Middle East

Al Qaeda Escape in Yemen: Facts, Rumors and Theories

Unidentified members of a terrorist cell who may be part of the Al Qaeda network attend the second session of their trial at the state security court in Sanaa last week. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

One theory circulating in Yemen these days is that the recent escape of 23 prisoners from a maximum-security intelligence facility was orchestrated to transfer them to U.S. custody, circumventing Yemen's extradition laws. Certainly the U.S. would have an interest in obtaining custody of the escapees. Several were convicted of complicity in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which killed 17 U.S. service members on Oct. 12, 2000. Others include convicted bombers of a French oil tanker, the Lindburg. One was an American, Gaber Elbaneh, who was convicted in the U.S. of involvement in an Al Qaeda cell in Lackawana, New York.

After the jailbreak, the Yemeni government failed to provide Interpol with the prisoners' photographs fingerprints and other information that would have enabled an international red alert. Lacking the information, Interpol issued a lower, orange alert. If the regime had been acting in concert with the United States, it likely would have attempted to reap the publicity benefit of prompt cooperation with Interpol. Rather, there are many indications that the escape was carried out in concert with Al Qaeda sympathizers in the Yemeni security apparatus.

The prisoners were in custody of Yemen's Political Security Organization, an intelligence agency answerable directly to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The P.S.O. reputedly engages in regime dirty work like beating journalists and harassing political opponents. In theory, the escapees used cooking utensils to break through a thick concrete floor and to tunnel 460 feet. The tunnel exited in the nearby mosque of a prominent preacher, Judge Hamoud al-Hittar, who is reported to have "close ties to security officials" according to a published report. A U.S. Embassy cable sent from Yemen's capital, Sanaa that was described to Newsweek noted "the lack of obvious security measures on the streets" after the escape and concluded: "One thing is certain: P.S.O. insiders must have been involved."

After the escape, the Yemeni Interior Minister, Rashad al-Alemi, was promoted to deputy prime minister, while retaining his position as Interior Minister. A few prison guards were charged with "slackness" on their jobs. Over 200 of the escapees' relatives and associates have been detained for questioning; the Yemeni government has denied a U.S. request to interrogate them, citing sovereignty concerns. Published reports initially indicated that some of the prisoners were captured on the day of the escape; no official statements were made, leading to speculation that the prisoners had been re-released. Other unconfirmed reports include a phone call from the escapees to a high ranking official of the P.S.O. to advise of their success, and the installation of electric lines in the prison in the weeks prior to the escape, the continuous drilling for which may have covered the sounds of the escapees own drilling and power tools.

Yemen has increased its cooperation in the War on Terror since the Sept. 11 attacks, making some progress with arrests, intelligence sharing, counter terrorism cooperation, and setting up a coast guard. Yemen recently brought to trial a suspected high-ranking Al Qaeda leader, Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal. U.S. officials have reported, however, that Yemen's cooperation is neither institutionalized nor consistent. To the extent that cooperation is ongoing however sporadic, a pattern of escapes and terrorist facilitation may render cooperation a zero-sum game.

Pattern of Facilitation

Despite cooperative rhetoric when dealing with Western allies, the Yemeni government has not clamped down on terrorist financing, a primary strategy in disrupting terrorist operations. In 2003, in response to a U.N. directive to freeze 144 Al Qaeda or Taliban affiliated banks accounts the regime closed one. In 2004, it did not circulate the U.N.'s banking notice to the banks at all.

The Yemeni regime has issued false statements. According to the U.S. State Department's 2004 Patterns of Terrorism report, "In October 2003, despite repeated statements that [Aden Abyan Islamic Army] leader Khalid Abd al-Nabi was dead, Yemeni officials revealed that he was not killed in the confrontations … Instead, al-Nabi surrendered to the Yemeni authorities, was released from custody, and is not facing charges for any of his activities." Similarly, Yemen failed for months to acknowledge to the United States that an American, Gaber Elbaneh, was in Yemeni custody, and has not replied to a U.S. request for extradition issued over a year ago.

