In a new video, a resurgent AQAP celebrates their latest jailbreak and warns what comes next.
SANAA, Yemen — The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video on March 29 showing its leaders and other operatives celebrating a Feb. 13 jailbreak. In that operation, armed men stormed the Central Security Prison in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, with an explosive-laden car and automatic weapons, freeing more than two-dozen prisoners in fewer than 30 minutes. The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said that 19 of the 29 escapees were convicted of terrorism-related charges.
In previous videos, AQAP leaders have generally appeared individually, spoken from off-camera, or were filmed in non-descript rooms. The last time AQAP released public footage of such a brazen celebration was in 2011, when militants seized control of a swath of Yemen's Abyan and Shabwa provinces. During the few months AQAP controlled the area, it operated checkpoints on roads and AQAP officials delivered public speeches and sermons in local mosques -- but it was forced back into hiding after the central government launched a military offensive to retake the region in spring 2012.
In the recent video, released online by AQAP's al-Malahim media office, the militants appear as audacious as before: Dozens of fighters are shown marching -- in the open and in broad daylight -- through Yemen's mountains exchanging congratulations and celebrating the jailbreak with gunfire, chants, and public speeches. Even AQAP's reclusive emir, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, makes an appearance to welcome the escaped prisoners.
The bold defiance on display is a sharp rebuke to reports that AQAP has been decimated by drone strikes.
The video features interviews with two of the escapees, Munir al-Bouni and Saleh al-Sha'oush. Bouni was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2009 for joining AQAP and plotting attacks against tourist and government facilities. Sha'oush was arrested wearing an explosive belt in January 2010 in the southern port city of Mukalla and was tried in October 2010 for having a role in attacks on oil and gas facilities in the provinces of Hadramout and Mareb.
In the video, Bouni says that they began planning their escape when they were transferred from a prison run by the Political Security Organization, Yemen's secret police, to the Central Security Prison. Two days after arriving in the new prison, Bouni met other imprisoned members of AQAP, including Sha'oush, Mansour al-Dalil, and Mubarak al-Shabwani. Dalil and Shabwani were sentenced to death in July 2011 for killing eight soldiers in November 2009 in Hadramout province. Together, they settled on a plan to make 10 hand grenades in their cell, as well as a more powerful explosive device.
"All [bomb-making] materials were smuggled into the prison and we began making bombs," Bouni says in his interview. "The brothers [outside the prison] were tasked to destroy the wall and we would deal with the inside."
Sha'oush claims to have helped build the explosives in prison, then signaled AQAP members outside the prison to launch the attack. Rather than attack the main gate, AQAP blew through a wall of the prison with a car bomb followed by an assault by armed men.
Sha'oush describes the prisoners waiting impatiently for the car bomb to explode. "They wanted to leave the prison even before the car went off," he says. After the blast breached the prison wall, the inmates then used their prison-made explosives against the guards. Then, "even before the smoke cleared, they quickly ran into the wall and ran away," he says. "When we got out of prison, we turned right and the guys were waiting for us at the end of the road."
The jailbreak was met with a large celebration. In the video, masked men in a mountainous area fire machine guns and chant "God is great" as a convoy of brand new pickup trucks loaded with fighters drives past. Apparently to prove that they were present, the escapees appear unmasked, while most of the AQAP members in the video have their faces blurred. Keeping with Yemeni tribal customs, a man called Abu Yasser welcomes the freed prisoners with a short poem and al Qaeda fighters sing to the gathering. The men are served fruit while they listen to speakers. "As you can see, we enjoy great freedom," Mohammed al-Saadi, one of the escaped prisoners, says at one point. "We ask the Almighty to help us to slaughter the oppressors."
Among the speakers at the AQAP gathering is Ibrahim al-Rubaish, an AQAP religious leader and former Guantanamo detainee, who promises more al Qaeda jailbreaks around the world. "We have [incarcerated] brothers in Guantanamo, al-Hair and Dhahban [in Saudi Arabia], and Palestine," Rubaish says in the video.
Wuhayshi, who rarely appears in AQAP's video and audio releases, can be seen among the crowd. Despite AQAP's tit-for-tat killings in Yemen, Wuhayshi reminds his supporters that their target is the United States. "We should remember that we fight the biggest enemy. We must overthrow the leaders of infidelity and remove the cross and its holder, America," he says in an interview in the video. He reiterates the al Qaeda philosophy that they fight Yemeni soldiers because they stand in their way and prevent them from fighting Americans.
Despite the international threats like Wuhayshi's, AQAP has seemed to focus on more local concerns recently. In addition to the jailbreak in February, AQAP has staged attacks on military installations, and on March 31, the organization announced a new armed division, Ansar al-Sharia in the Central Regions, to specifically combat Yemen's Houthi movement. The Houthis are a Shiite revivalist organization based in Yemen's northern Saada province that fought several wars with the central government during the 2000s, but since 2010, they have clashed frequently with Yemeni Salafists, and AQAP has rallied to support armed opposition to the Shiite group.
But the video is a bold piece of propaganda directed at multiple audiences, says Saeed Obeid, an independent Yemeni terrorism expert. It is designed to reassure al Qaeda supporters that the organization looks after its own. In August 2013, Wuhayshi pledged to release al Qaeda prisoners, though he didn't name any specific prisons.
"He wants to benefit from his accomplishment and say that he honored his word and released prisoners," says Obeid. AQAP now wants to spin the successful jailbreak operation into good publicity abroad. "Al Qaeda sees propaganda as important as armed battles," said Obeid.
Two days after the release of the video, airstrikes hit suspected AQAP hideouts in al-Mahfed district in Abyan province in response to the video. Local media outlets attributed the strikes to the Yemeni Air Force, but Western reports suggest it was a U.S. drone strike. At the same time, the Ministry of Interior said it would gather information about AQAP havens across the country.
Despite al Qaeda's ruthless attacks on military posts that have killed tens of soldiers this year across the country, the Yemeni government still insists that it has the upper hand in the war against AQAP. Shortly after the deadly assault on an army complex in the southern port city of Aden on April 2, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi sent a message to the military, praising soldiers for "foiling" AQAP's assault and saying the country's armed forces are "recovering and regaining their strength." According to the Yemen's state news agency, 10 AQAP militants and six soldiers were killed when attackers detonated a car bomb at the gates of the base and stormed the facility, but security forces hunted them down before they reached the main building of the complex.
The Ministry of Interior has admitted recently that the trend of the war on al Qaeda is mainly based on reacting to and repelling AQAP attacks and has indicated it will be shifting to a more proactive policy. "Security services should take the lead and begin attacking al Qaeda instead of foiling attacks," the ministry said in a statement on its official website.
Recent reports have indicated that the United States is exploring the possibility of giving the Yemeni Air Force a fleet of armed crop dusters to allow the Yemeni government a larger role in what has largely been a U.S. effort to target AQAP leaders with airstrikes. But as the Yemeni government takes the fight to AQAP, it is going up against an emboldened enemy, and as this new video shows, it's not hiding in the shadows anymore.
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