Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The escape of seven prisoners linked to Al-Qaeda from Malaz prison in Riyadh raises questions about how best to deal with wanted militants or those who represent an ideological or military danger, in addition to those who offer logistical support to al Qaeda members.
The authorities have warned that anyone who harbors the fugitives will be punished. In this regard, observers will note that the seven escapees are young, their ages ranging from 16 to 26. They will also state that the escape was a collective action, the result of one of two scenarios: either the escape occurred after a sudden lapse in the security precautions that are usually adopted when dealing with ordinary citizens, let alone dangerous inmates, or it marked the culmination of a complex process, the result of many hours of lurking and observation in order to find a loophole in the prison system. In this case, I assume an investigation has been set up to try to uncover what went wrong.
Another observation is that the escape of “security prisoners”, to use the government’s description, was not the first one to occur in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in recent years prisoners belonging to the al Nakheel cell successfully broke out of jail and, prior to that, on 20 January 1998, Libyan detainees who belonged to an armed extremist group, fled from al Mabahith jail in Jeddah. No one uncovered how the prisoners succeeded in their escape, until the Libyan Abi al Laith al Qasimi revealed the details of the operation, in an interview published on extremist internet forums and al Fajr magazine. Crucially, he revealed that two failed attempts to escape preceded the successful break out, with the prisoners fleeing outside of Saudi Arabia. Later, Abu al Laith appeared in a videotape from Afghanistan praising al Qaeda’s terrorist activities and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
It is also important to ask whether, in normal circumstances, prisoner held over security related issues are detained in special jails or a general jail like Malaz in the capital, where petty criminals are held. Al Qaeda members and other dangerous prisoners are usually held in high-security prisons such as al Hayer, south of Riyadh . Where the seven men detained in a general prison because their profile did not match that of inmates in high security jails like al Hayer?
What will the escapees do now that they are free again? Will they become even more dangerous? Will they take part in another terrorist operation? Will they surrender to the authorities when they feel life inside the prison’s gates is safer than outside? Will they escape to Iraq and join the insurgency?
The recent escape from Malaz prison raises an important question: how best to deal with al Qaeda detainees and terrorists, without falling into the trap of inflicting injustices on innocent civilians or being careless with those who want to use their bodies as bombs, as has happened in Riyadh, Dammam, Medina, al Qassim and Jeddah.