ISTANBUL – 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 Twitter, apparently pulled from CCTV footage near the prison, show a pickup 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 several figures walking away.
The prison break in al-Mukalla freed Khalid Ba Tarfi, an AQAP regional commander who was captured in 2011, and 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. The Saudi-led coalition, which has labeled its efforts "Operation Decisive Storm," has largely targeted the Huthis, a Zaydi-Shi'a militia group, as well as military units still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Salih.
These targeting choices are meant to restore Yemen's legitimate government, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubair, has said on multiple occasions. Last week at an Arab Summit meeting in Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia said the campaign would continue until Yemen is "secure and stable."
Yemen's internationally recognized president, Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, fled the country in late March in the face of a Huthi offensive. Hadi, who attended the summit in Egypt, is currently in Riyadh, where he continues to carry out the rituals of ruling. On Wednesday, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Hadi issued a Republican Decree, naming a new military commander to one of Yemen's southern districts. It is unlikely that these missives from afar will have much of an impact on the ground where a mix of militias, loyal to the Huthis and former President Salih, are moving into Aden in a bid to control the strategic southern city.
The Huthis, of course, have been fighting al-Qaeda for years in a bloody back-and-forth that has attracted little attention outside of Yemen. And one of the unanswered questions of the Saudi air campaign is: What comes next?
What comes after the airstrikes and a possible ground invasion? The Saudi-led coalition's air raids have already destroyed much of Yemen's military infrastructure, including millions of dollars in U.S.-supplied military equipment. When this war, or at least the international portion of it, ends, what sort of military will Yemen have left to combat al-Qaeda?
The al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has taken advantage of Yemen's chaos before. In fact, in an eerie parallel, the group owes its existence to a prison break that took place when the government in Sanaa, then under Salih's control, was distracted fighting an earlier war against the Huthis.
That prison break, in February 2006, was AQAP's genesis moment. Among the 23 escapees that day was Nasir al-Wihayshi, the current head of AQAP, and his deputy Qasim al-Raymi. The two would be instrumental in resurrecting al-Qaeda in Yemen up from the ashes of an earlier defeat.
On Thursday, reports in the local Arabic press stated that al-Qaeda militants attacked several government buildings effectively taking control of the city for several hours. At the same time, what's left of Yemen's military in the south is unwilling to leave its bases to respond to al-Qaeda for fear of inviting Saudi airstrikes on troop movements.
Late last month, the U.S. withdrew 125 Special Operations advisers who were stationed at a military base in the south. That base has since been taken over by the Huthis, who are being bombed by the Saudis. The U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence aid to Saudi Arabia through what the White House has described as "joint planning cell."
In Yemen's confusing, chaotic war it is al-Qaeda that stands to gain the most as its various enemies attack one another.
Greg Johnsen is a writer-at-large for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul. In 2014, he won the National Press Foundation’s Dirksen Award.
Contact Gregory D. Johnsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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