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Yemen: Al-Qaeda leading prison break operations - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Yemeni policemen stand guard as workers rebuild the central prison's outer wall on February 14, 2014 in the capital Sanaa. (AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

Yemeni policemen stand guard as workers rebuild the central prison’s outer wall on February 14, 2014 in the capital, Sana’a. (AFP/Mohammed Huwais)

Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—At least 200 prisoners have escaped from Yemeni prisons over the past three years, the majority being members of the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization. The Yemeni Defense Ministry believes that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is carrying out coordinated attempts to free the 400–450 Al-Qaeda members currently languishing in Yemeni prisons.

The latest incident saw a number of Al-Qaeda affiliates escaping from the Central Prison in Sana’a in early February following a daring armed prison break resulting in the deaths of at least 7 guards. Members of the terrorist group attacked the high-security prison, detonating a car bomb at the prison’s outside wall and exchanging fire with prison guards. Yemen has witnessed a number of other external prison breaks over the past three years.

Dr. Mohamed Al-Qaedi, spokesman for the Yemeni Defense Ministry, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Al-Qaeda has always tried to break its members out of prison.”

“The majority of prisoners who have escaped have been Al-Qaeda members,” he added.

“If there were other individuals or parties involved in these prison break attempts, particularly the most recent incident [at the Central Prison], then our investigations will also reveal this,” Al-Qaedi told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Defense Ministry official affirmed that investigations into the spate of Yemeni prison breaks are ongoing and that “we are working on more than one angle to uncover the circumstances behind these prison breaks and who is behind this.” Yemen’s Defense Minister confirmed that recapturing escaped prisoners represents a priority for the country’s security forces.

AQAP has had a growing presence in Yemen in recent years, taking advantage of the weakening security situation, with some analysts warning that the terrorist group has even managed to infiltrate the state security apparatus.

Approximately 229 prisoners have escaped from Yemeni prisons since 2006, the majority being former or current members of the terrorist group.

AQAP has increased its attacks on state infrastructure over the past year, particularly military targets and prisons. A recent report by the Yemen Times said there have been a total of 23 prison breaks since 2006, resulting in a total of 459 inmates escaping from jail. The report added that methods of escape range from tunneling out of prison to external parties storming a jail to release inmates.

The report indicated that the majority of prison breaks are organized by AQAP, with Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Mohammed Hizam saying that “Al-Qaeda has a presence nearby and is able to re-release prisoners.”

Yemeni Human Rights activist Abdulrahman Barman, head of the HOOD prisoners’ rights organization, told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are between 400 and 450 senior Al-Qaeda figures currently in Yemeni jails, adding that many of them are awaiting trial, while others have finished serving their sentences but are still imprisoned.