WASHINGTON -- A prison break in South Yemen that saw dozens of al Qaeda militants escape Wednesday is the latest troubling sign that the political upheaval roiling that country could have implications for American counterterrorism efforts there, experts told The Huffington Post.
"Serious," concluded former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in an email when he heard the news. "A harbinger of what is to come if Yemen spins out of control."
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the escape of 57 known al Qaeda militants "a setback" for counterterrorism operations.
"This incident is yet another example of the deteriorating security and stability situation in Yemen," he said in an email.
More than 60 prisoners busted out of Mukalla prison in Hadramout province in Yemen's southern region Wednesday. In the carefully choreographed breakout, gunman outside the compound opened fire on guards to divert their attention. Most of those who fled have been identified as having links to a local al Qaeda cell that has been blamed in a series of recent attacks on security forces.
The last major prison breakout in Yemen by al Qaeda militants was in 2006, when 23 prisoners escaped a Sanaa detention center. Among them were Nasser al-Wahishi and Qassim al-Rimi, both key leaders in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The group has been linked to several narrowly averted attacks on U.S. targets. Among them: the Christmas 2009 plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner.
The organization is also home to American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been considered by U.S. counterterrorism officials as the next Osama bin Laden and who is now among the most wanted terrorists since bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May.
AQAP has gained a firmer foothold in Yemen in recent years. Militants last month seized control of two towns in the southern province of Abyan.
The prison break comes as political unrest in Yemen is increasing: In February pro-democracy demonstrators filled the streets of the capital Sanaa. The peaceful protests soon turned violent as tribal militias took up arms and calls for the country's long-time rule, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign mounted.
After 33 years of rule, Saleh was seriously injured in an attack on his compound in Sanaa earlier this month and was taken to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He has vowed to return, but Yemen's powerful tribal leaders have warned of civil war if he tries to do so.
Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is serving as acting president, but talks to find a political settlement have stalled amid charges that Saleh loyalists are blocking negotiations with opposition leaders.
Boucek said the full impact of Wednesday's prison break won't be clear until more is known about who got away. So far, only Hamza al-Qehety, the leader of the Hadramout militant cell, has been identified as one of the escapees.
Still, Boucek said, the prison escape "underscores the need to quickly resolve Yemen’s ongoing political crisis."