Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, launched coordinated suicide assaults last night against two Iraqi jails, killing 26 policemen and freeing more than 500 prisoners.
The al Qaeda affiliate attacked prisons in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, and Taji, north of the capital, on Sunday in an effort to break out leaders and fighters being held by the government.
The attacks began as suicide bombers struck at the main gate to open a hole for assault teams, Reuters reported. The attacks were accompanied by mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades from supporting units, while blocking forces deployed on the roads to the prisons to fend off Iraqi forces attempting to relieve the besieged prison guards.
Iraqi policemen in Taji fended off the assault, but al Qaeda was far more successful at Abu Ghraib, where hundreds of terrorists escaped. Iraqi forces fought the al Qaeda assault team until Monday morning before regaining control of the prison.
“The number of escaped inmates has reached 500, most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences,” a senior member of the security and defense committee in parliament told Reuters. Some of the inmates were recaptured after Iraqi reinforcements reached the prison, but most have escaped.
Ten Iraqi policemen and four al Qaeda fighters were killed during the Abu Ghraib jailbreak. In Taji, 16 policemen were killed while fending off the assault; six al Qaeda fighters were also killed.
Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has targeted Iraqi prisons several times in the past in efforts to free its operatives and leaders. In one such attack, in September 2012 at the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit, more than 100 prisoners escaped.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, or Abu Du’a, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, announced the “Destroying the Walls” campaign in July 2012, and said that the group would place emphasis on efforts “to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere.”
Al Qaeda maintains the capacity to organize and execute large-scale, complex attacks such as the assaults on the prisons in Abu Ghraib and Taji. Another such attack, in Haditha in March 2012, killed 27 Iraqi policemen. Al Qaeda in Iraq was able to organize and train more than 100 fighters disguised as police commandos, block the roads into the town, and round up and execute the policemen.
The terror group has also demonstrated the ability to launch coordinated attacks and suicide bombings against security forces, the government, and civilians in multiple cities throughout the country.
The past 24 hours have been especially deadly for Iraqi security forces. In Mosul, 23 Iraqi soldiers and two civilians were killed in a suicide attack that targeted an Army convoy at a market. Also, four more policemen were killed in a separate attack in the northern city.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has stepped up the use of suicide bombers to conduct attacks inside Iraq. In the past 37 days, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has executed 22 suicide attacks and assaults inside Iraq, according to a count by The Long War Journal.
Al Qaeda has not only increased its operational tempo in Iraq after the US withdrew its forces at the end of 2011, but expanded its operations in Syria. The terror group’s Iraqi branch formed the Al Nusrah Front in Syria in early 2012, and has since been at the vanguard of some of the heaviest fighting against President Assad’s forces. Jihadists are in control of several cities and vast areas of the countryside, and, along with other rebel groups, have imposed sharia, or Islamic law.
Flush with success in Syria, al Baghdadi created the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in April in an attempt to consolidate his control over the Al Nusrah Front. The emir of the Al Nusrah Front rejected the merger, and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, weighed in against al Baghdadi. But al Baghdadi has rejected Zawahiri’s rebuke and has continued to operate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.