PRAGUE, 6 February (RFE/RL) -- The escapees include Jamal Ahmed Al-Badawi, who was convicted by a Yemeni court of masterminding the bombing of the American warship "USS Cole" in 2000.
That attack, in which two suicide bombers blew up their explosives-laden boat next to the U.S. destroyer as it anchored in the Yemeni port of Aden, took the lives of 17 U.S. sailors.
Another escapee was identified as Fawaz Yahya Rabeiei, who is believed to be behind the 2002 attack on the French oil tanker "Limburg" off Yemen’s coast. That attack killed a Bulgarian crewmember and caused the spillage of 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.
A Longtime Friend Of Osama Bin Laden
Interpol, in its alert statement, said at least 13 of the 23 escapees were convicted Al-Qaeda fighters. The organization said they could pose a danger to foreign countries if they leave Yemen.
Neil Quillian is an expert on Al-Qaeda at Control Risks, a London-based consultancy that assesses terrorism dangers around the world. Quillian tells RFE/RL that Al-Badawi’s ties to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden go back a long way.
"Al-Badawi formed his relationship with Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network when they were based earlier in Yemen," Quillian says. "So he had fairly close cooperation with the group and learned many of his skills through cooperating with them and also serving in Afghanistan."
It is not the first time that Al-Badawi and his associated have escaped from prison in Yemen.
After Escape, Sentence Reduced
"Al-Badawi broke out of jail in 2003 and his escape had been facilitated by prison guards," Quillian says. "So this isn’t the first incidence where Al-Qaeda members have escaped from a Yemeni jail."
When Al-Badawi made his initial escape in 2003, he was under a death sentence. But after his recapture, a Yemeni court reduced his sentence to 15 years.
This time around, Al-Badawi and his fellow-prisoners escaped through a tunnel more than 100 meters long that was dug under the prison perimeter. The escape seemingly indicates the escapees had outside help.
A Reliable Ally?
Yemen has been touted by the United States as a key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, but if it is so easy for Yemen’s No. 1 Al-Qaeda operative to keep escaping from prison, what does it say about the country’s reliability?
Quillian says that while Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh and his aides may be genuinely committed to the war on terror, their authority and commitment may not extend to all the security agencies in the country.
"I think what it means is that there has been a precipitous change from the president himself and perhaps the small coterie that surrounds him," Quillian says. "However, other agencies -- intelligence agencies, security agencies -- working within the country might not necessarily share that wholesale view."
Quillian says that if Al-Badawi lies low and rejoins his tribe in the mountains, the chances he will be recaptured are low. If he restarts his extremist activities, he will probably be rearrested.
Easy To Hide
"Yemen is a large, mountainous country and they could quite easily assimilate back into the tribe and hide out for a lengthy period of time," Quillian says. "However, I should say that when Al-Badawi escaped in 2003, he was picked up within a couple of months in the Abiyan area because what he did do was to orchestrate a number of attacks against security forces. Were he to go into hiding, it would be extremely difficult to find him. However, if he reengages in extremist activity, then it’s likely that he would be picked up quite quickly."
Quillian says that despite the Interpol warning, it is unlikely that Al-Badawi and his group will wander further afield or pose an immediate danger to foreign countries.