The U.S. intelligence community is closely monitoring the state of Egypt’s highest security prisons, trying to track dozens of senior members of al Qaeda, the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad to find out whether any have escaped and where they have gone.
“Yes, we are monitoring this,” Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told The Washington Times on Thursday when asked about reports of breakouts from Egyptian prisons since the Jan. 25 uprisings began in Cairo and Alexandria.
After Pakistan, Egypt holds the largest number of senior al Qaeda leaders, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity.
The jailbreaks occurred in the first days after the unrest after police left their posts guarding some prisons. Several news reports suggested that the Interior Ministry deliberately allowed the jails to empty in order to justify a crackdown later on.
U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials say they are concerned about the fates of prisoners such as Shawky Salama Mostafa and Mohammed Hassan Mahmoud, two suspected leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad captured by U.S. forces in 1998 in Albania but sent to Egypt for trial. Human Rights Watch and other groups report the two men were tortured in Egyptian jails.
U.S. intelligence officials are also trying to locate Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman, the son of the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, the mastermind of the failed 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He was captured in Pakistan in 2003 but was eventually sent to Egypt.
Senior Egyptian officials have warned that senior jihadists may have escaped from prison in the midst of the popular uprising. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Vice President Omar Suleiman said al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists are among those who have escaped.
“This is a serious matter. We must use every bit of strength to bring them back to prison,” he said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told PBS news on Wednesday that 17,000 prisoners escaped from prisons that had been destroyed.
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush told The Times on Thursday: “The Egyptian government may be preying on the ambiguities on what is actually happening and who is on the street to justify their posture.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Zarate said, “There is a mixture of problematic violent Islamic jihadis who have been in Egyptian jails and custody who we would not want to see let go. The U.S. government has been very concerned from the get-go about who has broken out and where they are.”
“There are efforts under way to try to determine who is on the loose and where they are,” Mr. Zarate added. Four other U.S. officials confirmed that this effort is under way.
One U.S. counterterrorism official who is monitoring the situation said, “You have to understand that there could be hundreds or even thousands of escaped al Qaeda under the worst-case scenario, though no one wants to endorse that, absent proof, for obvious reasons.”
This official added, “If the [prisoners] from Albania busted out and the rest of Zawahri’s old gang, the leadership will split for Pakistan’s tribal areas as soon as possible, and the middle management will try to revive Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gamm’a Islamiya.”
Ayman al-Zawahri, second in command of al Qaeda, was also a leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He eventually merged his group with al Qaeda.
Another U.S. counterterrorism official said, “Of course we are watching closely for signs that dangerous terrorists were among those prisoners who broke free early in the Egyptian crisis. At this point, nothing suggests that there are any big names among those running loose.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the director of the center for terrorism research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, “It’s not just a concern that these guys go back to Pakistan, but that groups that had previously been up against the wall could end up reconstituting themselves in Egypt.”
Joanne Mariner, director of the human rights program at Hunter College and a former counterterrorism analyst at Human Rights Watch, said Egypt’s prisons were “notorious incubators for al Qaeda.”
• Eli Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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