How al Qaeda broke hundreds of bad guys out of the world’s most notorious jail -- and what it means for America.
On July 21, the temperature spiked to a sweltering 107 degrees in Baghdad -- brutal heat for the guards and prisoners inside Abu Ghraib's cement confines. Outside, among a patchwork of green farmland and dry brown fields, federal police and army troops -- packing AK-47s, PKC machine guns and sniper rifles -- were positioned throughout the terrain, which is dotted with Sunni farms and villages where insurgents had once launched a guerrilla war against U.S. troops. Within the walls of the infamous prison, the guards -- armed only with pepper spray and clubs -- were the last line of defense from would-be assailants.
At around 9 p.m. that night, as detainees were being counted on the way back to their cells after dinner, the mortars began to fall.
A barrage of more than 40 rounds hit the grounds in rapid succession -- some counted as many as 100 explosions. As guards and detainees scrambled for cover, two car bombs exploded outside, punching a hole in the walls of the massive prison compound.
More than 50 gunmen wearing tribal robes then entered the grounds, wielding pistols, AK-47s, and hand grenades. They had been on the road and in nearby villages, waiting to storm the facility. The power was cut, and the detainees broke out in cries of "God is great."
The gunmen opened fire on any officer they saw. "The prisoners rioted. Some burned mattresses and clothes, others had stored homemade explosives to hurl at the guards. The infiltrators handed weapons to their jailed comrades. There was screaming and chaos," one of the guards at Abu Ghraib recalled. "We were surrounded."
When the assault ended, 71 prisoners were dead but hundreds of hardened militants had been freed in a stunning attack by al Qaeda's local subsidiary. The exact number is still unclear: The Iraqi government estimated anywhere from 300 to more than 850 detainees, including some arrested by U.S. forces years ago, had been busted out. The fact that the Iraqi security apparatus still does not know exactly how many militants escaped is a stunning admission of incompetence -- and a testament to how badly it was knocked off balance by the assault.
Admission after admission has come out in the local media: 200 Sunni prisoners, some of them from al Qaeda, had been transferred to Abu Ghraib just days before the escape; prisoners had easy access to cell phones, so were able to communicate with the prison break plotters in the countdown to the escape.
It's not just this one prison break -- there are signs that militants are gaining momentum across the country. Iraq just witnessed its deadliest month since the end of its civil war in 2008: The United Nations announced last week that 1,057 Iraqis had been killed in July.
Al Qaeda's assaults are also becoming more sophisticated.
The Abu Ghraib prison break was not only a counterterrorism disaster, it laid bare Iraq's political dysfunction.
The Abu Ghraib prison break may be over, but its effects will reverberate around Iraq and the broader region for many months to come. The men who carried it out are still on the loose, ready to carry out more bombings, stronger than ever. The guards, meanwhile, marveled at the jihadists' confidence and cool.
"They seemed not to be in a rush, they were doing what they wanted, with no confusion," one guard said. "They knew what to do."