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Prisoner Linked to Cole Attack Escapes Yemen Jail

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Yemen, a major blow to that country's battle against al-Qaeda. Authorities are searching for nearly two-dozen people who escaped from prison last week, 13 of them are linked to al-Qaeda. And one was the mastermind behind the USS Cole attack in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors.

Kevin Whitelaw is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. He's just returned from Yemen and he joins me now. And welcome to the program.

Mr. KEVIN WHITELAW (senior writer, U.S. News & World Report): Hi. Thanks for having me.

BRAND: So, tell us about this escape. How did it come about?

Mr. WHITELAW: Well, you know, we're still trying to piece together all the details. But what does appear is that these guys who were in the prison had somehow helped in digging a tunnel from the prison into a nearby mosque. And they escaped. This is sort of a 400-plus foot tunnel that they were able to escape in.

BRAND: And we don't know how they were able to build this tunnel?

Mr. WHITELAW: No, it's going to take a little while for them to try to figure out how the tunnel was built. It's possible that some people on the outside dug towards the prison. The tunnel actually went, apparently, to the women's section in the prison and then, so they would have had to reach that section of it somehow. So, there'll obviously be some conspiracy theories probably springing up around this one for a while.

But it really is a blow to Yemen, as you said in your introduction. This really is a tough thing for them, because they really had been making some progress, in terms of convincing the West that they were serious about fighting terrorism.

BRAND: Well, I suppose, they can take heart in the fact that it looks like it wasn't something institutional, at this point; that it doesn't look like the authorities had anything to do with this escape.

Mr. WHITELAW: Right. Well, you know, did they have to bribe someone to get from one side of the prison to the other? Maybe. But you're right. This doesn't, this at least looks like a pretty elaborate escape effort, rather than a simple, sort of, bribery scheme. And given how corrupt the government in Yemen in the system has been, that's in some ways somewhat remarkable that they weren't able to just bribe their way out, I suppose.

BRAND: Now, Interpol has issued a global security alert. How dangerous are the men who escaped?

Mr. WHITELAW: We don't actually know who all of them are. The key one, Jamal al Badawi, is clearly very dangerous. He is the one who's convicted of plotting and helping to carry out the Cole bombing. So, we know that he has already helped kill 17 Americans. And another one of the escapees is also believed to be responsible for an attack on a French tanker in 2002; that was right off the Yemeni coast, as well as an attack on a helicopter carrying foreign oil workers.

And so, you are seeing guys that have had, some of them at least, who have a history of being able to carry out an attack.

BRAND: Now, is the thinking that they are still in Yemen, or could they have gone elsewhere?

Mr. WHITELAW: It doesn't now appear to have been several days since the escape, so it's not clear how far they could have gone. The Yemeni authorities do have lots, you know, they have normal check points are usually set up on most of the major roads in and out of the capitol, and around the country. But it's a big country. It's a pretty, a lot of sparsely populated areas. And so there'd be a lot of room for them over well worn, smuggling routes to get to either the more ungoverned parts of the country, these tribal areas where they might be able to find a certain amount of haven.

Or probably at this point, more likely, head somewhere else. Because they are, at this point, more high profiled people in the country and the security forces are extremely intent on getting them back, because they've been so embarrassed by this escape. And keep in mind, the Cole mastermind, al Badawi, has escaped once before and was recaptured. So I think it is probably time for the Yemenis to revisit some of their prison security facility.

BRAND: Kevin Whitelaw is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, and He has just returned from Yemen.

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. WHITELAW: Hey, thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.