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Bomb maker still at large after Yemen prison break is sign of al Qaida’s strength

When a Yemeni judge sentenced him to death on Oct. 18, 2010, Saleh al Shawish showed little sign of defeat. He openly admitted his affiliation with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al Qaida franchise, and his participation in seven of the group’s operations.

“God willing, your demise is in our hands,” he said to those assembled in the court as he was led off to jail.

At the time, it was easy to dismiss Shawish’s remarks as empty threats from a man destined to die in prison. Today, however, his words take on a decidedly different tinge.

A week after suspected al Qaida militants blew a hole in the wall of Sanaa’s central prison, Shawish remains at large, one of 19 al Qaida suspects among the 29 prisoners who managed to escape during the mayhem. Only one has been recaptured, and none of the al Qaida members.

Their crimes, according to a statement from the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior, ranged from attempting to assassinate the country’s current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to fighting with al Qaida-affiliated insurgents in southern Abyan province. Their sentences ranged from six years to death.

Of the group, Shawish stands apart, say Yemeni officials, who call him the most dangerous of last week’s escapees and another example of why Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula continues to grow, despite concerted efforts by the government and a persistent U.S. drone campaign that strikes alleged militants on a regular basis.

By his own admission, Shawish had a significant role in attacks on military checkpoints, army bases and oil installations in the provinces of Marib and Hadramawt, his home province and the place where he was caught.

No mere foot soldier, Shawish was what counterterrorism officials call an “operational figure” – a skilled bomb maker who trained suicide bombers and planned operations. Reportedly wearing a suicide vest at the time of his arrest, Shawish was apprehended as he allegedly neared the final stages of coordinating new attacks.

AQAP has seen plenty of changes since Shawish was last a free man. But while many of his closest comrades are either dead or in prison, a lingering security vacuum engendered by the 2011 uprising that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has allowed the group to expand its presence across the country.

If AQAP’s history is any guide, Shawish and the other newly freed inmates will have little difficulty in re-engaging with local extremist networks.

Many of AQAP’s highest ranking figures escaped from jail in a February 2006 prison break, including the group’s current emir, or leader, Nasr al Wuhayshi, and the late Hamza al Quati, who headed the specific cell to which Yemeni authorities said Shawish belonged.

Most analysts don’t think last week’s prison break will prove to be as significant as the February 2006 one. That’s the one that most specialists believe led to AQAP’s formation in 2009; inmates like Shawish are experienced, operational figures, but their resumes pale in comparison to those of Wuhayshi and his fellow 2006 escapees, the specialists say.

“There’s a huge difference between what happened last week and what happened in 2006; even if some of the escapees were of some importance, none were very important,” said Abdulrazzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist and analyst who focuses on AQAP-related issues. “The key implication (of last week’s attack) is that other attacks on similar targets will take place in the future.”

In the eyes of many here, the identities of the escaped inmates are far less disturbing than what the central prison’s attackers managed to pull off: a daring siege on a heavily secured building, coming after a series of similar assaults that have also been blamed on AQAP operatives, including attacks on military bases in the southeast of the country and the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in central Sanaa.

The attacks have underlined Yemen’s lingering security vacuum, giving credence to longstanding claims that AQAP has managed to infiltrate key military and law enforcement institutions. Last week’s jailbreak, officials say, is only the latest evidence that the group remains a force to be reckoned with.

“AQAP is growing,” said a Yemeni official briefed on security matters, reflecting on the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “They’re able to execute strategic operations – especially prison breaks and attacks on highly secure facilities.”