Inside Story

How real is the threat posed by al-Qaeda?

We examine the connection between a series of prison breaks and the closure of Western embassies across the Middle East.

Interpol has put the world on a security alert, advising its members to increase their vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The international police agency said the prison breaks had “led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals” over the past month.

Just a day after the warning, the US announced that it was temporarily closing its embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, saying it had information that al-Qaeda and its allies may increase efforts to attack Western interests this month.

Lawmakers briefed on the intelligence called the threat among the most serious they had seen in recent years, while General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the specific locations and targets were not known, but “the intent is to attack Western, not just US interests”.

Two-hundred-and-forty-eight prisoners escaped from a prison in northwest Pakistan on Monday when a large explosion followed by a series of smaller bombs destroyed the prison’s boundary wall. Fighters disguised as policemen carried out the attack using rocket launchers and machine guns.

Around 45 of those who escaped are considered by the Pakistani government to be particularly dangerous. And while at least 40 have been recaptured, that still leaves the vast majority at large.

Well I don't think there would be any direct coordination between what has happened in Iraq ... or Niger … or Pakistan, but I think what is common to all of them is the ideology. Particularly in Pakistan we are seeing the emergence of a local al-Qaeda.

by Imtiaz Gul, the head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies

Earlier, more than 1,100 prisoners escaped from the Al Kuafiya jail in Libya. Again many of the escapees are considered highly dangerous and only a small proportion have been recaptured.

And days before that al-Qaeda said it had helped as many as 500 inmates break out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in another apparently well-planned attack.

In all three cases, many of the escapees were hardened fighters linked to armed groups like al-Qaeda, leading Interpol to question whether the breakouts were linked.

And, despite Barack Obama’s declaration that the US will limit the use of drones, nine people were killed in two separate drone strikes in Yemen last week. It is attacks such as these that some argue provide more ammunition for al-Qaeda and its allies.

So, what do these threats mean for the US and other Western nations? Who is behind the prison breaks and are they coordinated? And is the US really willing to stop drone strikes?

To discuss this Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hannah, is joined by guests: Will Geddes, a counterterrorism specialist and managing director and founder of security company International Corporate Protection; Imtiaz Gul, the head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies and author of several books on al-Qaeda and tribal ties in Pakistan; Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq; and Hakim Almasmari, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post

“The embassy shut-down is based on some information about a plot against US interests abroad. I do not believe it is necessarily related to these prison breaks … these plots usually take a lot more time to plan and I rather doubt these prison breaks are part and parcel of that.”

Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq