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Interpol Asks For Help Tracking Escaped Al-Qaida Inmates


Just after the State Department announced it would close those diplomatic missions came another alert, this one from Interpol, the global police organization. Interpol is asking for help tracking hundreds of terrorism suspects who've escaped from prisons in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya over the past month. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story and she joins me now.

And Dina, what's the connection between these two security alerts, one from Interpol and the other from the State Department?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, they're related in so much as the U.S. is on heightened alert after discovering what it called a threat stream of information over the past several weeks. And that threat stream seems to indicate that al-Qaida might be readying an attack. From what we understand, there was an intercept between the head of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's replacement.

And that's what prompted these embassy closures. The prison breaks, they're separate. They happened in late July. But given that there's this sudden influx of hundreds of foot soldiers into local Islamist and al-Qaida ranks, you could understand why U.S. officials might be worried.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk some more about those prison breaks because it was quite startling, huge numbers of prisoners who escaped, three different countries, all over the course of a week. It would seem that this might be a coordinated plan of attack.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, U.S. officials say that local al-Qaida operatives joined forces with local Islamists to stage these attacks in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. But they don't think that they were coordinated. And if you look at the attacks, they're all really different. The first one happened on July 22nd in Iraq. There were two prisons, including Abu Ghraib prison, and they were attacked simultaneously with rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombers actually blew holes into the prison walls.

About 500 people, including some key al-Qaida operatives in Iraq escaped. In Pakistan, the second break, the prison break is thought to have been staged by the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani Taliban has ties to al-Qaida, but it isn't really an affiliate. Now, in that case, gunmen were wearing police uniforms and they came into the prison with their guns blazing and started calling out the names of specific prisoners using bullhorns and a couple of hundred prisoners got away in that one.

And finally, in Libya, there was a prison break at the end of July that apparently allowed about 1,000 prisoners to go free. And while it's true that three big prison breaks in the course of a couple weeks looks like something coordinated and very planned, officials investigating them said they didn't think they were connected, that prison breaks are standard operating procedures for groups al-Qaida.

They happen fairly frequently. They're just usually not this big. I mean, al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, the one that put that underwear bomb on the U.S. plane bound for Detroit in 2009, its core leadership all came from a prison break in Yemen about seven years ago.

BLOCK: Now, is there any evidence, Dina, that any of these terrorism suspects who escaped in these prison breaks could be playing a role in whatever is causing these latest terrorism alerts?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No. Frankly, terrorist attacks take longer than a matter of weeks to plan and those escapees have only been out on the street for a really short time. Where there's an overlap for law enforcement is the idea that if these groups have the ability to successfully stage massive prison breaks, attacking an embassy or some other soft target is much easier for them.

I mean, prisons, if you think about it, by their very definition are supposed to be a very difficult target to attack.

BLOCK: Well, Dina, the U.S. says it's going to keep the embassies closed for at least another week. The State Department has a travel advisory in place until the end of the month. Is there reason to think that August, in particular, is going to be a particularly month?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the Interpol alert talked about upcoming anniversaries of terror attacks. This week is the 15th anniversary of the American embassy bombings in Kenya, in Tanzania. Ramadan is ending and there are often attacks after Ramadan is over. And on top of that, we're closing in on the anniversary of 9/11. So those things alone would raise a security alert.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.