What’s the big deal about the Yemen prison escape?

Don’t Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

On the first Friday of this month, 23 prisoners escaped from a prison in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The men escaped through a 420-foot-long tunnel from the prison into a nearby mosque. The prison happens to be in the basement of Yemen’s military intelligence headquarters.

Why should you care? Three reasons:

Reason No. 1: If you’re driving in Yemen and see a group of 23 men hitchhiking, be smart. Be sure to ask them if they’re fugitives before you give any of them a ride.

Reason No. 2: If you’re having a rough day at work, you can always cheer up by reminding yourself, “At least I’m not a Yemeni military intelligence headquarters prison guard.”

Reason No 3: Thirteen of the escapees are members of al-Qaeda.

One is Jamal al-Badawi. Al-Badawi was convicted and sentenced to death in September 2004 for his role in the 2000 bombing of the U.S. naval destroyer U.S.S. Cole. The Cole was refueling at the port in Aden, Yemen, when a raft filled with explosives was detonated along its hull. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.

Another of the escapees is a man named Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei (say it 10 times fast!). Al-Rabeei is suspected to be among those responsible for the 2002 attack of the French tanker Limburg near Yemen’s coast. The attack killed a crew member and resulted in an environmental disaster by spilling 90,000 barrels of oil (and Allah knows how much stinky Limburger cheese) into the Gulf of Aden.

Also among the escapees was Jaber Elbaneh. Elbaneh is wanted in the United States for his involvement with the so-called Lackawanna 6. The U.S. has charged Elbaneh (in absentia) with providing material support to al-Qaeda. That’s the legalese way of saying that we think he attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

The U.S. is worried that the escapees, in particular the al-Qaeda members, are going to leave Yemen and head to a place where they can do Americans harm. Possibilities include going to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops, or going to Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and stirring unrest there. As we’ve seen in the past couple of years, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia tend to drive up oil prices (hitting the U.S. economy hard), even if the attacks themselves don’t reduce oil production.

Those are all reasonable fears. After all, evidence indicates that the prisoners escaped with help from the outside. Rolling an al-Qaedude up in a carpet and smuggling him out of the country can’t be that much harder than helping to construct a 420-foot-long prison-escape tunnel.

To help prevent them from getting out of Yemen, the U.S. has dispatched the Navy to patrol Yemen’s coast for suspicious ships. The U.S. won’t say how many ships it has on the job, but it’s doubtful there are enough to completely seal off the country. Yemen has a rather long coastline along two bodies of water (the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea), as well as lots of fishermen.

Interpol also is on the job. Not the band (though don’t you think that four hipsters in suits fighting terrorism would make a hell of a reality show?), but the international police organization of the same name.

Interpol is the International Criminal Police Organization. Headquartered in Lyon, France, Interpol is not nearly as suave and James Bond-y as legend would have it. Its primary function is to act as a sort of information clearinghouse that lets law enforcement agencies from 180 or so organizations share information.

Interpol issued what it calls “Orange” and “Blue” notices for the escapees. An “Orange” notice warns law enforcement around the world of people who pose a threat through the use of explosive or dangerous material. A “Blue” notice is a request for information about the escapees. Other Interpol notices include “Red” (a request that suspects be arrested), “Yellow” (to help locate missing persons), “Black” (a request for information about unidentified bodies), and “Brown” (“Oh, shit!”).

“Red” notices are likely to be issued for the escapees any day now.