Home > Terrorism, Yemen > Al-Qaeda Escape in Yemen: Facts, Rumors and Theories

Al-Qaeda Escape in Yemen: Facts, Rumors and Theories

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 interest in obtaining custody of the escapees. Several were convicted of complicity in the bombing of the USS Cole which killed 17 US service members on October 12th 2000. Others include convicted bombers of the French oil tanker, the Lindburg, and an American, Gaber Elbaneh, convicted in the U.S. of involvement in an al-Qaeda cell in Lackawana, New York.

After the jail break, the Yemeni government failed to provide Interpol with the prisoners’ photographs finger prints and other information which would have enabled an international red alert. Lacking the information, Interpol issued a lower, orange alert. If the regime was 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 gathering arm answerable directly to President Saleh. The PSO 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: PSO 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; although 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 PSO 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 September 11th attacks, making some progress with arrests, intelligence sharing, counter terrorism cooperation, and standing up a coast guard. Yemen recently brought to trial a suspected high ranking al-Qaeda leader, Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal. US 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 sum zero 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 UN directive to freeze 144 al-Qaeda or Taliban affiliated banks accounts, the regime closed one. In 2004, it did not circulate the United Nations banking notice to the banks at all.

The Yemeni regime has issued false statements. The US State Department’s 2004 Patterns of Terrorism report states that, “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 U.S that 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.

Gulf States Newsletter reported that the PSO, “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, who engages in a Koranic dialog with imprisoned extremists. Over 300 prisoners have been released as rehabilitated. U.S. officials have complained that they have not had the opportunity to question some high level detainees released under the program.

In a 2003 interview, Al-Hittar said his dialogue sessions try to persuade extremists not to attack Western or government interests inside Yemen but, “We are not interested in dealing with issues in Iraq,” Al-Hittar told the Associated Press. Recently Usama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri, told the BBC that the authorities have helped him set up a small businessman, and he has ceased militant activities. He said Judge Hittar did not seek to convert prisoners, but to rather obtain a guarantee that they would not launch attacks on the West from Yemeni soil.

In 2003, al-Qaeda offered a truce to the Yemeni government, praising President Ali Abdullah Saleh as “the only Arab and Muslim leader who is not an agent for the West. “In return for an end to attacks within Yemen, al-Qaeda advanced eight conditions including “stop hunting down for suspected al-Qaeda militants as well releasing their fellow colleagues in jails.” Termination of military cooperation with the United States was another of al-Qaeda’s conditions, the Yemen Times reported. Judge al-Hittar remarking at the time noted “some of these conditions cannot be negotiated at all.” Negotiations reportedly failed.

Use of al-Qaeda as an internal paramilitary

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 the Afghan Arabs, jihaddists who returned from Afghanistan and pledged their loyalty to the regime in return for continued influence.

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

Gulf States Newsletter in its December issue noted 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 Sadah area.” The military force in Saada also includes former Iraqi generals and is under the command of North West Region commander, presidential half-brother, and reputed Wahbbist, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar who worked with Bin Laden recruiting Yemenis to fight in Afghanistan. After 9/11, author and analyst Robert Kaplan notes, “giving Ali Muhsen’s regiment a chunk of the American military aid package was the only way that Washington could do business in Yemen.”

Ayatollah 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 Yemenis 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 operatives were needed to beef up insurgent operations in Iraq. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has historically had strong ties to Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq and was one of the few Arab leaders opposing the first Gulf War. In 2003, the U.S. noted shipments of night vision goggles from Russia to Yemen that were most likely transshipped to the insurgency in Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, top level former Iraqi generals were recruited into Yemen’s military.

Current estimates are that about 20% of 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 subverted elements of the Yemeni security forces had established training camps for Ba’athists intent on joining the insurgency in Iraq. A Saudi source reported to the press that generally, “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 from Yemen back to Baghdad to stand trial for “committing acts of terror.” Omar Sabawi Al-Tikriti, reportedly residing in Yemen, is wanted by Iraqi officials for his leading role and financial support to the insurgency in Northern Iraq. Yemeni officials claim they have been unable to locate al-Tikriti.

