Security has been tightened at the U.S. military prison in Afghanistan following the escape of a suspected al-Qaida leader, a U.S. official said Wednesday. Indonesian anti-terrorism officials accused Washington of failing to tell them of the breakout.
Omar al-Farouq, born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, was considered one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants in Southeast Asia until Indonesian authorities captured him in 2002 and turned him over to the United States.
He was one of four suspected Arab terrorists to escape in July from the detention facility at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. It was not clear how long he had been held in Afghanistan.
Although the escape was widely reported at the time, al-Farouq was identified by an alias and the U.S. military only confirmed Tuesday that he was among those who fled.
A video the four men made of themselves after they escaped from Bagram was broadcast on Dubai-based television station Al-Arabiya on Oct. 18, the broadcaster said.
In the video, the four men said they escaped on a Sunday when many of the Americans on the base were off duty, and one of the four — Muhammad Hassan, said to be Libyan — said he picked the locks of their cell, according to Al-Arabiya.
In the video, apparently shot in Afghanistan, they show fellow militants a map of the base and the location of their cell. Another shot in the video showed Hassan leading the others in prayer. Editors at Al-Arabiya would not say how they received the video.
Terror fears in Indonesia
An Indonesian anti-terrorism official, Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, on Wednesday sharply criticized the U.S. government for failing to inform authorities there that al-Farouq was no longer behind bars.
“We know nothing about the escape of Omar al-Farouq,” he said. “He is a dangerous terrorist for us, his escape will increase the threat of terrorism in Indonesia.
“We need to coordinate security here as soon as possible to anticipate his return,” he said. “The escape of al-Farouq could bring fresh wind to the operation of terrorism and could energize the new movement of terrorist actors in Southeast Asia and the world.”
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked by CNN about how the four escaped and Mbai’s comments to the AP that Indonesia was not informed, said: “I don’t know all the facts of this particular incident. Obviously, we consider this a very serious problem and one we’d have to look into the details of.”
A top security consultant in Jakarta played down concerns that al-Farouq would make his way back to Southeast Asia and rejoin Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional terrorist group linked to al-Qaida.
“He’s Iraqi after all. If he’s not hiding out (in Afghanistan or Pakistan), he’s probably headed to Iraq to join the fight there,” said Ken Conboy, who recently published a book on Jemaah Islamiyah.
Teacher of terror
Al-Farouq was recruited into al-Qaida in the early 1990s and went to the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan from 1992 and 1995, Conboy wrote in his book “Intel.”
In 1995, he was sent to the Philippines, originally to enroll in a flight school so he could become proficient enough to commandeer a passenger plane on a suicide mission. He failed to gain entry and instead went to a camp in the traditional Muslim homeland of Mindanao, where he trained in jungle warfare tactics along with other Jemaah Islamiyah trainees, the book says.
From there, Al-Farouq traveled by sea to neighboring Indonesia, where in 2000 he set up training camps for radicals engaged in sectarian clashes with the nation’s Christian minority. He was also reported to be planning a series of attacks on U.S. embassies and other Western interests throughout Southeast Asia, the book says.
In 2002, al-Farouq was captured in a town south of Jakarta. Indonesian security officials turned him over to the United States and he was eventually transferred to Bagram.
Yuri Thamrin, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said he had heard nothing about al-Farouq’s escape, but conceded that Washington may have directly informed security officials in Jakarta.
“We have to check and make sure whether the U.S. has given the information to Indonesia or not,” Thamrin said.
Military officials have declined to elaborate on how the men escaped from the heavily fortified jail, the only detainees they say have managed to do so. But a spokesman said Wednesday that an investigation into the breakout had turned up weaknesses in security and that these have been corrected.
“Physical security upgrades include improvements to an external door and holding cells,” Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said, reading from a statement.
More than 500 suspected militants are held in the prison, a plain-looking building of about three stories in the heart of Bagram, next to the runways and the command center.
Several razor-wire fences surround the base and areas outside the perimeter remain mined from Afghanistan’s civil war and Soviet occupation. Military teams patrol constantly, and the main entrance is a series of heavily guarded checkpoints.
A U.S. military statement issued in August about the breakout said an inquiry had found that “the guards and supervisors did not follow standard operating procedures” on the night it occurred.
“These failures led to the escape of the four detainees on 10 July,” it said, adding that “action has either been taken or is in the process of being taken” to fix the problems.
The military conducted a massive manhunt after the breakout. U.S. troops, backed by Afghan police and soldiers, searched houses, manned roadblocks and zigzagged in helicopters across a dusty plain around the base.
Kabir Ahmed, the government leader in the area, said the American investigators had found where the men escaped from the base and fled through a field of wild grapevines.
“The soldiers found the escapees’ footprints still in the mud,” he said. “It was an amazing breakout. How they did it exactly I still don’t know.”