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The Destruction of Sarposa

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Friday June 13 turned out to be an unlucky day for the guards at Sarposa prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan. At approximately 9:20 p.m. local time, some 30 Taliban insurgents launched a complex and highly coordinated attack on the facility. The operation freed all 1,100 inmates incarcerated there, including a reported 350 to 400 Taliban militants. The attack also resulted in the deaths of several guards — reports on the actual number vary between six and 15.

The assault reportedly began with the detonation of a massive vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) at the prison’s main gate. The suicide device reportedly was concealed inside a tanker truck and, according to a Taliban spokesman, contained 1,800 kilograms of explosive material. The powerful device shattered the prison’s front gate and guardhouse, causing substantial damage to shops and other buildings in the neighborhood.

Either shortly after or at the same time as the attack on the main gate, a second suicide bomber approached the back gate of the compound on foot and detonated his device, breaching the gate and neutralizing the guards. A Taliban assault team armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms then stormed the prison. According to some eyewitness reports, many of the attackers entered the prison on motorcycles — a form of transport frequently used by the Taliban to move personnel. Some fighters reportedly engaged the surviving guards while others broke open the cell doors.

The prisoners were then rushed through the gate to a caravan of waiting vehicles staged by the Taliban to transport them to safety. In recent days, the Taliban have taken over several villages in the Arghandab district, located just northwest of the city of Kandahar, where they reportedly laid mines, destroyed bridges and prepared fighting positions in the area. At least some of the Taliban fighters participating in these recent activities are possible Sarposa escapees.

Many observers have expressed shock over the storming of Sarposa prison. But the attack — and its success — is not at all surprising when viewed in the context of historical operations undertaken to free jihadist prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere and given conditions on the ground in the Kandahar area, the general preparedness of Afghan security elements and the construction and location of this particular prison.

A Focus on Prisoners

Jihadists have long placed a high importance on their imprisoned comrades. This emphasis became publicly evident by the number of statements and threats generated following the arrest of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman (the "Blind Sheikh") in New York in 1993. However, even prior to his arrest, Abdul-Rahman and his followers had discussed plans for a different prison break. They considered several possible approaches, one of which was a truck bomb attack combined with an armed assault, to rescue El Sayyid Nosair from Attica State Prison in New York. The group had even conducted detailed surveillance of the facility. Nosair was serving a sentence in Attica after being convicted on weapons charges relating to the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Although convicted of assault and firearms possession, Nosair was acquitted of the murder charges.

The jihadist emphasis on colleagues in captivity has continued to the present day. In addition to propaganda decrying the captivity of their comrades, jihadists have also conducted a number of operations to free imprisoned colleagues, such as the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814, which eventually ended up in Kandahar after short stops in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. More recently, Taliban forces have kidnapped foreigners and held them in exchange for their imprisoned comrades.

In April 2005, al Qaeda in Iraq militants under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched a remarkably similar attack against the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. Like the Sarposa incident, the attack on Abu Ghraib included a suicide VBIED attack against the prison’s main gate followed by an attempt to storm the prison by an assault team. In the Abu Ghraib case, the initial VBIED attack was unable to reach or breach the prison’s gate, and the assault team was prevented from entering the facility. However, the assault team displayed a great deal of determination and continued the attack on the prison for several hours before finally being repelled. The al Qaeda assault team suffered heavy casualties, but not before wounding 18 U.S. servicemen and 12 prisoners during the protracted battle.

In addition to armed assaults, there have also been many clandestine attempts to free jihadist prisoners from captivity. Several of these attempts have involved tunnels, such as in the February 2006 jailbreak in Sanaa, Yemen, or the October 2003 break from Sarposa prison in Kandahar in which 41 Taliban prisoners, including the brother of the Taliban defense minister, escaped through a tunnel. High-profile jihadists have also managed to escape from prisons in places as diverse as Pakistan and Singapore.

Escapes are not confined to prisons with sand cell floors, poorly trained personnel or revolving doors and complicit prison guards, as it would seem in the case of Yemeni prisons. In addition to the Singapore incident, militants have also escaped from U.S.- and British-run prisons in Iraq. In Afghanistan, four high-profile al Qaeda militants escaped from a U.S. detention facility at the Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. The escapees, dubbed the “Bagram Four,” included Abu Yahya al-Libi, a charismatic and credentialed al Qaeda theologian who has since become one of the organization's main spokesmen.

