The release of terrorism suspects has a long history in Yemen. The 2006 prison break of 23 militants from Sanaa's Political Security prison was one of the most notorious escapes in Yemen's history, setting a number of dangerous al Qaeda operatives free again, including several who had participated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.
According to some observers, it had to be an inside job. The prison is an imposing fortress in the heart of Sanaa, with plainclothes soldiers patrolling its perimeter. Inmates' spare cells -- only plastic silverware is allowed in -- are inspected several times a day. Prisoners are only allowed a half-hour a day outdoors, according to Muhammed Ghazwan, a Yemeni journalist with the local Shari newspaper, who was imprisoned there.
Muhsin Khosroof, a retired colonel and frequent commentator on Yemeni affairs, said that prisoners who escaped dug a tunnel to a mosque near the prison: "We don't know how they got the tools to dig a 300-meter tunnel, and we don't know where the soil they dug out went." Without the acquiescence of prison officials, he said, "this operation would seem impossible."
Khosroof thinks prison breaks aren't the only thing demonstrating collusion on the part of Yemeni officials with terrorists. The full-scale occupation of areas of southern Yemen by a local arm of al Qaeda calling itself Ansar al-Sharia during last year's uprising against Saleh, he thinks, would not have been possible without help from elements in the armed forces. According to Khosroof, the militants' success was simply too rapid to explain otherwise.
"No more than 400 al Qaeda fighters were able to occupy an entire governorate, which had several military detachments and special anti-terrorism teams trained by the Americans," he said. "All of these soldiers did nothing to confront 400 fighters, who occupied all of Abyan governorate and half of Shabwa governorate [both in Yemen's south]."
Ansar al-Sharia briefly took control of Ridaa, a city in Bayda governorate, for a few days in January, terrifying onlookers with the prospect that the group would move on the capital only 80 miles distant. Khosroof believes that Ridaa's capture was a maneuver orchestrated to make Yemenis cry out to the ailing Saleh regime for protection. "No battle occurred. Is this not evidence?" He asked. "No confrontation. The Republican Guard, the armed forces are supposed to stop them [Ansar al-Sharia]. No one confronted them, and they entered in peace."
President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh's successor and former vice president, has embarked on a high-profile campaign to wrest control of southern Yemen from al Qaeda. But suspicions run high that Yemen's current government is still covering for the terrorist organization. Ghazwan, who specializes in al Qaeda and military affairs, argued that militants escaped Hadi's offensive largely unscathed primarily with the help of top military leaders. "During the latest war, al Qaeda was able to reproduce itself through relationships with top military leaders," he said.