J.J. Green, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - A brazen, broad daylight terrorist jailbreak on June 22 in Yemen could be the single biggest threat to the U.S. homeland since the printer cartridge plot last October.
At the same time, the escape may not be so brazen after all.
A growing chorus of sources in the capital of Sanaa says elements of the Yemeni government looked the other way while 62 hardcore al-Qaida insurgents tunneled out of the prison in al-Mukalla.
The escape happened while guards outside the prison were bogged down with a bold attack by other al-Qaida fighters that triggered a 30-minute gunfight.
The prison breakout has set off alarms throughout the intelligence community.
"The combination of the inability of the people in Yemen to keep senior guys (al-Qaida) in prison, and the chaos in Yemen now where security forces are focused on domestic security and not al-Qaida, means to me only one thing," says J. Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the national security branch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"It means the continuation of al-Qaida's ability to embed in Yemen and the prospect that we're going to see another underwear bomber or more attempts against cargo aircraft or something broader."
He says the jailbreak was no secret.
"Some of these prison breaks have been so brazen that you can't help but sit back and say there's no way these guys spent months burrowing out of that prison without somebody knowing what's going on."
A senior Obama administration official told WTOP, "We've seen the media reports on al-Qaida members escaping from a Yemeni prison and are working to verify and ascertain the facts of the issue. While we are in a period of uncertainty we are still monitoring events in Yemen closely. The current protracted political issues are having an adverse impact on the security situation in Yemen and we are certainly concerned about AQAP's attempts to take advantage of that unrest to advance their position and threaten U.S. interests."
AQAP stands for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Fifty eight al-Qaida fighters actually escaped and three were killed during the prison break. In a country where al-Qaida has several hundred fighters, that quantity means a lot to the core strength of the organization.
"A lot of these escapees have areas of expertise that they can now use in the fight against the United States. They have more man power now that these guys are out of prison and probably heading back into the hills to join their colleagues and I think it's something we need to be worried about," says former CIA Senior Field Officer John Kiriakou.
AQAP, which operates in Yemen, is the organization responsible for some of the most ingenious plots against the U.S. since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The organization masterminded a scheme to blow up a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 that Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab almost carried out. The bomb concealed in his underwear fizzled, and he was arrested. The group also almost got away with planting multiple printer cartridges loaded with bombs on cargo planes bound for the U.S.
"When Micheal Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center goes before Congress and says that AQAP is the gravest threat facing the U.S. today, I think we need to believe him. And I think we need to muster our resources to fight this group just as we did to fight core al-Qaida," Kiriakou, a former Senate foreign relations committee official says.
U.S. intelligence officials have discovered that the number of people who have the experience and the savvy to run operations in Yemen is few, "so every single one of them counts," Mudd says.
"This isn't conventional war. Not every unit in conventional war counts, but very single senior player in terrorism does. So the reinfusion of that kind of blood (the escapees from prison) back into the organization is more significant than people might expect," Mudd adds.
The growing sophistication in the AQAP organization worries international security officials because the organization is no longer restricted from traveling abroad. Opportunities to do business with international drug traffickers have changed that.
"When you talk about the crossover between terrorism and drugs, I think it's worth noting that it's already happened with al-Qaida, particularly in West Africa, where cocaine smugglers from South America have found a soft under-belly to the markets in Europe," says Richard Barrett, coordinator of the U.N.'s al-Qaida-Taliban monitoring team.