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This is bad: Al-Qaeda leads mass jailbreak in Yemen

Suspected al-Qaeda members behind bars in al Mukalla in 2010.
Suspected al-Qaeda members behind bars in al Mukalla in 2010.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. About 300 people appear to have been released in a jailbreak during a major attack on Thursday by Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the southern port city of Al Mukalla.
  2. Yemeni government sources say about a third of the freed prisoners were AQAP fighters. Among them was Khaled Batarfi, who, per the Wall Street Journal, led AQAP forces in the Yemeni province Abyan before his 2011 arrest.
  3. AQAP targeted several important government buildings in Al Mukalla, but the prison appears to have been the main target.

The jailbreak is a big deal — and shows why the fighting in Yemen is so scary

Prison breaks have, in the past, been an excellent way for jihadi militants to strengthen themselves. Take ISIS, which was on the brink of total defeat in 2010. A series of prison breaks in Iraq, beginning around 2012, helped the group replenish its ranks, providing it with both experienced fighters and new recruits among the ordinary criminals let out of jail. These new forces helped put ISIS in position to launch its June 2014 rampage across northern Iraq.

Like ISIS, AQAP is a full-on insurgent group, one that operates throughout a fairly broad swath of southern Yemen. The ISIS example shows how prison breaks like this could make AQAP even more powerful.

While the group isn't engaged in an ISIS-like campaign to establish a caliphate in Yemen, and probably won't start one, a stronger AQAP is still a real problem. The group is often described as al-Qaeda's strongest affiliate globally, and the one that's shown the most intent and capability to plan attacks on the West in recent years.

The US government, recognizing this threat, had for some time coordinated with the Yemeni government on a counterterrorism campaign aimed at weakening AQAP. Experts disagree on just how effective, say, American drone strikes against AQAP were — but after the current outbreak of violence in Yemen, the question is somewhat moot.

The US-backed government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has been forced out of the country by Houthi rebels who have seized most of the country. Forces loyal to Hadi are no longer in a position to work with the US against al-Qaeda, and the worsening security situation led the US to withdraw its personnel from Yemen last month.

The Yemeni government's immediate goal has shifted to fighting the Houthis, which they're now doing with support from a Saudi-led coalition. The more the Yemen conflict becomes a civil war between the Houthis and Hadi, the less focus there will be on combating AQAP. And the freer the group's hand, the stronger it'll likely grow.

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