Iraq Prison Break Worries Counterterrorism Officials

Al-Qaida operations around the world have used prison breaks as a method to beef up their ranks. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group's arm in Yemen, came into being shortly after a 2006 prison break. That history explains why officials are so worried about a jailbreak this week in Iraq. More than 400 prisoners are thought to have escaped, and many of them are key operatives with the group al-Qaida in Iraq.

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And when we think about the future of Iraq, one big concern is al-Qaida's growing strength there. This week, al-Qaida's arm in Iraq launched coordinated attacks on two prisons near Baghdad. One was the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison. To break through the prison walls there, the group used a dozen suicide bombers, and they attacked guards with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Al-Qaida has staged spectacular prison breaks in the past. It's a tried-and-true method of reinforcing their ranks. Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Until this week, al-Qaida's best-known prison break happened seven years ago.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A worldwide security alert has been issued after convicted al-Qaida terrorists escaped from a prison in Yemen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: In all, 22 prisoners escaped down a 450-foot tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Interpol has issued alerts describing the men as a clear danger, not just to Yemen, but to the world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The prisoners in that great escape dug a tunnel under the prison, which surfaced in the women's bathroom in a nearby mosque. One of the men who got away had been convicted of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The escapees became the core of a new branch of al-Qaida. They called it al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group put an underwear bomber on a U.S. plane bound for Detroit back in 2009. It also hid a bomb in a printer cartridge that was supposed to bring down a U.S. cargo plane. Both those plots failed, but they put AQAP on the map.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I would put AQI above AQAP now.

TEMPLE-RASTON: AQI, al-Qaida in Iraq, took credit for this week's prison attacks. And that's Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University. He says al-Qaida's arm in Iraq has been staging a comeback for months.

HOFFMAN: This is obviously not something done spontaneously or serendipitously.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hoffman says the latest prison break was exceptionally well-planned.

HOFFMAN: The stereotype is that terrorists attack, you know, innocent civilians, soft accessible targets. When you're hitting a prison, you're talking about - at least in theory - one of the most hardened target sets within a country. And when you could hit two of them simultaneously and successfully, that's very worrisome.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Worrisome not just because of the sophistication of the attacks, but also because the prison breaks provided the group with hundreds of new recruits.

MYRIAM BENRAAD: I'm Myriam Benraad. I'm research fellow in Middle East studies at Science Po Paris Center for International Research and Studies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Benraad has been writing about Iraqi prisons for nearly a decade, and she says this operation is a little different from what happened in Yemen, because this time, the men who escaped were ordinary recruits.

BENRAAD: They're mostly Salafists, some of them known for being former insurgents. There's no real figure, high-level figure of al-Qaida in the prisons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But they're going to get lots of foot soldiers.

BENRAAD: Yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: More than 400 prisoners disappeared from the Abu Ghraib prison alone on Sunday night. And Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman says that the escapees are likely to end up even more loyal to al-Qaida.

HOFFMAN: And this is part of - I hate to use this term - but it is part of its HR approach, that if we can get you out, we're not going to forget about you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hoffman expects the escapees to head to Syria, where al-Qaida has joined forces with local groups. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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