Also in November, Al-Tajamo, an opposition paper based in Aden conducted interviews with the families of Yemeni suicide bombers killed in Iraq. Family members reported 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 Jihaddist associations. From Aden and Abyan alone, nearly 100 fighters are thought to have gone to Iraq with 22 known to be killed. The paper cited an informed source that safe houses were established in Sana’a to house the fighters until their travel arrangements are finalized. The source said that many of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army had joined Zarqawi’s group in Iraq.

Lingering Questions about the Cole

As the Yemeni government has not allowed the US full access to some prisoners, another theory circulating is that the prisoners were allowed to escape to keep them away from US 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 of 2005 that President Saleh had prior knowledge of the Cole bombing, and Saleh sent some 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 USS Cole, which was tasked with enforcing UN 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. The Yemeni Interior Minister in 2000 issued official letter instructing security personnel to give “safe passage to (Cole mastermind) Sheik Mohammed Omar al-Harazi (also known as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri) with three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted. All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions.” 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.” Some of the Cole conspirators were also in possession of weapons permits.

A former CIA agent, Robert Baer, was given information by a Saudi military contact that a Saudi merchant family had funded the USS 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 commit suicide operations in Iraq. Among the 2003 escapees was Jamal Al-Badawi, mastermind of the bombing. Al-Badawi was recaptured and returned to the prison only to escape again along with 22 other inmates.

After the Cole attack, President Saleh denied publicly that he was notified by the US that the Cole was en route to Aden. According to General Zinni, former CENTCOM commander 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 U.S. had blown up the boat itself, as pretense for an invasion. This fear mongering has continued. “There was a plan to occupy Aden,” Saleh said in a 2005 speech, claiming the existence of eight U.S. warships 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 invasion averted.

In reality, there were no U.S. ships in the area and all documentation indicates the Cole was traveling alone. In the days after the bombing, the crew of the Cole faced a dramatic struggle 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. The only punitive action toward Yemen briefly discussed in the 2000 Congressional hearings was a reduction in financial aid, as an inducement for Yemen to cooperate more fully with the FBI investigation. This suggestion was deflected by General Zinni’s objections. Congress at the time barely contemplated the possibility of regime involvement, based in large part on General Zinni’s assurances of Saleh’s sincerity. The Clinton administration never discussed retaliation against Yemen, according to the 9/11 report and other documentation. Clinton only briefly discussed a military strike against Afghanistan in response to the Cole bombings, and 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 not unification.

Usama bin Laden visited Yemen in the late nineteen nineties and held a six hour meeting in the airport with General 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, well organized and well indoctrinated, he says, with several officers of the Republican Guards responsible for coordinating and aiding the activities of Jihaddist 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 Jihaddists in prison are kept to 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 US interests and targets.” The escape of the 23 prisoners, he concludes, could not have happened without President Saleh’s “will and wish.”


Not quite Musharraff and not quite al-Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh is an oily politician and a master of propaganda. The Yemeni regime, called a kleptocracy by some, cooperates both in the War on Terror and in the War Against the West, positioning itself as an ally to both camps.

The nation is potentially spiraling into state failure, according to several analyses, a troubling possibility as there are about ten million guns in the hands of the public, a byproduct of both regime gun running and the absence of an effective police force. Other statistics on Yemen are grim. Of the four million children under the age of five, half are physically stunted from malnutrition, half never enter first grade, and 11% die before their fifth birthday-about half of those deaths from diarrhea. There are two doctors for every 11,000 citizens. Nearly 90% o of the population does not have access to clean water. Most rural areas, where the majority of the population resides, do not have electricity, and urban areas face daily rolling black-outs. Half the nation lives on under $2.00 per day.