Weaponry channeled through Yemen is supplying terrorists, as well as militants in Sudan, Somalia, the Palestinian Authority territories, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia. The wide scale enterprise, described as a weapons emporium, is reputed to be supervised by top military officials, many of whom are President Saleh's close relatives. Two AK-47 assault rifles used in a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia have been traced to Yemen's Defense Ministry.

The Gulf States Newsletter reported that the P.S.O., "seeded with Salifists," is responsible for much of the "revolving door strategy" that has seen militants escape or be released to engage in recidivist militancy. One method of release is through Yemen's Dialog Committee, a rehabilitation program under the chairmanship of Judge Hamoud al-Hittar. As a result of the work of Al-Hittar, who engages in a Koranic dialog with imprisoned extremists, over 300 "rehabilitated" prisoners have been released. U.S. officials have complained that they did not get an opportunity to question some high level detainees released under the program.

In a 2003 interview, Al-Hittar told the Associated Press that he uses his dialogue sessions to try to persuade extremists not to attack Western or government interests inside Yemen. Recently Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri, told the BBC that the authorities helped set him up as a small businessman, and that he has ceased militant activities. He said Judge Hittar did not seek to convert prisoners, but rather sought only to obtain a guarantee that they would not launch attacks on the West from Yemeni soil.

In 2003, Al Qaeda described President Saleh as "the only Arab and Muslim leader who is not an agent for the West," and offered the Yemeni government a truce. If Yemen stopped hunting down suspected Al Qaeda militants, and released those already jailed, Al Qaeda would put an end to its attacks inside the country. Termination of military cooperation with the United States was another of Al Qaeda's conditions, the Yemen Times reported. There were eight in all. Judge al-Hittar remarked at the time, "Some of these conditions cannot be negotiated at all." Negotiations reportedly failed.

Use of Al Qaeda as an Internal Paramilitary Force

Another popular theory in Yemen explaining the escape is that the prisoners were released to be used against political opponents. Militant Islamist Ahmed Haidrah Abubakr, also known as Abulashaath, leader of the Al Qaeda affiliated Abyan Aden Islamic Army said in an interview after his recent arrest, "We know that we were imprisoned again only to be used against those opposing the regime."

The regime has a history of employing militant Islamists as an internal fighting force. In the 1994 civil war in Yemen, President Saleh's northern forces gained victory over the South in part through the utilization of Afghan Arabs, proponents of jihad who had returned from Afghanistan and pledged their loyalty to the regime in return for continued influence.

A militant Islamist carried out the 2004 murder of Jarallah Omar, a leading opposition politician. Many observers believe it was part of a wider conspiracy. Amnesty International said that it had observed indications of complicity by regime figures and organizations that required a thorough investigation, but one has yet to be accomplished.

The Gulf States Newsletter, in its December issue, noted that the Yemeni government is currently employing Afghan Arabs alongside its military in battling the Houthist uprising in the north, "Some irregular units of former jihadists have been used against Zaydi militants in the Saada area." The military force in Saada includes former Iraqi generals and is under the command of the North West Region commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is President Saleh's half-brother, and a reputed Wahhabist. Al-Ahmar worked with Bin Laden recruiting Yeminis to fight in Afghanistan. After 9/11, as author and analyst Robert Kaplan notes, "Giving Ali Mohsen's regiment a chunk of the American military aid package was the only way that Washington could do business in Yemen."

Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has labeled Mohsen's assault against Yemen's Shiites a jihad and military analyst James Dunnigan has called it "a religious conflict between radical Shia tribes, and pro-Al Qaeda Sunni Yemenis." It is important to note that the predominant religious affiliation in Yemen is Shaifi Sunni, a moderate and tolerant orientation, and the vast majority of Yeminis overall oppose the targeting of civilians within Yemen and beyond its borders. In remarking on the November terrorist attack in Jordan, Hosnia Al-Mikhlafi, a mother said, "How do these people think that they are Muslims while they terrorized innocent people? They killed infants on the laps of their mothers. If bin Laden and Zarqawi think that this is jihad, they should be resisted till we get rid of their evil deeds."

