Fighters from a feared al Qaeda affiliate stormed a prison in an eastern coastal city of Yemen today, freeing nearly 300 hundred inmates—a third of them jihadists, including senior operatives—in a jailbreak demonstrating how boldly the Sunni militants are now able to exploit the chaos that has engulfed the country.
The early morning assault on the prison in al Mukalla came as Saudi-led airstrikes pummeled Iran-linked Houthi rebels, focusing on central neighborhoods in the port city of Aden in a bid to push rebels back from districts they started to seize on Wednesday.
To add to the confusion, there were reports today, as well, that dozens of foreign troops were landing in Aden from the sea, but Saudi officials denied this, saying the armed men were supporters of another former Yemeni president now backing the rebels.
Certainly for Western security services the jailbreak in al Mukalla is the more alarming development. The CIA and other intelligence organizations view Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the most dangerous of all the al Qaeda franchises because of its potential to build sophisticated bombs that can be smuggled onto commercial airliners. Until today, al Mukalla was under the control of government forces loyal to Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who had the confidence of the United States. But Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and the men he left behind have no been able to organize much resistance.
Among the jihadists freed in the break staged by AQAP was one of their own leaders, Khalid Batarfi, who had been held for more than four years and who played a leading role in 2011 in the jihadist seizure of large parts of the country’s south and east. He was also on the militant group's governing Shura council.
“All the brothers have been liberated, including Sheikh Batarfi who is now amongst his brothers, all praise to Allah," AQAP Twitter accounts claimed.
Abdullah al Sharafi, a Yemeni defense ministry official, told the Wall Street Journal: “A few of the escapees were senior al Qaeda leaders, but among those who escaped were dozens of al Qaeda fighters and loyalists.”
Yemen’s collapse into chaos is seen as a major setback to President Barack Obama's broader counter-terrorism strategy. Obama cited Yemen last autumn as a model of success in the struggle against al Qaeda, praising the American partnership with Yemen’s President Hadi and highlighting the inroads being made into AQAP’s leadership by a long-standing drone war against the dangerous terror branch.
Prior to the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the American military had about 100 specialists and intelligence officials based at the al Annad Air Base, near Aden. The drone strikes were planned from there. The U.S. evacuated its personnel from the base last month.
This morning’s jailbreak was well planned, with AQAP fighters armed with machine guns assaulting the prison following a barrage of rocket fire launched from neighboring buildings overlooking the prison. Yemeni officials say two guards and five inmates were killed in the attack. Al Qaeda militants later fought with troops guarding a local administration building in al Mukalla, a branch of the central bank and the police headquarters.
The focus elsewhere in the country today was in Aden, where the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries, which started an air-war against the Houthi rebels last week, insisted their intervention is showing signs of success, despite the midweek rebel push into Aden, the former southern stronghold of President Hadi before his flight to Riyadh.
The operation "has excellently achieved planned goals at all levels, air, ground, and sea," coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri announced.
But the rebel push into the center of Aden has come despite a week of Saudi-led air strikes.
The Iran-backed Houthis supported by other locals loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh are now reported to have seized the presidential palace as well as a key district in the port city that is home to several foreign consulates and United Nations offices. Some of Hadi’s own former officials are raising doubts about the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, arguing that civilian deaths are provoking widespread anger that crosses sectarian lines.
On Wednesday large protests were staged in the capital Sanaa against the air campaign. Rights groups are also expressing concern, criticizing strikes that hit a refugee camp and a dairy factory killing several dozen people. “All sides in Yemen's conflict need to do what they can to avoid harming civilians,” says Joe Stork of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
A spokeswoman for the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières says its hospital in Aden has received more than 500 injured people over the last two weeks. And local residents in Aden say the fierce clashes in the past 24 hours in the city are leading to a rising death toll among civilians caught in the crossfire.
Dozens of Yemenis are reported to have crossed the Gulf of Aden in small boats to Somalia and Djibouti to escape fighting and airstrikes on the city of Taiz.
About 150,000 Saudi troops have been massed along the kingdom’s southern border with Yemen. Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, including Pakistan, have been threatening to launch a ground war against the Houthis, if airstrikes fail to halt rebel advances. In turn the Houthis have threatened to retaliate and launch attacks inside Saudi Arabia.