With Yemen in Turmoil, Al Qaeda Breaks Hundreds Out of Prison

April 2, 2015
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer

The conflict in Yemen grew even more complicated on Thursday, with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seizing an opportunity amid escalating violence in the country to release hundreds of prisoners from the central prison in the southern city of Al Mukalla.

The militants from AQAP, which is widely considered Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, attacked several government buildings and the presidential palace, according to The New York Times, but their main target seemed to be the prison.

Among the prisoners reportedly freed was a top regional commander for Al Qaeda, Khalid Batarfi. He was jailed after leading AQAP in battle with Yemen’s security forces in 2011 and 2012. Anywhere between 270 and over 300 prisoners were freed alongside Batarfi, according to various media reports, with up to a third believed to have Al Qaeda links.

Also Read: The U.S. Fight Against Al Qaeda in Yemen Just Got Harder

Analysts have warned for months that the political instability and power vacuum in Yemen that worsened with the capital’s takeover by Houthi rebels last September would benefit AQAP. Thursday’s assault on Al Mukalla appeared to confirm those fears.

“A destabilized Yemen is always good for AQAP,” Laura Kasinof, author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, told FRONTLINE in January. “It’s one of the reasons that they have a presence in the country to begin with.”

In fact, the roots of AQAP can be traced back to another prison break in early 2006, when 23 suspected fighters with the group, including its current leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, escaped from a detention center in the capital Sanaa.

Also Watch: Al Qaeda in Yemen

The news from Yemen coincides with a United Nations report finding that Al Qaeda and its rival Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have attracted more than 25,000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have become “international finishing schools” for extremist militants, according to the report, with the number of foreign fighters rising 71 percent between mid-2014 and this March. Details of the forthcoming report were first reported by the Associated Press. 

While Iraq and Syria have been the largest magnets for foreign recruits, the report said 6,500 fighters had gone to Afghanistan and hundreds of foreigners were fighting across the region, including in Yemen.

Related Film: The Fight for Yemen

With Yemen in chaos, a gripping report from the heart of the escalating conflict. Coming to FRONTLINE on April 7.

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