Check out my new Atlantic piece co-authored with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: “How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause”
The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –h as begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.
This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.
Many commentators have remarked that the jihadist movement has shown increased vigor recently, including al Qaeda’s North African affiliate and the various Ansar al Sharia groups that emerged in multiple countries, but the prison releases have been an important part of this story that analysts have generally ignored.
Prisoners have gone free for a variety of reasons. Muammar Qaddafi’s government used these releases as an offensive tactic early after the uprisings, setting prisoners free in rebellious areas in order to create strife there. As the rebellion continued, some prison governors decided for their own reasons (perhaps as a way of defecting) to empty prisons they were charged with guarding. Chaos allowed some escapes, as guards afraid of reprisals fled their posts; in other cases gunmen attacked prisons in order to release the inmates. And regimes that experienced less chaotic transitions, including Tunisia but especially Egypt, have been hesitant to continue imprisoning virtually anybody jailed by the old regime, including violent Islamists with blood on their hands.
The potential for danger was actually apparent very early in the events of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, even before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, it was widely reported that thousands of prisoners had escaped from Egyptian jails, including militants. A lengthy hagiographical account of how “the mujahedin” had escaped from the Abu Za’bal prison soon appeared on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network, a jihadist web forum.
After Mubarak’s fall, many people imprisoned by the old regime were let back on the streets. Hani al Saba’i, a figure with deep ties to the jihadist movement who runs the London- based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, published several lists of names of militant figures who had been released, beginning in February 2011. As he wrote on February 27, “This release is one of the positive outcomes of this popular Egyptian revolution that we hope to conclude with the application of the Islamic sharia.”
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