Interpol alert on jail breaks: Did Al Qaeda free hundreds of terror suspects?

Interpol alert on jail breaks: Did Al Qaeda free hundreds of terror suspects?
Washington: Interpol issued a global alert on Saturday asking member countries to help track hundreds of terrorism suspects who escaped in a wave of prison breaks over the past month - including in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya - and requesting assistance in determining whether any of the operations "are coordinated or linked."

The alert from Interpol, the global police organization, came two days after the State Department ordered nearly two dozen diplomatic facilities closed in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia based on intelligence that an affiliate of al Qaeda in Yemen might be plotting attacks in the coming days.

On Saturday, several European governments said they too were temporarily closing their outposts in Yemen.

It is unclear how the Interpol and State Department alerts might be connected, although the Interpol notice did refer to the State Department closings and stated that Interpol would be "prioritizing all information and intelligence in relation to the breakouts or terrorist plots."

US and foreign officials believe Al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate orchestrated coordinated attacks in late July that freed hundreds of inmates from two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. The attackers used mortars to pin down Iraqi forces, employed suicide bombers to punch holes in Iraqi defenses and then sent an assault force to free the inmates, Western officials said at the time.

A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi, Libya. The country's prime minister blamed local residents for carrying out the jail break, an accusation that was disputed by security officials in Benghazi.

In a separate attack at a century-old prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan's tribal belt, as many as 150 fighters blew holes in the perimeter wall and stormed the prison compound. The local authorities said some of the attackers were disguised as police officers, and they used megaphones to call out the names of specific prisoners. Nearly 250 inmates were freed during the attack.

The Interpol alert added to a climate of heightened concern set off Thursday when State Department officials spoke of possible terror plots in the works against Western facilities overseas.

day, the department issued a global travel alert for US citizens that warned of the potential for terror attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups from Sunday through the end of August.

In an interview with the ABC News program "This Week" to be broadcast on Sunday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E Dempsey, said the intelligence about the possible plots was "more specific" than in the past. "There's a significant threat stream and we're reacting to it," he said.

Senior Obama administration officials met at the White House on Saturday afternoon to discuss the latest information about the threat. Led by Susan E Rice, the national security adviser, the meeting was attended by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Secretary of State John Kerry; the CIA director, John O Brennan; and other officials. Obama administration officials have spoken optimistically in recent months about a generally diminished terror threat, and during a speech in May, President Barack Obama said Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups had been eviscerated by US counterterrorism operation.

Still, the administration continues to wage an aggressive drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, and monitoring groups said that there had been three US strikes in Yemen in the past week.

France, Germany and Britain on Saturday announced the temporary closings of their embassies in Sanaa, Yemen, citing fears of unspecified attacks on their interests there. A representative of the British Foreign Office called the closure a "precautionary measure," the BBC reported.

In France, President Francois Hollande spoke of specific threats but gave no additional details.

"I've decided to close the embassy of France in Yemen because, now, we've had elements that allowed us to think that these threats were extremely serious," Hollande told reporters Saturday. He did not specify the source or nature of the information concerning potential attacks.

The closure is expected to last "several days," Hollande said, adding that French officials and citizens should be particularly "vigilant" in coming weeks if traveling in countries where terror groups are known to operate.

The Interpol alert issued Saturday cited coming anniversaries of past terror attacks, including this week's 15th anniversary of the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people and wounded 4,000 others.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
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