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Yemen: Al-Qaeda's Escape Hatch By: Micah Halpern
MicahHalpern.com | Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Yemen is one of those countries that most Americans really know very little about. It is an Arab country. It is a Muslim country. In really bad movies, really bad guys wearing long robes and carrying long daggers are Yemeni, or Yemenite. Curiosity takes most Americans no further in their understanding of Yemen - unless you are in the business of understanding terror and analyzing the Middle East.

So when twenty-three prisoners escape from a prison located on the outskirts of Saana, the capital city of Yemen, it takes a few days before the story makes it into the news and even then, only a few eyebrows are raised. Until more details emerge. That's when the red flags go up.

The prison is used, almost exclusively, to house security prisoners connected to terrorist activities. Red flag number one. Of the twenty-three escapees, thirteen were directly implicated in the October 2000 attack against the US naval ship the USS Cole. Red flags number two through fourteen. The attack against the USS Cole resulted in seventeen American deaths. These are al Qaeda terrorists. There aren't enough red flags for that.

So how do twenty-three people just up and escape from a security prison holding terrorists? They dug an 80 yard tunnel under the central prison and that's how they escaped. And what day did they choose to make their escape? They chose the day before fifteen of the men were about to begin their trial. Another fifteen red flags let loose.

The most notorious, the scariest, the person we should most worry about among the escapees is Jamal Badawi al Ahdal, the man charged with being the mastermind of the USS Cole attack. Al Adhal was the man who planned to load a rubber speed boat with explosive charges and ram a large United States naval vessel. Rather than sinking the entire vessel, the explosion blew a gaping hole in the starboard side of the ship.

That's what happened in a Yemeni jail only several days ago. Now, flashback three years. That's when terrorists held in another Yemeni jail, men under investigation for their role in the bombing of the USS Cole, mysteriously walked out of the cells and out of the prison. Never caught, never even pursued by Yemeni authorities.

Now we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, prisons in Yemen seem to have an open door policy for prisoners incarcerated for terrorist activities, especially terrorist activities against the United States. It is clear that there are powerful, well-placed people in Yemen who aid and abet terrorists especially al Qaeda terrorists. There is no way that twenty-three prisoners escape from a prison without the assistance of people both inside and outside the system. On the other hand, since 9-11 the government of Yemen has been helpful in providing important counter-terrorism intelligence to the United States, information that has proved vital in fighting the worldwide epidemic of terror.

The dilemma is a Western dilemma. In Yemen, this situation poses no conflict of interest, no incongruity, nothing odd.

Yemen is not a full fledged democracy. Since their six month long civil war in 1994 Yemen has held some elections and their parliament has 301 seats made up of six political parties who ran a multi party race. At the same time, in Yemen there is still no free speech and no freedom of the press. There are only two newspapers and they are state organs and the one and only TV station explains government policy.

So however you analyze Yemen, whether there was direct involvement or indirect involvement by the police, the military and the government in the planning and execution of the escape from Saana, it makes no difference. This is Yemen. There are some very important people who wanted to free these terrorists, just the way they freed the other terrorists three years ago, and who do not want to find them or re-apprehended them.

In an Arab state like Yemen if complicity in the act of freeing these terrorist cum prisoners was seen as a mistake or as image damaging to Yemen, if the ramifications on the local, national or international level were thought to be significant, there would have already been publicly punished scapegoats and the officers, leaders and/or involved politicians would have been dressed down in a way that is unique to Middle Eastern governments like Yemen.

But we have seen none of that.

And that is why the West must demand that the escaped prisoners be found, returned and held accountable for their crimes. The West must demand that if people who threaten Western freedom are to be held in Yemeni prisons, that they actually be held in and not allowed to wantonly and conveniently escape. The West must demand that appropriate punishment be meted out all the way up the escape ladder.

One of the best ways to hold Yemen accountable is to continue to plaster this story on the front pages of media across the world. Another is to bring the United Nations into the fray and have them launch an investigation. Yemen should be subjected to the same international pressure that is being placed on Syria in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination.

Yemen must make this situation right. Otherwise, we will witness more of this behavior. Not just in Yemen, but in other Muslim countries from the region. Too many red flags are being raised, too few white flags.

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Micah Halpern maintains The Micah Report.


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