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Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib Prison Break

Even accounting for the inevitable errors that creep into early reports on any security incident, it is clear that Sunday night’s operation to break inmates out of the high-security Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad, Iraq, was spectacular. According to reports, the tactics employed included suicide and car bombs, an attack against another prison in Taji (perhaps as a diversion), and inside assistance from some of the personnel charged with guarding the prison. This prison break will strengthen an already resurgent Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and may provide it with uniquely dangerous skill sets.

An Iraqi security official told Reuters that the attack was “obviously a terrorist attack carried out by Al-Qaeda to free convicted terrorists with Al-Qaeda.” Given the concentration of important Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leaders and operatives who had been held at Abu Ghraib, this conclusion is almost certainly correct. The most commonly-cited figure for the number of prisoners who managed to escape is 500, though it should be regarded as less-than-scientific at this point.

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Recent history offers plenty of examples of how the release or escape of prisoners can significantly bolster jihadist organizations. In early 2011, while there was still general euphoria that the Arab uprisings had dealt a devastating blow to Al-Qaeda, the well-connected jihadist intellectual Hani al-Saba’i released a number of lists of violent Islamists who had been freed from Egypt’s prisons.

Though al-Saba’i’s posts received little attention at the time, he proved to be prescient over time: these newly-freed prisoners really did bolster the jihadist movement’s operational capabilities. Writing in The Atlantic in October, my colleague Aaron Zelin and I noted how former prisoners have helped the jihadist cause in such current hot spots as Libya and Egypt’s Sinai region, and have also strengthened this movement in countries where it is more focused on preaching than jihad, such as Tunisia. The impact has been felt in concrete ways, including in the infamous September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which has been connected to the Libya-based militant network run by former Egyptian prisoner Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad.

But in contrast to jihadist prisoners who found their freedom at the beginning of the Arab Uprisings, the AQI leaders who escaped from Abu Ghraib are not rejoining groups perceived as stagnant or marginal. Rather, more than 250 Iraqis have been killed in bombings and other attacks since Ramadan began on July 10. Violence has escalated in that country for several months, and - unlike the chaotic days of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006-07 when multiple factions were slaughtering sectarian and ethnic rivals - AQI has been the major aggressor in this latest round. Thus, Abu Ghraib’s former AQI prisoners will rejoin a jihadist group that has been showcasing its deadly capabilities for months.

Over the coming days and weeks, we can expect announcements in both the Iraqi media and also jihadist forums about the talent pool that AQI now has back on the street. It will be particularly relevant if some of these prisoners offer unique skills. For example, Iraq’s defense ministry intercepted, and imprisoned, an Al-Qaeda cell in June that had built facilities intended for the production of sarin and mustard gas. American intelligence officials viewed this cell as, on the whole, rather skilled.

Were cell members in the sarin/mustard gas plot among the Abu Ghraib prisoners who escaped? We do not know, but this question points to two different ways that the prison break can strengthen AQI. One is that the sheer number of members it regains will surely help the organization; but the other is that some former prisoners may add unique capabilities, whether it is the weapons they can produce, the international connections they possess, or their tactical and strategic acumen.

There is no doubt that the Abu Ghraib prison release has strengthened AQI. We won’t know the full extent of the damage this incident will cause - in Iraq, Syria, and perhaps other countries as well - for some time, but there should be no doubt that it will be damaging.