Al Qaeda’s jailbreaks have been an all too common occurrence in the post-9/11 world. And they have directly fueled the fight. Chances are the massive jailbreak in Iraq this week will cause significant problems for the U.S. and its allies down the road. History tells us as much. There are numerous examples of once-detained al Qaeda operatives rejoining the terror network. Consider just two examples.
The current head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al Wuhayshi, escaped from a Yemeni jail in 2006. Along with a hardened crew of other escapees and ex-Guantanamo detainees, Wuhayshi went on to rebuild al Qaeda’s Arabian franchise after it had been decimated by years of counterterrorism operations.
It didn’t take long for Wuhayshi’s group to start targeting the U.S. AQAP was reborn in early 2009. On Christmas Day 2009, a would-be suicide bomber who was recruited and trained by AQAP nearly detonated a clever underwear bomb on board a Detroit-bound airliner. AQAP has launched other attempted attacks against the U.S. since then. The organization has also built an irregular army to challenge the Yemeni state, meaning many security challenges will have to be met for years to come.
Abu Yahya al Libi, who rose through al Qaeda’s ranks to become one of the organization’s most senior leaders in Pakistan, also escaped from a prison. In July 2005, al Libi and several others escaped from Bagram Air Base. Unlike Wuhayshi, who served as bin Laden’s aide-de-camp and protégé during the 1990s, al Libi was, as the New York Times put it, “an obscure militant preacher” when he slipped out of custody. Three years later, in 2008, the American press was discussing al Libi’s “meteoric ascent,” as he became one of al Qaeda’s most recognized figures. And four years after that, in June 2012, al Libi was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Al Libi’s death was, in turn, cited by the Obama administration as proof that al Qaeda’s death also neared.
But the jailbreak from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison earlier this week is just one reason why al Qaeda is more resilient than Obama administration officials have imagined. Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, the rebranded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has claimed responsibility. 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.”
Time will tell just how many “significant” al Qaeda operatives are once again on the loose, but according to Iraqi press accounts al Qaeda’s one-time provincial and district leaders were busted out. That is, at least some of the men who helped al Qaeda acquire territory in Iraq, thus necessitating a surge of American forces, are now back in the game.
And they are rejoining an al Qaeda presence that has made a remarkable comeback since American forces left. According to Associated Press, Pentagon data show that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, now ISIL) increased its operational capacity from 75 attacks per week in early 2012 to “an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq” by the end of the year. ISIL’s ranks swelled even before the jail break. And the al Qaeda wing established new training camps, new safe havens, and a whole new arm in Syria -- the Al Nusrah Front. The success of the Al Nusrah Front prompted a fight between two al Qaeda honchos over who deserves credit for, as well the right to command, al Qaeda’s presence inside Syria.
All of which is to say that a very bad situation just became even worse. Al Qaeda has recovered talented members who had been taken off the board. This will likely include some known al Qaeda bigwigs, as well as some, like Abu Yahya al Libi, who few here in the West had heard of before.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.