Hundreds of suspected terrorists have been freed in a series of brazen jailbreaks that U.S. counter-terrorism analysts now suspect may all be part of an al Qaeda-coordinated "Great Escape"-like plot, officials told ABC News.
Just this week, a small group of the escaped showed themselves to be back to their old ways, captured on video carrying out an attack against security forces in Iraq.
While firm connections between the jailbreaks have not been conclusively established, similarities in the tactics al Qaeda-affiliated assault teams used to free known militants in Libya, Iraq and Pakistan, which all occurred within a week of each other this summer, and a relevant message on jailbreaks from Osama bin Laden's successor, lead many to suspect coordination.
At a minimum, the bloody external assaults that freed the jihadis, along with a subsequent uptick in violence in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, has caused alarm.
"We are very concerned about it," said one of several U.S. officials tracking the jailbreaks who spoke to ABC News.
Officials said they feared the legion of terrorists sprung from behind bars could target U.S. and other western interests overseas -- or even in the homeland.
The Westgate mall terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, which left more than 60 dead including Western shoppers, added to the jitters already felt over suddenly having to worry about hundreds of liberated inmates expert in assassination, making improvised explosive devices and leading terror cells.
The prison attacks also have become a rallying cry in public statements by Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Tunisia and Yemen, and prompted a global INTERPOL alert last August.
Prisons in Taji and at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad were assaulted July 21 by heavily armed terrorists, who freed comrades from al Qaeda-Iraq (AQI), according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Since then, a wave of suicide and vehicle bombings has slain thousands in Iraq -- which officials partly blame on the freed inmates -- while other former convicts have moved through al Qaeda staging areas in the western desert to fight in Syria.
"You can't ascribe all of the violence to the jailbreaks, but it has replenished AQI's stocks," one U.S. official told ABC News. "They have given AQI an advantage with their numbers and experience."
"There were more than 600 [escapees], most are AQI, ISIS and other terrorists," Hakim Al-Zamili, a member of the Iraqi parliament who closely follows security issues, told ABC News in Baghdad. "Those AQI fighters have the ability to influence and to work in groups on the ground. The jailbreak operations have given them the motive and support to move on, and also the motive to free other [terrorist] inmates."
Al Qaeda yesterday posted video online of armed former inmates who escaped from Abu Ghraib capturing and executing Iraqi military officers.
A week after the Iraq breakouts, more than 1,000 inmates escaped a prison in Benghazi, Libya, though many who overwhelmed the jail were said to be relatives of petty criminals held there, one of the U.S. officials cautioned. Other prisoners escaped in much smaller numbers in separate incidents elsewhere in Libya around the same period.