INTERPOL issued a “global security alert advising increased vigilance for terrorist activity” on Saturday. While the U.S. government has warned of al Qaeda’s terrorist plotting against embassies and consulates, ordering 22 diplomatic facilities closed over the weekend, INTERPOL is alarmed by al Qaeda’s role in several large-scale jailbreaks.
The alert was issued after “a series of prison escapes across nine INTERPOL member countries in the past month alone, including in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.” INTERPOL highlighted the “suspected Al Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts,” which “led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for an assault on two Iraqi prisons in late July. According to the Washington Post, “U.S. officials put the number of escapees at between 500 and 600, including a significant number of al Qaeda operatives.”
Days later, the Pakistani Taliban led an assault on a prison in Dera Islmail Khan. Nearly 250 prisoners were reportedly freed, including dozens of hardened terrorists. As Bill Roggio pointed out, the assault was likely led by “Ansar al Aseer, a joint unit created by” the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The Pakistani Taliban has a “symbiotic relationship” with al Qaeda, and is responsible for the failed May 2010 terrorist attack in Times Square. The IMU is also affiliated with the global terrorist organization. IMU members routinely fight alongside al Qaeda in Afghanistan and an IMU offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), has been involved in al Qaeda’s international plotting.
There are no reliable, specific reports out of Libya concerning who is responsible for a jailbreak outside of Benghazi that freed more than 1,000 prisoners. But pro-al Qaeda groups such as Ansar al Sharia are ascendant in Benghazi, and other al Qaeda-linked groups are known to operate throughout the country. That jailbreak also took place in late July, sandwiched between the assaults in Iraq and Pakistan.
The degree to which these three jailbreaks, specifically mentioned by INTERPOL, were coordinated is unknown. In Iraq and Pakistan, suicide bombers were used as part of a coordinated assault on the prisons. This is entirely consistent, of course, with the modus operandi employed by al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
And after the hundreds of al Qaeda-linked jihadists were sprung from prison, al Qaeda released a message from Ayman al Zawahiri that was recorded in June.
“We pledge to Allah that we will spare no effort to free [the Guantanamo detainees] and free all our prisoners, on top of whom are Omar Abdel Rahman, Aafia Siddiqui, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, and every oppressed Muslim everywhere, with the help, guidance, and aid of Allah,” Zawahiri said. “It is our duty to help all the oppressed ones in this world to avenge themselves on their oppressors. This is our religion and these are our sharia rulings.”
Zawahiri has vowed to free al Qaeda’s prisoners before, but his call to “free all our prisoners” seemed to earn a special prominence in the message.
Whether the jailbreaks were ordered from on high by al Qaeda bigwigs, or spontaneously orchestrated by al Qaeda-affiliated groups, the result will be the same. Talented jihadists are back on the street to add more fuel to the fight.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.