Al Qaeda claimed credit this week for a sophisticated attack on two Iraqi prisons, including the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, that freed 500 prisoners including numerous al Qaeda leaders and members considered by U.S. officials to be dangerous terrorists.
The prison break is expected to sharply increase the regional and possibly global threat posed by al Qaeda terrorism. It also highlighted the U.S. government’s failure to fully stabilize and secure Iraq after the 2003 U.S. military intervention and pullout of troops in 2011, according to officials and analysts.
The raids on the prisons, including Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib and a second facility near Baghdad, involved a large number of armed men equipped with suicide car bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles. An estimated 20 guards were killed along with 21 prisoners
"These coordinated prison breaks are troubling," said a U.S. official involved in counterterrorism efforts. "Clearly, there’s a concern that escaped inmates—who may include former al Qaeda members and other convicted terrorists—will seek to join al Qaeda in Iraq, strengthening the group."
Iraq continues to face an increasing number of terrorist attacks along with growing Iranian influence since the pullout of U.S. troops that began in 2009 and ended in 2011.
Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institute counterterrorism specialist, said the breakout highlights al Qaeda’s growth.
"The prison break dramatically illustrates al Qaeda's resurgence in Iraq and that the gains of the [U.S. military] surge were temporary," Riedel said.
The U.S. military troop surge began in 2007 when more than 20,000 Army and Marine Corps troops were dispatched to Baghdad and Anbar Province. The surge was engineered by Gen. David Petraeus and sought to invoke a new counterinsurgency strategy that appears to have had temporary success.
Former special operations officer Bill Cowan warned that the breakout of hundreds of terrorists also increases the danger of released terrorists traveling to Syria, the new jihadist training ground.
"Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse in Iraq, they will," Cowan said. "Moreover, some of these al Qaeda leaders will likely find their way to Syria, adding to the bloodshed and to the confusion about what the United States role there should be there."
The prison break is a setback for the Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, who has aligned his government with Iran. Sunni insurgents, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have been seeking to overthrow the government.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is estimated to have around 2,500 terrorists and the group has been behind a series of deadly car bombings and other attacks across Iraq since the spring of 2013, killing at least 2,000 people.
Terror attack targets in recent months included mosques, football matches, shopping areas, and cafes.
Al Qaeda in Iraq recently merged with an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, to create a new group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is gaining strength in Syria as hundreds of foreign jihadists traveled to Syria in recent months to join the Islamist rebels.
That group claimed credit for the prison attack on Tuesday in a statement.
"The mujahideen [holy warriors], after months of preparation and planning, targeted two of the largest prisons of the Safavid government," said the statement signed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), using a pejorative term for Shiites. The statement was posted on a jihadist web site.
Recently, the al Qaeda Syrian affiliate killed a commander of the more secular Free Syrian Army, the rebel group that has the backing of several western stated.
The statement said the prison break was the conclusion of a campaign of attack designed to seek the release of Islamist prisoners, a key tenet of jihadists to win the release of captured comrades.
Online reaction from jihadists has been jubilant and the raid has been used to bolster support for the recent merger of the Iraq and Syria terrorist groups.
The number of freed prisoners was far less than online jihadists initially claimed. Early reports after the raid said that some 6,000 prisoners had been freed.
The terrorist campaign was dubbed "Tearing Down the Walls."
The statement was posted on the limited-access al Qaeda web site Shumukh al-Islam and also received wide attention on Twitter feeds from jihadists.
The terrorists among the prison escapees represent the first and second generation of al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq, according to the online Iraqi news outlet Shafiq News.
The terrorists broke out of the Abu Ghraib prison and moved into Iraq’s western regions of Ameriya, Samarra, Fallujah and Ramadi areas, the news outlet said, quoting an intelligence source.
An estimated 40 percent of the prisoners were hardened al Qaeda terrorists previously held at U.S. military prisons that were handed over to Iraqi authorities. They included former terrorists held by the U.S. military at Camp Bucca in Basra, and Camp Cropper at the Baghdad airport that were handed over to Iraqi authorities after U.S. troops left the country.
News reports from Iraq stated that the prison break was carried out with the help of collaborating prison guards.
One of the former prisoners sent Tweets after his release that were posted on the al Qaeda affiliated website Global Jihad Network.
The terrorist stated that "in Abu Ghraib prison the one who supervised my torture was Iranian; the one who removed my nails was Iranian."
At Abu Ghraib during Sunday’s raid, terrorists attacked the prison outside Baghdad by launching car bomb attacks on the gates of the prison. Gunmen then assaulted the high-security compound with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Reuters reported from Baghdad Monday.
Other terrorists fired on security troops dispatched to the prison from a main road.
"The number of escaped inmates has reached 500, most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences," Hakim Al-Zamili, a senior member of the security and defense committee in parliament, told Reuters.
"The security forces arrested some of them, but the rest are still free."
The attack on Taji, some 12 miles north of Baghdad was less successful. No inmates escaped, although 16 soldiers and six terrorists were killed in the battle.