, the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility or a maximum-security federal penitentiary inside the United States.