Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Jihadists focus on prison breaks

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Bailey Cahall, Special to CNN
August 3, 2013 -- Updated 0104 GMT (0904 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Taliban commander leads prison attack in Pakistan, freeing 250 inmates
  • Peter Bergen: Jihadists have conducted jailbreaks in Middle East and South Asia for years
  • Bergen: Huge numbers are freed to join militants' ranks and score propaganda coups
  • U.S. needs to help make prisons vulnerable to attacks much more secure, he says

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Bailey Cahall is a research associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- In an attack orchestrated by a Pakistani Taliban commander, around 250 prisoners, most of them militants, were freed this week at the central prison in Dera Ismail Khan in northwestern Pakistan.

The commander, Adnan Rashid, had been freed a year earlier, this time at the central jail in Bannu, where 150 Taliban fighters stormed the facility and released nearly 400 prisoners -- Pakistan's largest jailbreak.

Both prison breaks happened in the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders North and South Waziristan, and both were conducted with a high degree of sophistication.

A police officer is hospitalized after being hurt in this week\'s deadly Taliban attack on a Pakistani prison.
A police officer is hospitalized after being hurt in this week's deadly Taliban attack on a Pakistani prison.

This week's attack unfolded in multiple stages, beginning with cutting the prison's electricity, detonating bombs that had been planted around the facility to breach its external wall, and ambushing the security forces that rushed to the scene.

Once the militants overwhelmed the guards, they used loudspeakers to contact and locate specific prisoners, freeing them from their cells with hand grenades. At least 13 people died in the attack. Pakistani authorities launched a search operation for the missing prisoners, but few have been recaptured. The others have simply melted away into the mountains.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Jihadist militants have been breaking people out of prison across the Middle East and South Asia for years, some with significant consequences for the United States and its allies.

Militant group claims responsibility for Iraq prison attacks

A 2006 prison break in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, led to the creation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of al Qaeda's most virulent affiliates, the one that recruited the "underwear bomber" who nearly brought down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

During the 2006 prison break, 23 inmates escaped through a 460-foot tunnel into a nearby mosque. Two of the escapees went on to become the leader and deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In 2008 and again in 2011, the Afghan Taliban led attacks on the Sarposa prison in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan that freed an astounding number of militants, around 1,700.

Like the prison attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan, the Kandahar plots showed sophisticated planning. In the aftermath of the 2011 breach, Afghan officials discovered an intricate network of tunnels under the jail, equipped with electrical and ventilation systems.

But perhaps no group has made prison breaks an organizational focus more than al Qaeda in Iraq. On July 21, 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, announced the "Breaking the Walls" campaign, a yearlong effort to release his group's prisoners.

Taliban pens letter to Malala
Are the Taliban in Syria?

According to a count by the Institute for the Study of War, since al-Baghdadi's announcement, al Qaeda in Iraq has conducted assaults on seven major prisons.

Earlier this month, hundreds of prisoners, including senior members of al Qaeda, escaped from Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail on the outskirts of Baghdad following a military-style assault on the prison. Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, a prison riot and an attack launched from outside Al-Kuifiya prison in Benghazi, Libya, freed more than 1,000 inmates Saturday.

Although it doesn't appear that groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda are coordinating strategies in freeing their fellow militants, it is likely that they are inspiring each other with every successful, and well-publicized, prison break.

The attacks are generally well-organized and often free significant numbers of inmates, refreshing the militant groups' ranks, and each successful prison break is a propaganda coup.

Insiders assist in varying degrees in these different prison breaks, but the militants are also exploiting the countries' inadequate correctional systems. Many of these prison facilities where convicts have escaped en masse were meant to house criminals, not terrorists, and they often lack the fortification needed to fend off armed assaults.

1,200 inmates break out of Benghazi prison

Security concerns regarding prison facilities are part of the reason that 86 Guantanamo Bay detainees who were cleared for transfer into the custody of their home countries three years ago still remain in jail at Guantanamo.

Fifty-six of those men are from Yemen, which has a notoriously porous prison system. The recent prison breaks in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya are reminders that the United States needs to do more to strengthen high security prisons in countries such as Yemen if there is any hope that prisoners who are cleared for transfer -- but have been languishing at Guantanamo for many years -- are ever to return home.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT