Before the Abu Ghraib Jailbreak: Militant Escapes in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

Iraqi army soldiers stand guard at the Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 2, 2006.

Sunni insurgents assaulted Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison on Monday in an astonishing attack that reportedly freed hundreds of inmates, including leading members of al-Qaeda. The jailbreak has raised fears that a rising Sunni insurgency will once again destabilize a country riven by sectarian divisions. U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq nearly two years ago.

Prison breaks have plagued security efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq since the U.S. invaded those countries in 2003 and 2001, respectively. Below are some of the more high profile attempts at jailbreak in the past decade.

Tikrit, Iraq
September, 2012

In a similar incident that also raised concerns of a revived threat from Sunni insurgents, 102 prisoners escaped a prison in Tikrit, Iraq, northwest of Baghdad. Many of the escapees had links to al-Qaeda in Iraq and some were on death row. Unconfirmed reports say the prisoners were aided by car bombs and gunmen who opened the attacks, but a local official told the New York Times that the prisoners began the attack when they began firing weapons likely supplied by prison guards. The prisoners then stormed the prison’s armory and engaged the police in a gun battle that left 16 police officers dead. The ensuing mass manhunt recaptured 40 prisoners within a day.

Kandahar City, Afghanistan
April, 2011

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… Nearly 500 inmates escaped in April, 2011 from the same Kandahar prison the Taliban had assaulted three years earlier. In a Taliban-led plot, inmates worked for more than five months digging a tunnel equipped with electricity and air pipes that spanned nearly half a mile from a cell’s floor to a nearby house outside the prison perimeter. “This is bad news for the government,” said Waheed Omar, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, at a news conference.

Basra, Iraq
January, 2011

Twelve militants linked to al-Qaeda donned police uniforms in January, 2011 and simply walked out of the detention center housed in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in southern Iraq. At the time, half of the detainees had confessed to involvement in multiple bombings throughout the area.

Kandahar City, Iraq
June, 2008

In what may be the largest jailbreak during U.S. operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, up to 1,000 people, including 400 Taliban militants, escaped a prison in Kandahar Province in June, 2008. The Taliban claimed responsibility for freeing the inmates in a violent assault, saying they used 30 motorcycles and two suicide bombers to infiltrate the prison. A month earlier, Sarposa prison mates had sewed their mouths shut in a hunger strike against conditions in the prison.

Mosul, Iraq
March, 2007

In one of the largest jailbreaks in Iraq prior to Mondays’ incident, dozens of gunmen stormed the Badoush jail in the northern city of Mosul, facing little resistance, and freed as many as 140 prisoners. Badoush prison was notorious for jailbreaks, including the prior escape of Saddam Hussein’s nephew Ayham Sabawi, who was accused of financing the Sunni insurgency.

Camp Bucca, Iraq
March, 2005

Camp Bucca held 600 inmates in March, 2005, when the 105th Military Police Battalion charged with running the camp discovered a finished tunnel stretching 357 feet. The prisoner operation, reminiscent of the attempt by Allied POWs to flee a German camp popularized in the film “The Great Escape,” was planned for that night. Instead, the Americans uncovered an expertly designed tunnel structure strewn with flashlights built from radio diodes.