Last April, an Egyptian court sentenced 22 alleged members of a Hizballah cell to prison for spying and planning attacks on tourist sites. The leader of the cell was Sami Shehab, a.k.a. Mohammed Yousef Mansoor. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah publically confirmed that Mr. Shehab was a Hizballah operative, but he denied the men were spying or plotting attacks. Narsrallah claimed that Shehab was in Egypt on a logistics mission, trying to secure arms for Hamas and smuggle them into Gaza.
Nevertheless, Shehab was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. The Mubarak regime took Hizballah’s activities in Egypt as a direct challenge to their authority. Nasrallah had accused Egypt of complicity in Israel’s policies in Gaza. After Shehab’s arrest, Nasrallah openly called for the Egyptian people to revolt and remove the Mubarak regime.
Yesterday, Sami Shehab was at a Hizballah rally in Beirut giving the victory sign with both hands. Shehab faced spending the rest of his life in Al Natrom prison, north of Cairo, but less than a year later he was a free man. How did this happen?
Shehab had help and was extremely lucky is what happened. He escaped with 17,000 other prisoners being held throughout Egypt when guards abandoned their posts after protest swept the country. Some of the men were political prisoners of the Mubarak regime, some were Palestinians who had snuck across the border from Gaza and were arrested, and some were just ordinary Egyptian criminals*.
*No doubt, with all the police and regime corruption in Egypt, some of the men deserved to be set free. But one shudders to think of the impact 17,000 prisoners escaping would have in America, let alone Egypt which has 1/4 the population of the USA, and 0.00001% of the resources to recapture them. More on this below.
It is unclear whether Shehab escaped on his own with everyone else or if he was broken out, but once he was out he still had to get out of the country. This is where it seems he had help. According to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyasseh as provided by JPost, Hizballah requested the help of Syrian intelligence on the matter once they knew Shehab was free:
The Syrian embassy then issued Shehab a new passport – replacing one that “was lost” – which he used to travel from Egypt to Khartoum where members of the Sudanese Hezbollah cell helped usher him to the international airport. From there, Shehab flew to Syria, and crossed over into Lebanon.
Egypt to Sudan to Syria back to Lebanon. Shehab was on television last night waving to a crowd of thousands ecstatic with his escape. It’s doubtful this is the last we will hear from Mr. Sami Shehab.
In the wake of the Egyptian prison break, it’s interesting to note a similar case in Yemen. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and faces major instability from various factions at odds with the regime in Sanaa. Five years ago, a prison break there ended up having major implications for the region and the United States. From CSIS:
A February 2006 prison break freed 23 militants and enabled the rise of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who in January 2009 oversaw the unification of disparate Saudi and Yemeni terrorist cells under the banner of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The escapees were all convicted terrorists, including the alleged mastermind of the 1994 bombing of the USS Cole. At the time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the escape a “serious problem.” How right he was. The men went on to form one of the world’s most violent and ambitious Al Qaeda cells. Since then, AQAP has attempted attacks on a US passenger jet and mailed bombs to American targets.
It’s unclear if those among the Egyptian escapees are this menacing to US national security, but someone should be looking into it.