At the end of September 2012, Iraq witnessed the largest prison break in recent history. Over 100 inmates allegedly got out of the Tasfirat prison in Tikrit, Salahaddin province. Iraq has seen a number of escapes before, but nothing of this magnitude. Al Qaeda in Iraq later took responsibility, while Iraq’s political class argued over who was responsible.
|Tasfirat Prison in Salahaddin after the detainee escape (Iraqi News)|
Al Qaeda in Iraq said it was behind the Tasfirat prison escape. Its front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq posted a comment on an Islamist website in October that it was responsible. That was predictable given the nature of the operation. The jailbreak started with a car bomb going off outside of the facility, with three more found close by. This pointed to coordination with outside insurgents. Prisoners were said to have gotten weapons smuggled into the prison during family visits as well. It was no surprise then that Al Qaeda would be behind such a bold attack. Of the 100 or so detainees that got out, 70 are still supposedly at large, although a few are being picked up here and there. Al Qaeda in Iraq is in the midst of its Breaking Walls campaign that it announced during the summer. This is being marked by an increase in security incidents, and headline grabbing operations like the one seen in Tikrit.
Such a daring and successful attack has led to recriminations amongst Iraqi officials and politicians. For one, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s representative in Karbala, Abdul Mahdi al-Karbali condemned the escape, stating that it happened all too often in Iraq. An Iraqi security analyst told Al-Mada paper that he thought the local security forces colluded with the insurgents, since they did nothing when the car bomb went off outside of the prison. A lawmaker from the Iraqi National Movement (INM) stated that the guards at Tasfirat were corrupt, and likely bought off by militants. Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Asadi confirmed that the Tasfirat staff were involved, and said that all the officials at the facility had been arrested for interrogation. Two parliamentarians from the National Movement were also accused of helping prisoners get out. Allegedly after the legislature failed to pass the Amnesty Law, some of the detainees at Tasfirat lost their chance to be legitimately released, so they decided to escape instead. Finally, the Iraqi cabinet announced that they would segregate the general prison population from terrorists, and have the latter guarded by the Federal Police. All of these comments showed how dysfunctional Iraq’s prison system is. Its guards and staff cannot be trusted. Politicians have regularly been accused of colluding with militants, and helping them escape. As a result, breakouts have become a common occurrence in the country.
In a way, Iraq’s prison system is symbolic of the state of the country. They are corrupt, inefficient, and dangerous. In the last three years there have been five major prison breaks, but nothing like what happened at Tasfirat. Getting around 100 inmates out was a huge coup for Al Qaeda in Iraq. That was a big embarrassment for the authorities. Unfortunately, the accusations that followed are likely the only thing that’s likely to happen as a result. Iraq’s government is full of problems, few of which it has the capability to fix at this time. Its prisons are just a striking example of that.
AIN, “Alwani: Prisoners’ escape from prisons reflects big defect in security system,” 10/1/12
- “CoM decides to isolate detainees of terrorism charges in special prisons,” 10/2/12
Shafaq News, “Interior Ministry: 70 fugitives from Tikrit prison free,” 10/6/12
- “Joint forces of the army and police arrest two fugitives from Tikrit prison,” 10/6/12
Al-Tamimi, Iyad, “Sources for the “long”: two deputies were involved smuggling Iraqi prisoners Tikrit,” Al-Mada, 10/6/12
Yacoub, Sameer, “Al-Qaida claims attack wave and jailbreak in Iraq,” Associated Press, 10/5/12