It's a problem.
The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens -- limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI's access to the site --h as begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.
This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the "Arab Spring" uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.
Many commentators have remarked that the jihadist movement has shown increased vigor recently, including al Qaeda's North African affiliate and the various Ansar al Sharia groups that emerged in multiple countries, but the prison releases have been an important part of this story that analysts have generally ignored.
Prisoners have gone free for a variety of reasons. Muammar Qaddafi's government used these releases as an offensive tactic early after the uprisings, setting prisoners free in rebellious areas in order to create strife there. As the rebellion continued, some prison governors decided for their own reasons (perhaps as a way of defecting) to empty prisons they were charged with guarding. Chaos allowed some escapes, as guards afraid of reprisals fled their posts; in other cases gunmen attacked prisons in order to release the inmates. And regimes that experienced less chaotic transitions, including Tunisia but especially Egypt, have been hesitant to continue imprisoning virtually anybody jailed by the old regime, including violent Islamists with blood on their hands.
The potential for danger was actually apparent very early in the events of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, even before Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, it was widely reported that thousands of prisoners had escaped from Egyptian jails, including militants. A lengthy hagiographical account of how "the mujahedin" had escaped from the Abu Za'bal prison soon appeared on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network, a jihadist web forum.
After Mubarak's fall, many people imprisoned by the old regime were let back on the streets. Hani al Saba'i, a figure with deep ties to the jihadist movement who runs the London- based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, published several lists of names of militant figures who had been released, beginning in February 2011. As he wrote on February 27, "This release is one of the positive outcomes of this popular Egyptian revolution that we hope to conclude with the application of the Islamic sharia."
The openness of the transitional societies has allowed jihadis to regroup, recruit, and spread their message.
Nor were jail breaks and prisoner releases limited to Egypt. They have also helped to change the shape of both jihadist and also more moderate Islamist currents in Tunisia, Libya, and also Yemen. Underscoring this, a September article from jihadist intellectual Abu Sa'd al Amili directed toward members of an al Qaeda front group in Yemen extols the virtues of imprisonment. "Prison might be a period of education or further strengthening for the prisoner," he wrote. "God the Almighty is preparing the prisoner for great events and heavy responsibilities that he could not have borne before his imprisonment or if he had remained free."
Moving beyond the rather prominent case of Jamal, we can see how other figures from Egypt's jihadist movement have re-emerged. Most notorious among them is Muhammad al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda's current leader and a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Zawahiri played a prominent role in encouraging jihadis to join in the recent attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and American officials told the Wall Street Journal that he has also helped the aforementioned Muhammad Jamal connect with his brother, the al Qaeda chief.
Other released Egyptian inmates seem to have returned to operational and media roles, including Murjan Salim, who has been directing jihadis to training camps in Libya. Figures like Shaykh Jalal al Din Abu al Fatuh and Shaykh Ahmad 'Ashush, among others, have helped loosely reorganize networks through media outlets al-Bayyan and al-Faruq.