Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has engineered a massive jailbreak from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, according to reports from the country. Reuters quotes a senior member of the Iraqi Parliament as saying that at least 500 convicts have escaped, possibly as many as 1,000. “Most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences,” Hakim Al-Zamili said. This would be troubling under any circumstances, but the present situation in the Middle East lends to Monday’s escape being a situation with possible repercussions for the entire region. Here’s a few reasons why:
The attack was well-planned and well-executed.
According to the reports coming out of Iraq, this was no piecemeal attempt from AQI to free a few of their compatriots. Instead, it was a full-fledged assault on Abu Ghraib. “Suicide bombers drove cars with explosives into the gates of the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad on Sunday night, while gunmen attacked guards with mortar fire as well as rocket propelled grenades,” Russia Today reports, adding that additional assailants wearing suicide vests entered the prison to help convicts make their escape. At least 14 Iraqi security forces died in the attack, which only ended when military helicopters arrived to provide back-up. A simultaneous attack, a hallmark of Al Qaeda strategy, took place at a prison 12 miles north of Baghdad; reports are conflicting as to whether any of those inmates were able to escape.
Violence in Iraq was already high.
2013 has not been a good year for Iraq, as sectarian violence has grown over the past few months. Just two days ago, six car bombs detonated in Baghdad, killing at least 46 people and wounding 152 more. AQI has been implicated in the bombings, due to the coordinated nature of the explosions. More than 2,700 people have been killed so far in Iraq so far this year, according to AFP figures, mostly in similar car bombs across the country. The freeing of a large number of mostly Sunni fighters — the minority sect in Iraq, which is mostly Shiite — into the streets of Baghdad only increases the chances of greater sectarian strife.
Syria’s civil war is just over the border.
The sudden influx of a large number of trained fighters and convicted terrorists into Iraq would be a problem even if there wasn’t a civil war next door. Given the ongoing conflict in Syria, however, this could mark a radical shift in how the war proceeds. While talks of a merger between the two have gone back and forth, AQI and Syrian rebel group Jahbat al-Nusra have been cooperating for months, to the point that the State Department has listed Nusra as a subsidiary of the terrorist group. Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, told ThinkProgress that it will be interesting to see if those who escaped do go to Syria, whether they will bring with them some of their more radical tactics. At present, according to Zelin, there are jihadi groups who provide social services to civilians and perform other acts that could see themselves undermined by an influx of “hardened fighters” captured during the U.S. “surge” in Iraq.