Noted as one of the most corrupt states in the world, embezzlement, smuggling, mismanagement, and corruption have wrecked Yemen’s economy. Unemployment and poverty rates are very high. Land ownership, business ownership, political and military power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite.

The E.U. has called Yemen the “the forgotten crisis,” and donor nations have expressed increasing concern, recently calling for a variety of reforms including financial transparency, journalists protections, electoral and banking reform, among others. President Saleh said he would accept no aid with conditions attached. Financial inducements to reform may little meaning to the regime, as public welfare is a low concern. With the opportunity to receive development funding exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars from the US funded Millennium Challenge Account in exchange for any progress toward “ruling justly” and “investing in people,” Saleh’s regime moved backwards on almost all indicators. The fruits of corruption and gun running may far exceed the MCA’s budget. The World Bank, citing interference by corrupt officials who intercept aid intended for the poor, reduced Yemenis aid share by a third.

President Saleh has one foot firmly in the anti-democratic camp internationally. Having good relations with Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and China, the regime employs many tactics similar to those of his despotic associates: cloning newspapers, targeting the political opposition, disinformation campaigns to the public, propaganda to the Western media, the use of intelligence services and informants domestically, use of the judiciary and the military as a tool of repression and retribution, and a complete lack of transparency in the public budget.

U.S. punitive disengagement from Yemen in the 1990’s after the first Gulf War yielded little benefit for the US or the Yemeni public and would not yield positive results now. U.S. public diplomacy has little effect on the regime beyond triggering a belligerent insult frenzy in the governmental newspapers, as occurred when the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Thomas Krajeski, remarked that democratic progress in Yemen had slowed.

With many nations eager to obtain lucrative oil and gas development contracts, the United Nations has not addressed the recent discoveries of mass graves, the pattern of deaths of opposition and civil leaders, or the failure to comply with U.N. resolutions 924 and 931 governing the cease fire in the 1994 civil war.

Democratization may be the single hope for a vibrant, peaceful and stable Yemen although the transition poses a huge challenge for the Yemeni people. The military, in the hands of Saleh’s close relatives, has been used to quell demonstrations. Traditional tribal forces which constitute the only effective check on executive power have been weakened by ongoing bloodshed or corrupted by ongoing payments. Civil society organizations are regularly sabotaged. Women are politically marginalized. Major elements of the political opposition are loyal to Saleh. Sheik al-Ahmar, a leader of the major opposition party, Islah, and a member of Saleh’s tribe, may again endorse Saleh’s 2006 presidential bid as occurred in 1998 when Saleh received 96% of the vote.

Rather than courting the electorate, some political parties court the regime. Others in the political opposition and within the ruling party fail to oppose the regime out of self preservation; the opposition that opposes is targeted. The political party system is fragmented, dysfunctional and backwards looking. Many political parties, while decrying the lack of democratic practices in the nation’s governance, are themselves authoritarian in structure, exclusionary and based on historical identity, not an inclusive modern vision of governance. With a presidential election scheduled for September, the opposition in total may fail to present a candidate, instead boycotting the process to protest unfair electoral practices.

Nonetheless, the general population in Yemen recognizes that declining standards of living are directly related to governmental corruption and criminality. Many trade associations, like the teachers, are demanding greater democratic practices within local unions. Five of the major opposition parties have joined together to advance a reform platform, which calls for the conversion of the political system to a parliamentary structure, enabling economic and political reforms. Yemen is replete with brave individuals including journalists, politicians, civil leaders, unionists, and regular citizens who put the public interest ahead of their own personal security to bring about a positive change in Yemen. It may be that progress in the War on Terror rests in their hands.

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 U.S. administration’s policy of elite rehabilitation that worked well in Pakistan after 9/11 has succeeded less well in Yemen, as months and years of counter terrorism work is undone by repetitive jailbreaks. Unless Judge 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 and actively sought by a number of activists and a good portion of the Yemeni population.

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