Al-Qaeda’s freedom grows in Yemen following Saudi attacks

From the vantage point of Washington, a view consistent for many years has been that the danger posed by failed states is that they become havens for extremism.

U.S. governments apparently have little interest in the welfare of the populations in such states (unless images of starving children inconveniently appear in the media). The overriding concern for the U.S. is the potential for al Qaeda or its likes to take advantage of these kinds of environment.

A few days ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made a surprising claim about the implications of Yemen falling apart. Supposedly, this will have little impact on U.S. counter-terrorism efforts:

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists.”

Hundreds of al Qaeda prisoners have just been freed from a prison in al-Mukalla. Is the White House now going to argue that this represents a setback for al Qaeda with its operatives having lost the relative safety of their prison cells?

Gregory D. Johnsen reports: Around 1 a.m. on Thursday, masked gunmen armed with RPGs, hand grenades, and assault rifles stormed a central security prison in eastern Yemen, freeing more than 300 prisoners, including a top al-Qaeda commander.

Pictures posted to social media, apparently pulled from CCTV footage near the prison, show a pick-up truck full of heavily armed men near the prison. Other photos capture a large explosion punching through the dark sky and, in another, an open gate with a few figures walking away.

The prison break in al-Mukalla – one of the largest cities in Yemen and 300 miles east of fighting in Aden – freed Khalid Ba Tarfi, an AQAP regional commander who was captured in 2011, along with hundreds of others. In recent years, Yemen’s prisons have become de facto jihadi academies as more hardened veterans have been dumped into communal cells with younger more impressionable prisoners.

The incident underscores the degree to which the country’s security forces have collapsed amid months of political chaos and the recent barrage of a Saudi-led bombing campaign.

“Things have completely spiraled out of control in the south,” one Yemeni government official told BuzzFeed News. “There’s been a total collapse.”

One of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of more than a week of Saudi airstrikes is the growing freedom al-Qaeda has to operate in the country. [Continue reading…]

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