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Jul 30, 2013 | 15:29 GMT

Pakistan: The Ramifications of a Prison Break

Pakistan: The Ramifications of a Prison Break
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Pakistani Taliban militants attacked a prison in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province late July 29 and freed more than 175 inmates. Though this is not the first time militants have freed their counterparts from Pakistani jails or prisons, this instance included the escape of 35 high-profile militants. There have been several recent instances of militants attacking prisons in places like Libya, Iraq and Niger. These prison breaks greatly threaten national and regional security, and may even have global consequences.

Pakistani Islamist militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed it sent roughly 100 militants, some of whom were suicide bombers, to attack the prison using heavy weaponry and explosive devices on July 29. This attack was followed by a six-hour Pakistani military operation, spurring a gunfight that resulted in the deaths of at least four policemen and five militants.

The prison break in Pakistan comes on the heels of a similar breach in Libya on July 27, when 1,000 prisoners escaped during a riot in the prison that was coordinated with an external attack. Unlike the escapees in Pakistan, however, many of the escaped prisoners in Libya were common law detainees, not battle-hardened jihadists. Additionally, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched an attack July 21 on two separate prisons in Iraq, freeing between 500 and 600 inmates. According to U.S. officials, a significant number of the escaped prisoners were al Qaeda militants. Such attacks have also occurred recently in West Africa — 175 inmates were freed in Niger by an al Qaeda-linked group commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. 

Prison breaks to free fellow militants are not isolated to a specific region and can occur anywhere there is militancy and a security vacuum. This can be particularly dangerous for the country in which the escape occurs, since it is likely to bolster the capabilities of the respective militant group. 

Additionally, all of the most recent breaks occur in volatile regions where militancy interplays with and affects the security of neighboring countries. In Niger, for example, militants are not constrained by country, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar in particular is known for recruiting and employing militants from across western Africa, northern Africa and the Middle East to conduct attacks throughout the region.

Finally, it is possible that the ramifications of such prison breaks extend beyond the respective nation and region and can impose long-term and global consequences. This was seen after the Yemen prison break in 2006 — the prison break was not necessarily large (only 23 prisoners escaped), but many of those who did escape were experienced, battle-hardened al Qaeda members. Two prisoners who escaped, Nasir al-Wahayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, were able to unite jihadists in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as other transnational militants, and form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has not only been successful in staging attacks in Yemen — and in neighboring countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia — but it has also carried out successful attacks on a global scale.

It is not known whether the group could have successfully merged and united with local and regional jihadists without al-Wahayshi. This example highlights prison breaks' potential long-lasting, destructive and widespread repercussions. Therefore, when considering the possible effects of the July 29 Pakistani prison break, the number of freed inmates is not as notable as the escape of high-profile militants with valuable battlefield and operational experience. It will be critical to track these reported 35 jihadists to determine the extent to which this prison break will affect militancy on a local, regional and global scale.

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