Among the escapees Wednesday were members of an al-Qaeda cell that has killed foreign tourists and tried to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and other Western targets, according to Yemeni officials. AQAP was behind the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 and the mailing of bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States.
The prison break could reinject committed fighters into the group’s ranks. Yemeni officials have not released a list of escapees, but one official told The Washington Post that 57 of the 62 men, many of whom fled into nearby mountains, had been convicted on terrorism charges and that some had been sentenced to death.
“Even as we don’t know exactly who escaped yet, 62 is a very worrying number,” said Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and a diplomat in residence at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “The potential for destruction and disruption is high, although AQAP’s ability to be a political force, in whatever small area they control, is very limited.”
The prison in Mukalla, which is about 300 miles east of Aden, held up to 100 convicts who were associated with al-Qaeda or who had been imprisoned after returning from Iraq, where they had joined the insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition, according to Yemeni officials. They said two Syrians and two Saudis were among those who escaped.
The inmates dug the 50-yard tunnel themselves, said one jail official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give details of the escape.
They attacked a guard with daggers, snatched his gun and fired it as they were making their escape, the official said. One guard was fatally shot, and another was wounded. At the same time, militants attacked from the outside, and a gun battle raged for 30 minutes while the prisoners fled.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said that three of the escapees were later killed by security forces and two were captured.
The prison break Wednesday, though far from the first in Yemen, came at a moment of political crisis in the country and seemed likely to heighten fears among U.S. counterterrorism officials that AQAP is gathering strength as the authority of the central government weakens.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen for Saudi Arabia on June 3 after he was injured in an attack on his palace during days of bloody street fighting in the capital. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been the acting president since Saleh’s departure, and although the clashes between government loyalists and rival tribes in Sanaa have abated, the political process has stalled.