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thedrifter
11-03-05, 05:59 AM
Security heightened at U.S. base where suspected top al-Qaida operative escaped
By: DANIEL COONEY - Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Prison doors and cells have been fortified at the U.S. military jail in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Wednesday as details emerged of an unprecedented breakout by a suspected al-Qaida leader and three others who picked locks and evaded a mine field.

The Pentagon's belated confirmation of the identity of one of the four who escaped in July, Omar al-Farouq, sparked anger in Southeast Asia where he was one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants.

Some officials in Indonesia, where he was captured in 2002 before being handed over to U.S. authorities, accused Washington of failing to inform them of the escape.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales described the apparent breakdown in communication as a "serious problem" and told CNN in an interview that it would be investigated.

Although the escape was widely reported in July, U.S. authorities at the time gave only an alias to identify al-Farouq, who was born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents.

According to a top security consultant in Indonesia, Ken Conboy, al-Farouq joined al-Qaida in the early 1990s and trained in Afghanistan for three years before unsuccessfully trying to enroll at a flight school in the Philippines so he could commandeer an airplane on a suicide mission.

He later plotted to stage car and truck bombings at U.S. embassies across Southeast Asia on or near the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, but the plan was thwarted and he was captured, Conboy said.

The four escapees boasted about their breakout on a video broadcast Oct. 18 on Dubai-based television station Al-Arabiya, according to two editors at the station, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.

The editors said the four Arabs claimed to have plotted their escape on a Sunday when many of the Americans on the base were off duty. One of the four, Muhammad Hassan, said to be Libyan, said he picked the lock of their cell.

In the video, apparently filmed in Afghanistan, the men show fellow militants a map of the base and the location of their cell. Another shot in the video showed Hassan leading the others in prayer. The editors would not say how they received the video.

More than 500 suspected militants are held in the prison, a plain-looking building of about three stories next to runways and the command center at Bagram, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. Several razor-wire fences surround the base, and areas outside remain mined from Afghanistan's quarter-century of war.

Military officials have declined to elaborate on how the men escaped, but say they are the only detainees who have managed to do so.

A spokesman said Wednesday that an investigation into the breakout turned up weaknesses in security and that these had been corrected.

"Physical security upgrades include improvements to an external door and holding cells," Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said, reading from a statement.

A U.S. military statement in August said an inquiry into the breakout had found that "the guards and supervisors did not follow standard operating procedures" on the night of the escape.

An Indonesian anti-terror official, Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, sharply criticized the U.S. government for failing to inform him that al-Farouq had escaped.

"We know nothing about the escape of Omar al-Farouq," Mbai said. "He is a dangerous terrorist for us. His escape will increase the threat of terrorism in Indonesia.

"We need to coordinate security here as soon as possible to anticipate his return. The escape of al-Farouq could bring fresh wind to the operation of terrorism and could energize the new movement of terrorist actors in Southeast Asia and the world."

But Conboy, the security consultant, played down concerns that al-Farouq would make his way back to Southeast Asia.

"He's Iraqi after all. If he's not hiding out (in Afghanistan or Pakistan), he's probably headed to Iraq to join the fight there," said Conboy, who recently published a book on Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group that seeks to create a regionwide Islamic state.

The military conducted an extensive manhunt after the breakout. U.S. troops and Afghan police and soldiers searched houses, manned roadblocks and zigzagged in helicopters across a dusty plain around the base.

Kabir Ahmed, the government leader in the area, said American investigators had found where the men escaped from the base and fled through a field of wild grapevines.

"The soldiers found the escapees' footprints still in the mud," he said. "It was an amazing breakout. How they did it exactly I still don't know."

Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

Ellie