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'Escaped prisoners from Iraq could join jihad'

Al Qaeda has freed hundreds of prisoners in Iraq. Interpol warns they could threaten global security, but Iraq expert Jochen Hippler says the risk is not too great. They are more likely to add to local tensions.

Deutsche Welle: Al Qaeda has freed hundreds of prisoners in a heavily armed operation carried out with military precision. At least 40 warders and prisoners were killed. What do we know about those who escaped?

Jochen Hippler: One can assume that there were serious criminals among them, as well as extremists close to al Qaeda, which is why the action was carried out. But it seems likely that all kinds of people would have then used the opportunity to escape, as well.

Interpol has issued a warning saying that the escape could be a threat to global security. What does that tell us about the background of those who escaped?

Yes, there's great concern. Global security is quite a large term to use. For the first time in the last year or two there's been a huge increase in violence in Iraq. By now, about 700 to 800 people are being killed every month. That's lower than it was in 2006 and 2007, but four or five times as much as it was two years ago. And the violence will get worse. This breakout will certainly mean that some of the escapees will join terrorist groups.

In addition, as the United Nations envoy to Iraq has said, we now have a situation in which the battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria can scarcely be separated from each other. It's not clear where the Syria civil war begins, where it ends, and where it overlaps with the conflicts in Iraq. In other words, it's fairly apparent that some of the escapees will get involved in the Syrian civil war.

Can one assume that there were Western prisoners among them - converts who will now travel to Europe or the US?

Jochen Hippler Photo: Alina Novopashina dpa/lbn

Jochen Hippler is worried that the escapees could contribute to instability of the region

That's can't be ruled out in individual cases, but I can't see that the number of such people in Iraqi prisons is particularly high at the moment. We have a situation in Iraq which is like that in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later. The land was a kind of incubator for jihadists who came from Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere. This is what was happening for a while in Iraq, currently possibly happening in Syria, and now apparently in Iraq again. I would be worried about people from specific countries who have been freed from prison. If there are two or three people from Germany among them, an eye should certainly be kept on them.

The problem is really that there's a free-wheeling scene of internationalized, regionalized jihadists who - depending on the situation - can carry out attacks in Afghanistan, perhaps in Pakistan, then in Syria or Iraq, and then possibly in some European country.

What role does al Qaeda play in Iraq?

A stronger one, again. Al Qaeda had weakened itself through its own serious political mistakes - one example was that the Iraqi branch of the terror organization had discredited itself too seriously with violence against Shiites, even in the view of al Qaeda headquarters in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. For example, they carried out repulsive symbolic violence, such as beheadings in front of video cameras that were then posted on the Internet. And then al Qaeda operatives in Iraq behaved as if they were an occupying force in their own country, annoying Sunni tribes and rebels alike. Against this background, US and then Iraqi troops were able to push al Qaeda back considerably.

But in the last two years, ever since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began himself to play the religion card and rely more on a Shiite policy, there has been a certain increase in al Qaeda's strength.

Is the Iraqi government in a position to recapture the fugitives and restore order?

I would assume they'll capture some of them, but not all. The Iraqi government is in many ways simply crippled. Al-Maliki has tried to bypass his partners in government and even the state apparatus itself in order to carry out his own private power politics. The various ministers don't work well together. When they are influenced by the various political parties, they don't cooperate at all.

Can the West do anything? Or does it simply have to hope that the violence doesn't spread too far?

I really can't imagine what one could do. There's a general destabilization of the whole region. Lebanon is worried about whether it will be pushed back to the edge of civil war. The Lebanese situation is closely linked to the Syrian civil war, and this is linked in turn with the Iraqi conflict.

I would be worried in principle, but the West has very limited room to take any political initiative. You can't achieve much with political statements, and in such an instable situation, you can't achieve much economically either. And militarily you can destroy things, but not build stable structures. They have to be built by the people in the countries themselves. And only when such a process is really underway do I think the West would have a chance of contributing something constructive.

Jochen Hippler is a political scientist and peace researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the University of Duisburg-Essen. His main fields of interest are the role of national, ethnic and religious identities in conflicts and wars, as well as with the democratization of societies, intercultural dialogue and the Middle East.

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