Basra’s presidential palace that houses the provincial government and prison (Daily Mail)
On January 14, 2011 twelve members of the Al Qaeda led Islamic State of Iraq escaped from a prison at the Presidential Palace in Basra. The complex is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the city, and houses the governor’s and provincial council’s offices, the police headquarters, and an intelligence unit. Sources within the investigation said that the intelligence unit, and perhaps a high official in Baghdad helped the prisoners escape.
The prison break definitely had help from the inside. Before the event the Federal Police who were sent to the jail for extra security were told to leave at 6 am. The detainees were also supposed to be transferred to Baghdad, but the intelligence unit requested more time to interrogate them. A parliamentarian from the Fadhila party speculated that the prisoners were sprung to prevent them from fingering members of the Basra intelligence unit that they infiltrated.
After the escape, the security forces conducted a series of raids and arrests. All of the guards at the facility were held for questioning, along with several members of the Basra intelligence unit. An official from the investigating team told the press that there were still some suspects at large that they were looking for. He also said that a high official in Baghdad connected to the intelligence group was under suspicion. The Basra police chief was also held responsible for the escape, and fired by the provincial council.
Several high level Al Qaeda members were amongst those that escaped. One was a former college professor Majid Abdul Aziz, who is suspected of being the Islamic State’s commander for southern Iraq. He is believed to be behind a bombing in August 2009 in a Basra market that killed around 50 and wounded 100. Mohammad Ishab Yacoub was another prisoner who was thought to be involved in a number of assassinations in the region. In mid-2009 the Iraqi security forces warned about increased al Qaeda activity in southern Iraq, including a threat against the area’s oil infrastructure.
This would not be the first time that elements of the security forces helped Al Qaeda-Islamic State prisoners escape. In July and September 2009 high-ranking Al Qaeda members broke out of the Karkh Prison in Baghdad with help from the inside. In one case, the prison warden drove the insurgents out of the facility.
The Iraqi forces have gone through some major improvements in recent years. Amongst the success stories of weapons caches being found and insurgents being arrested, there are also ones like these where corrupt officers have been tempted to work for the other side. It’s probably impossible to counter the threat of these infiltrations, it can only be hoped that in the future there will be fewer and fewer cases.
Aswat al-Iraq, “13 al-Qaeda members escape from detention center in Basra,” 1/14/11
- “Basra council sacks police chief as al-Qaeda elements escape,” 1/17/11
Latif, Nizar, “Escaped Iraqi al Qa’eda prisoners ‘had inside help,’” The National, 1/19/11
- “Shiite gangs join al Qa’eda in Iraq,” The National, 9/12/10
Al-Rafidayn, “Al-Qaeda Cells Moving To Southern Iraq To Strike At Heart Of Iraqi Economy,” MEMRI Blog, 8/24/10
Reuters, “Twelve insurgents escape from prison in Iraq’s Basra,” 1/14/11
Al-Shishani, Murad Batal, “Iraqi Oil Facilities Threatened as Islamic State of Iraq Intensifies its Campaign Against the State,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, 9/23/10