Terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia have seen a resurgence following a string of prison breaches.
More than two years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia have seen a resurgence following a string of prison breaches that freed 500 al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq on Monday and at least 248 members of the Pakistani Taliban over the weekend.
It’s a situation that terrorism experts believe will exacerbate sectarian violence and instability in both countries. Iraq and Pakistan are both beset by ongoing attacks, with the former losing more than 4,000 citizens to terrorist attacks in 2013 alone.
When contacted for comment, professor John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, offered Mint Press News the following statement on the recent events:
“In a nutshell, however, these jailbreaks, in Pakistan and elsewhere are potentially a major disaster — the actual consequences of which [we] won’t know for some time. The seriousness of this and the other prison breaks [e.g. Abu Ghraib] cannot be overstated.”
Jailbreak in Iraq: Spillover into Syria
The bigger of the two recent jailbreaks began Sunday night in a well-orchestrated attack on a prison in the outskirts of Baghdad.
The Guardian reports that suicide bombers drove cars packed with explosives to the gates of the prison and blasted their way into the compound while gunmen attacked guards with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Ten policemen and four militants were killed in the clashes, which lasted until Monday morning. Iraqi military helicopters were called in, eventually ending the insurrection. By the time Iraqi security forces were able to regain control, roughly 500 prisoners had escaped. Most of them were convicted senior members of al-Qaida and had received death sentences.
Many were captured during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003-2011 but have now disappeared without a trace. Intelligence experts say that some of the most dangerous al-Qaida operatives are now on the loose, creating a nightmare for Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which has struggled with violence concentrated in Shiite areas over the course of his administration.
“We just lost track of everyone we didn’t kill who was in al-Qaida during the surge,” one U.S. intelligence analyst said to the Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.
Even before the latest jailbreak, Iraq had been mired in violence and sectarian strife that has worsened since the NATO withdrawal in 2011.
Al-Jazeera reports more than 600 people have been killed in July, most of them civilians. This follows a United Nations announcement in May that at least 963 civilians had been killed and more than 2,000 injured in the biggest monthly casualty toll since 2008.
Reuters reported Monday that the most recent major attack was launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was formed earlier this year through a merger between al-Qaida’s affiliates in Iraq and Syria.
The group is responsible for 17 separate blasts targeting areas with high concentrations of Shiite residents. At least 60 people were killed in Monday’s attacks, adding to the 4,000 who have been killed in similar terrorist bombings across Iraq since the start of the year.
«The war continues,» said Brig. Gen. Saad Mann, an Interior Ministry spokesman who blames most of the violence on al-Qaida, according to Al-Jazeera. «Their first aim is to kill as many people as possible, the second is to send a sectarian message and the third is the continuation of what is happening in the region — what is happening in Syria is definitely affecting Iraq.»
Al-Jazeera reports that the bulk of the attacks have been coordinated bombings — mostly in crowded markets and cafes frequented by civilians after sunset, when families break their daily fasting during the month of Ramadan.
The rampant violence has elicited dire warnings from some United Nations officials who believe that Iraq could plunge back into war. In May, U.N. Special Representative to Iraq Martin Kobler issued a warning, saying, “Systemic violence is ready to explode at any moment if all Iraqi leaders do not engage immediately to pull the country out of this mayhem.”
The jailbreak in Iraq could have grave implications for neighboring Syria, which is beset by a war that has claimed the lives of 100,000 since the outbreak of hostilities in March 2011. The New York Times reported that there are at least 6,000 foreign fighters now operating inside Syria, many of them fighters for radical Salafist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In Iraq and Syria, the goal of these groups is to violently overthrow the existing governments, replace them with a religious state governed by a form of Sunni Salafist Sharia, and then merge Syria and Iraq and into a single state, or “caliphate.”
After bin Laden: Pakistan jailbreaks
This all occurs at the same time as a similar jailbreak in Pakistan, where Taliban fighters fought to free at least 248 prisoners in Dera Ismail Khan, according to a recent BBC report.
In what was described by eyewitnesses as a “sophisticated attack,” Taliban fighters stormed the prison, blew up an electricity line, and engaged in a two- to three-hour gun battle before freeing the prisoners.
Up to 100 attackers, some wearing police uniforms, also used mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to gain entry into the prison and fight off Pakistani police. At least 13 people were killed, including six police, during the attack.
Katherine Houreld, a correspondent for Reuters news agency, told the BBC it had been a «very sophisticated attack — they blew the electricity line, they breached the walls and they set ambushes for reinforcements.”
Attackers at one point reportedly called out the names of specific prisoners they had come to free. At least 30 «hardened militants,» who were in prison for their involvement in major attacks or suicide bombings, were among those freed.
“The state appears not to have the capacity, and some would say the will, to rein in hardened militants,” Shahzeb Jillani of the BBC said.
Security and terrorism experts believe there is no direct link between the prison breaks in Iraq and Pakistan, but the earlier Pakistan incursion may have served as inspiration for those who carried out the prison break near Baghdad.
«There is no evidence of any coordination as such but one could reasonably assume there is a contagion effect. It’s a bit like hijacking in the 1970s and 1980s,» Magnus Ranstorp, a researcher at the Swedish National Defence College, told The Guardian.
This theory is supported by local security experts who fear that the two successful jailbreaks will now inspire more attempts in both countries.
«All these groups watch one another. They pick up knowledge, learn lessons, replicate tactics … This will keep happening,» said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst and author in Islamabad, to The Guardian.
The funding for extremist groups in Iraq and Pakistan can likely be traced back to wealthy financiers in the Persian Gulf. In 2001, Forbes magazine reported that al-Qaida received “financing from well-wishers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries; another source of revenue is the international heroin trade, in which Afghanistan is one of the key players.”
Some of al-Qaida’s funding has even come from within the Saudi Arabian government, according to Robert Baer, a former CIA operative and author of “Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude.” The Saudi Arabian government transferred $500 billion to al-Qaida and $100 million to the Taliban, Baer reported in a piece for The Atlantic.