Yemen: Behind the al-Qaeda ‘Jailbreak’

In Yemen, every government institution – the military, enforcement agencies, courts, detention centers, etc. – is under the strict control of the dictatorship. The prison from which the 23 al-Qaeda members escaped is known as the detention center for military intelligence, directly answerable to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is no Mickey Mouse jail. It is the most feared and secretive detention center in Yemen, located in the capital Sanaa, the heart of the dictatorship. It’s like a mini town, swarming with fully armed Interior Ministry officers. The conditions are atrocious, if ever you have the misfortune of being picked up by the secret police (and Yemen is swarming with them, too). Prisoners live in small confined areas, with no sanitary facilities, no lighting, and absolutely no privacy.

I hope I have given the reader a sense of the situation. You may ask, "How could any individual, let alone 23 dangerous al-Qaeda members, escape?" Exactly my point. Are we to believe that they were all housed together in one room, communicating with their accomplices, giving them their exact location, then escaping through a long tunnel built with the precision and expertise of an otter? It is clear that there was assistance from within the security services. A U.S. embassy cable sent from Sanaa that was described to Newsweek noted: "One thing is certain: PSO [Political Security Office] insiders must have been involved."

Let’s look at what we know. The guards learned of the escape the following day, Feb. 4. On Feb. 5, Interpol issued a global security alert. It then took two whole days (Feb. 7) before the regime decided to launch an intensive search in the capital and other parts of Yemen. On Feb. 9, President Saleh met with the Saudi interior minister to discuss terrorism and cross-border security. On Feb. 11, U.S. Navy ships were stationed off the coast of Yemen, just in case the al-Qaeda members decided to escape by boat.

Now let’s take a look at Yemen. For the past few months, there has been a small revolt to the north of Sanaa, and the regime is having difficulties suppressing it. In addition, the regime is beginning to sense that their iron grip on the population is weakening. Suddenly, the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, responsible for the deaths of 17 U.S. soldiers, escapes. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister then meets Saleh to discuss "cross-border" security: the mini-revolt against the regime is taking place near the Yemeni-Saudi border. Oh yes, Yemen’s interior minister, Rashad al-Alemi, is then promoted to deputy prime minister, while retaining his position as interior minister. It wouldn’t be wrong to presume that after the escape the interior minister should have been demoted, not promoted.

There is no doubt that the escape of the al-Qaeda members is a tool to be used against political opponents, both internally and externally. A few days after the "great escape," Saleh replaced several highly qualified officials of mostly Southern origin in and around the Southern city of Aden with corrupt and undeserving members of his family or tribe, further impeding the steady but slow economic growth of the region and thus reinvigorating his iron grip on a deprived population.

Now let’s rewind the clock to try to understand how this all started. In the 1994 civil war in Yemen, Saleh invited bin Laden-trained fighters to enter Yemen to suppress the South. These fighters played a major role in the victory of the North over the South. Today, they are being used to suppress the revolt to the north of Sanaa. In addition to pleading for help from bin Laden-trained fighters, Saleh also called upon his closest ally and mentor, Saddam Hussein, for assistance in the 1994 civil war. Saddam replied by sending generals. They remained and are today very much a part of the military apparatus. Furthermore, after the fall of Baghdad, top-level former Iraqi generals were recruited into Yemen’s military. As a result, Yemen’s security services are believed to be have been infiltrated by both al-Qaeda and Ba’athist personnel and sympathizers.

Many questions about the bombing of the USS Cole remain unanswered. However, we know that in the early hours before the attack, Saleh personally sent some high-level officials to the port in Aden. The then-interior minister issued an official letter instructing security personnel to give "safe passage to [Cole mastermind] Sheik Mohammed Omar al-Harazi [also known as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri] with three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted. All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions."

Yemen’s regime and politics is murky and untrustworthy. But by putting together the pieces, what we have is an agreement between Saleh’s regime and al-Qaeda fighters and former Iraqi generals to defend Saleh from popular opposition in return for safe havens and influence. Under the cover of the Yemeni regime, weaponry and money is channeled through Yemen to al-Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq. For example, two AK-47 assault rifles used in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia have been traced to Yemen’s Defense Ministry. And in 2003, the U.S. noted shipments of night vision goggles from Russia to Yemen that were most likely transshipped to the insurgency in Iraq.