Location, Location, Location

Like in real estate sales, in insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, location is vital — and Kandahar is quite an interesting location. While Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, Kandahar has been the spiritual and physical capital of the Taliban. Even when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan and assumed control of the government, their real headquarters remained in Kandahar, the place where they first emerged as a force in Afghan politics and where their leader Mullah Omar resided. Osama bin Laden also resided in Kandahar with many of his al Qaeda followers. Although the Taliban and al Qaeda militants were quickly forced to flee the city following the U.S. invasion in October 2001, much of the population in the area has remained ideologically committed to the Taliban, and we have long considered Kandahar city and province to be Taliban strongholds. From the perspective of the Afghan government and coalition forces, Kandahar is very much hostile territory.

This attack against Saraposa prison was well-planned and executed with a great deal of precision. The location of the attack, Kandahar, allowed the Taliban to play on their home field and provided advantages they have lacked when conducting operations in places such as Kabul. Even though not all of the residents in the Kandahar area support the Taliban, most fear them and do not believe that coalition forces can protect them from Taliban retribution. Therefore, even people who are not strong Taliban supporters would be grudgingly willing to assist them rather than risk reprisals.

This base of contacts and ideological supporters in Kandahar made it easy for the Taliban to conduct surveillance on sites such as the Sarposa prison, and is also very helpful in the logistical aspects of planning and executing attacks there. Smuggling the Taliban assault team into the city, along with their weapons and a large VBIED, was undoubtedly accomplished with the aid of these sympathizers, as was the escape of the released prisoners.

In the end, this home-field advantage allowed the Taliban to launch their attack without detection and gain the crucial element of tactical surprise. It also allowed them to get all of their elements into the fight at the right time, something they were unable to accomplish in the April 27 attack in Kabul.

Another factor leading to the success of the Sarposa attack was the nature of the facility itself and the guards in charge of its integrity. The prison was very old and its mud brick and rock-and-mortar construction was not designed to withstand a serious military attack. Even with some of the recent upgrades to its guard towers, the facility was incapable of withstanding the explosion of an 1,800 kilogram VBIED in close proximity to its front gate. In fact, few facilities in the United States could withstand such an attack, but U.S. facilities typically have concentric rings of security that must be breached in order to get to the main gate. The Sarposa prison is located right on the street and did not have much room to provide standoff space or for such concentric rings.

There are reports that the attack on the prison was coordinated with the prisoners on the inside via a cell phone. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, as the smuggling of cell phones into prisons is a problem faced by authorities in many countries, including the United States.

While the guards at Sarposa prison had reportedly received guidance from Canadian corrections officials, they had neither the training nor the weaponry to withstand the type of assault the Taliban launched against them. Prison guards are not trained or equipped to serve as combat troops. We have not seen reliable reports on the number of guards who fled, survived or perhaps called in sick the night of the attack. The commander of the prison reportedly has been placed in custody and is under investigation, though Afghan officials assert that this move is merely standard procedure. In any such case, the possibility of collusion on the part of the guards must be considered.

The vulnerability of the Sarposa facility and the limitations of the guards defending it is further highlighted when compared with a similarly executed but unsuccessful attack. On March 3, the Taliban launched an attack against a compound housing a better-prepared force of NATO and Afghan troops in Khost. In the March incident, the VBIED was engaged before it could get close to the gate. While two NATO soldiers were killed in the assault, the remaining troops were able to repel the attackers before they could overrun the complex.

Although Sarposa is the largest prison in southern Afghanistan, due its relative lack of security, most high-value Taliban prisoners are kept at Afghanistan's main prison, Pol-e-Charkhi in Kabul, or at the U.S. detention facility at Bagram. However, even those facilities are not in the best condition, as evidenced by the escape of the Bagram four and violent jihadist-fomented riots and escapes at Pol-e-Charkhi.

The United States has long recognized the vulnerability of Afghan prisons, including its own facility at Bagram. It has reportedly paid more than $20 million to add a high-security wing at the Pol-e-Charkhi facility.

Last month, Afghan lawmakers strenuously objected when a Pentagon spokesman announced a plan to replace the deteriorating facility at Bagram, which currently holds some 630 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, with a new facility capable of holding 1,100 prisoners. At the time, Afghans called the plan an illegal affront to the country’s sovereignty. It will be interesting to see if the tone of the debate changes after the destruction of Sarposa.

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