The Pipeline to Iraq

A third theory about the escape is that well trained and operationally capable Al Qaeda militants were needed to beef up insurgent operations in Iraq. President Saleh has had strong ties to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and he was one of the few Arab leaders to oppose the first Gulf War. In 2003, the United States noted, shipments of night vision goggles from Russia to Yemen were most likely transshipped to insurgents in Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, top-level Iraqi generals were recruited into Yemen's military.

According to current estimates, about 20 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq are of Yemeni origin. This figure does not include those who transit, train or receive material or logistical assistance, including travel documents, from Al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen. One Yemeni official speaking anonymously to a local newspaper reported that Al Qaeda had subverted elements of the Yemeni security forces, which had established training camps for Baathists intent on joining the insurgency in Iraq. As a Saudi source reported to the press, "A young man decides he wants to fight in Iraq, illegally enters Yemen, travels to Syria, and is subsequently smuggled across the border into Iraq."

In November, the Iraqi Attorney General presented Interpol with an extradition request to bring Saddam Hussein's nephew, Omar Sabawi al-Tikriti, who is reportedly residing in Yemen, to Baghdad to stand trial for "committing acts of terror." Iraqi officials say that Al-Tikriti has played a leading role in, and financially supported the insurgency in Northern Iraq. Yemeni officials claim they have been unable to locate al-Tikriti.

Also in November, Al Tajamo, an opposition newspaper based in Aden conducted interviews with the families of Yemeni suicide bombers killed in Iraq. Family members reported that their sons and brothers were trained in suicide bombings with the knowledge of security officials and had logistical support from top military commanders known for their jihadist associations. From Aden and Abyan alone, nearly 100 fighters are thought to have gone to Iraq. Twenty-two are known to have been killed. According to the newspaper's informed source, safe houses were established in Sanaa to house the fighters until their travel arrangements could be finalized. The source said that many members of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army had joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq.

Lingering Questions About the Cole Bombing

Because the Yemeni government has not allowed the United States full access to some prisoners, another theory circulating is that the prisoners were allowed to escape to keep them away from U.S. investigators. The former head of Yemen's navy at the time of the Cole bombing, Ahmed al-Hasani, said in a press statement in May that President Saleh had prior knowledge of the Cole bombing, and that Saleh had sent high-level officials to Aden in the early morning hours before the attack.

Analyst and author Thomas Joscelyn, who has studied the Cole bombing, notes, "There is still much we don't know about the circumstances surrounding the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, which was tasked with enforcing U.N. sanctions on Iraq. The U.S. investigation into the bombing was initially stymied by Saleh's regime, which at first claimed the bombing was simply an accident. To this day it is not clear how competent the completed investigation was."

A few things are clear about the attack. In 2000, the Yemeni interior minister issued an official letter instructing security personnel to give safe passage to Sheik Mohammed Omar al-Harazi, one of the masterminds of the Cole bombing who is also known as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Neither he nor his bodyguards were to searched or intercepted. "All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions," the letter said. During the 2004 trial of five co-conspirators, one Yemeni political analyst noted the travel pass "confirms that there is a breach in the Yemeni security system."

"This system has been infiltrated for a long time by terrorist elements, because of old relations," he said.

Some of the Cole conspirators were also in possession of weapons permits.

A former C.I.A. agent, Robert Baer, was told by a Saudi military contact that a Saudi merchant family had funded the U.S.S. Cole bombing and that the Yemeni government was covering up information related to that bombing. A leading Yemeni editor said in 2001, "It was clear from the start that the accessories to the attack would be tried, convicted and executed, but that the people inside Yemen who financed it, and used their power to facilitate it, would never be brought to book."

The regime has had difficulty keeping the attackers in jail. In 2003, eight of the Cole conspirators escaped from jail and two later went on to complete suicide operations in Iraq. Among the 2003 escapees was Jamal al-Badawi, another mastermind of the bombing. Al-Badawi was recaptured and returned to prison only to escape again with 22 other inmates.

