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Al Qaeda's Breaking Bad

 Guards stand inside Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Photo by MOHAMMED AMEEN / REUTERS


There are about 250 prisoners in Pakistan who are no longer in prison today, thanks to a brazen jailbreak before midnight Monday. Reports say up to 150 heavily-armed Taliban fighters shot their way into a Dera Ismail Khan prison, in Pakistan's northwest. The Associated Press reported that militants used megaphones to call out the names of the specific prisoners. 

On Saturday, near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, more than 1,000 inmates were freed following attacks on the Koyfiya prison.

More than 500 militants - now sought by Interpol at a "major threat" to global security - escaped in Iraq last week after an attack by the local Al Qaeda group (AQI). It was reportedly a sophisticated operation with teams of suicide and car bombers, hitting the Taji prison first before attacking the notorious Abu Ghraib where most of the captured AQI members were held.

Worrying, of course, for the three countries and surrounding regions, as militants are likely to spill over into conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Al Qaeda's members in Iraq and Syria already merged in April into what they are calling "The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant." Iraq's Al Qaeda leader warned a year ago that they would free inmates.

Prison breaks in the past have been significant for Al Qaeda, most notably in Yemen, where Al Qaeda was relatively subdued, until February 2006, where 23 militants managed a spectacular escape (with potential inside help). Two of the freed men, Qasim al-Raimi and Nasser al-Wahishi, who had fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, went on to build Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is regarded today by the U.S. administration as the number one threat to domestic safety.

But aside from fears of where the released militants may end up if not recaptured, the jailbreaks are worrying for what they signify. As the New York Time's Declan Walsh noted, the attack in Pakistan happened on the same day as lawmakers elected the country's 12th president - a stark reminder of the country's inability to fight militant violence, or as Walsh writes, shows "the troubling gap between politics and governance"

Former Pentagon intelligence analyst Joshua Foust, wrote Monday that prison breaks in Iraq are "deeply worrying for Iraq's long-term political prospects," and point to "an institutional hollowness."

Similar concerns in Libya, which has struggled in the aftermath of revolutions that swept the region in 2011 and 2012.

There may be no connection between the three, but there is little doubt this is a win for Al Qaeda, both in logistical terms and for the credibility boost of an amorphous group that has all too often been declared dead by counterterrorism analysts.

An audio recording reportedly by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri posted online Wednesday made no mention of the recent jailbreaks, but did refer to another well-known prison, according to Reuters.

Zawahiri said the hunger strikes by detainees at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," unmasks the true, ugly face of America."

"We pledge to God that we will spare no effort to free all our prisoners."

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm




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