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How did Al Qaeda operatives escape Afghan jail?

Al Jazeera Magazine | November 9 2005

The escape of four Al Qaeda operatives earlier this month from a U.S.-run Afghan jail created confusion and suspicion among the world leaders- How were the escapees, dressed in orange jumpsuit, able to break out of the top-security detention center in Afghan's Bagram air base near Kabul? How did they manage to cut across the giant military base with some 12,000 U.S. soldiers?

To enter or leave Bagram airbase, located in the Parvan Province, about 11 kilometers southeast of the city of Charikar and 47 Kilometers north of the Afghan capital, one has to slip through checkpoints and security screenings and pass through a web of concrete and dirt-filled-wire barriers.

Detainees held at Bagram are kept in wire cages in the middle of an old warehouse, similar to a great extent to Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs," according to The Newsweek editorial. The warehouse is surrounded by razor wire and finally the fences and guard posts of the airbase itself, it added.

However, and despite the tight security at Bagram base, four of Al Qaeda members held at the U.S,-run jail managed on July 11, 2005 to cross security cordons and slip through a Soviet-era minefield just outside the base.

The fugitives, including, Omar Al Farouq, one of the most important Al Qaeda members ever captured in S. Asia, even managed to elude Tajik villagers, generally hostile to foreign fighters.

And although the U.S. military reported the escape of the four shortly after the incident took place, it kept their names secret and refused to provide any identifying details.

Their names were first uncovered at court-martial proceedings at Fort Bliss against Sergeant Alan driver, accused abusing Bagram prisoners, including Al Farouq.

Asked why Al Farouq was not testifying, prosecutor captain John Parker said it was because he escaped from the Bagram detention facility, a spokeswoman at the base said.

"If this really happened as reported, it makes the Great Escape of World War II look like an Outward Bound exercise," said one U.S. defense analyst.

No one knows for sure what happened at Bagram last July, and those who know aren't saying. But the fact that the jail breakou was uncovered during an abuse trial brings the spotlight on the U.S.’s troubled detention programs.

Baffled as to how Al Farouq escaped from Bagram facility, Zaenal Ma'arif, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives who hails from the Islamic-based Star Reform Party (PBR), said that "It is possible that there is a bigger scenario since Osama bin Laden is not that influential anymore," The Jakarta post reported.

Zaenal said that Washington owes Indonesia’s government explanations on the escape of Al Farouq, a Kuwait national who was detained in Indonesia three years ago and believed to be lieutenant of Al Qaeda leader.

On its Oct. 21 edition, DEBKA-Net-Weekly suggested that the escapees received outside help, either the form inside intelligence or Afghans employed on the base.

Afghan jailbreak comes at a time where the U.S. is facing mounting international criticism over its detention policies, in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail, Guantanamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Compared to other U.S. secret detention centers run by the CIA, Bagram facility is an open book. According to official U.S. accounts and Human Rights Watch, between two dozens and 100 prisoners are held at these sites with no prospect of release.

Even at the agency, "senior people are saying we've got to have an endgame to this," a CIA official said on condition of anonymity.

"This isn't sustainable."

And while Bryan Whitman Pentagon spokesman tried to play down the implication of the jailbreak, saying that "clearly it wasn't the U.S. military's finest hour," but "this is a field facility. It isn't Rikers [Island]. This is not the first time that prisoners have escaped from military facilities in Afghanistan as well as Iraq," very few Afghans believe that prisoners escape from Bagram.

In an interview with the Newsweek, a Taliban commander suggested that the four prisoners were actually exchanged in secret for captured U.S. special-operations troops. But Whitman denied the accounts, describing them as "absolutely absurd and completely untrue."

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