After the Cole attack, President Saleh denied publicly that he had been notified by the United States that the Cole was en route to Aden. According to former CENTCOM commander Gen. Anthony Zinni, in his 2000 Congressional Testimony, standard U.S. procedure was to notify Yemeni officials about two weeks prior to a ship's arrival at port. It was just about two weeks before the attack on the Cole that the Pentagon's secret intelligence unit, Able Danger, began to pick up "massive terrorist activity" in Aden.

At the time of the bombings, a Yemeni regime official advanced the theory that the United States had blown up the ship itself, as pretense for an invasion. This fear mongering has continued. "There was a plan to occupy Aden," President Saleh said in a 2005 speech. According to President Saleh, eight U.S. warships waited at the mouth of the port of Aden, ready to invade in the days after the bombing. Only through his leadership abilities, he claimed, was the invasion averted.

In reality, there were no U.S. warships in the area and all documentation indicates the Cole was traveling alone. In the days after the bombing, the crew of the Cole struggled unassisted to keep the ship afloat while the wounded were tended on deck. It is inconceivable that any U.S. ship in the area would not have come to their immediate aid.

A reduction in financial aid was the only punitive action against Yemen briefly discussed in the 2000 Congressional hearings, as an inducement for fuller cooperation with the F.B.I.'s investigation. It was deflected by Gen. Zinni's objections. At the time, Congress barely contemplated the possibility of regime involvement, based in large part on Gen. Zinni's assurances of Saleh's sincerity. The Clinton administration never discussed retaliation against Yemen for the Cole bombing, according to the 9/11 report and other documentation. Clinton briefly discussed a military strike against Afghanistan, but the concept of confronting the Taliban was shelved as Clinton's term drew to a close.

An Insider's View

Mr. Ahmed al-Hasani, former commander of Yemen's Navy and long time regime insider says he is not surprised by the escape, "considering the relations between the authorities and al-Qaeda," which he describes as strong and influential. Currently seeking asylum in Britain, Mr. al-Hasani is a vocal opponent of the regime's policies toward the population of the former South Yemen, which some have termed occupation rather than unification.

Osama bin Laden visited Yemen in the late 1990's and held a six-hour meeting in the airport with Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, among others. This meeting must have required the explicit permission of Saleh himself, al-Hasani says. In the interceding decade, there has been no administrative purge or major rehabilitation of top level bin Laden loyalists in the regime. Currently Al Qaeda sympathizers are spread throughout the upper levels of the military and security forces, al-Hasani asserts, including the Republican Guard and the Political Security Organization.

These Al Qaeda loyalists are motivated by ideology, and are well organized and well indoctrinated, he says, with several officers of the Republican Guards responsible for coordinating and aiding the activities of jihadist groups in Yemen including transportation, security, documentation and financing. These regime officials engage in money laundering and remuneration, through large Yemeni companies and through real estate, business and stock transactions in the Gulf States and South Asia including South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

Those jihadists still in prison are kept to be released on demand, al-Hasani notes, "When they need them to do anything against their political enemies, they will be released for this purpose. This also means they can be used by the authorities against U.S. interests and targets." The escape of the 23 prisoners, he concludes, could not have happened without President Saleh's "will and wish."


The escape in Yemen may point to the need for a highly secure and humane international prison to augment the international criminal court and to house the world's most dangerous and escape prone inmates. Meanwhile, as a multi-nation flotilla patrols Yemen's coast, it seems unlikely the 23 escapees are in U.S. custody. It can be safely said that the United States' policy of elite rehabilitation, which worked well in Pakistan after 9/11, has succeeded less well in Yemen, as months and years of counter terrorism work is undone by repeated jailbreaks. Unless Judge al-Hittar begins a dialog program with some of the upper level military and security forces to dissuade them of their extremist ideology, the best hope for Yemen lies with democratization, a process actively repelled by President Saleh and the well-entrenched elite, but actively sought by a number of activists and a good portion of the Yemeni population.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.