Taleban fighters broke into the Ghazni jail and freed hundreds of inmates, including key Taleban commanders, in the early morning of 14 September 2015. It was the ninth spectacular jailbreak since 2001, but the Ghazni jailbreak was different than most of them: better planned and with more fighters. The government forces, on the other hand, lacked coordination between the jail protection unit and other security forces, and there may have been someone on the inside helping the Taleban. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary talked to government officials, local witnesses and people close to the Taleban, to find out whether it was the weakness of the Afghan government or the better planning of the Taleban fighters that led to the successful jailbreak.Ghzni Prison. Credit: Tolo News
The Ghazni jailbreak; how it happened
On 14 September 2015, at 1:50, the attack started. Taleban fighters first shot a rocket at the main entrance of the jail to open the way for a suicide attacker who drove his Toyota Corolla to the gate and blew it up. The blast was so big that it shattered the windows of several houses nearby and caused the entrance post to catch fire. The first suicide attacker was said to have had nine comrades, who were ready to blow themselves up if the jail protection guards showed strong resistance. Three of them were killed during the initial, short resistance by the jail guards. After the blast and the short fight, a group of 40 attackers, who had been waiting in an adjacent canal, entered the jail to free the prisoners.
An eyewitness who lives about 120 meters from the Ghazni prison and who was asleep at home when the attack happened, described how the blast shattered the windows of his house and woke him. He first heard the shouting of “Allahu Akbar” and then gunfire. The shooting lasted for a few minutes. The explosion had set the police post at the entrance on fire, so what was happening at the prison’s gates was clearly illuminated. “I could see a large number of people coming out of the jail,” he told AAN. The jail guards, he said, had resisted only briefly and at nearby police check-posts there was only “shooting in the air.” An hour later, he said, “at 2:50am when the [other] government security forces arrived, they started shooting in all directions until sunrise.”
A source close to the Taleban said the group of Taleban fighters that freed the prisoners had been told beforehand that there would be ten persons, who also were inmates, inside the jail who would be wearing white clothes and would be waiting for them. These ten persons had broken the doors of several cells immediately after the blast. When the fighters got in, they did not face any problem freeing the prisoners. The group apparently went from cell to cell fearlessly freeing prisoners. The interior ministry later said a total of 355 prisoners had been released. As a result of the attack, four attackers and seven guards were killed, both by the blast and in the firefight.
At 2:50 when the government security forces from Ghazni city finally arrived at the jail, witnesses said they started shooting in every direction, but by this time, everything had already ended. The freed prisoners were on their way to Andar and other areas out of the government’s reach; some had probably already arrived to safety. The freed prisoners were from Ghazni, Paktika, Paktia and Zabul provinces. They were first moved to Kalakhel, Alizai, Khadokhil and several other villages in Andar district, about 17 kilometres to the south, and were then sent to neighbouring Giro, Qarabagh and other districts of the province.
In a statement later that day, on 14 September 2015, Taleban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said that hundreds of fighters from several districts had participated in multiple attacks in the city. Indeed, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had been caught in a complex situation, as Taleban fighters launched attacks, not just on the prison, but on several other security check posts and key government institutions at the same time, including the main police headquarters. This made it difficult for the security forces to identify the main target of the attacks and probably led to confusion and great difficulty with coordination.
What is clear, however, is that the Afghan National Army (ANA), the prison guards and the police who were in the vicinity of the jail did not put up much of a fight. Although the guards at the gate fought for a short time, the guards in the central and other towers did not support them and the few guards who resisted were ultimately killed. Moreover the jail guards did not contact the police headquarters to ask for help, until much later. Ghazni police chief Muhammad Hakim Angar, who has since then been replaced, told AAN that when they were finally contacted, supporting forces arrived at the jail within ten minutes, but by that time everything was already over.
The Ministry of Interior, on the same day of the attack, sent a delegation to Ghazni to officially investigate the incident. On 19 September, five days later, interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Hasht-e Subh daily that the investigation was completed and the findings had been sent to the president’s office. He said they would share the findings with the media, but months later still nothing has been shared. AAN has tried several times to reach the spokesman, but his phone has either been off or he did not respond.
The media and other commentators, in the meantime, were swift to come up with their own verdict. A day after the attack, local media vehemently criticised what they saw as the security officials’ incompetence and lack of coordination. Hasht-e Subh daily in an editorial wrote: “After the first Kandahar jailbreak, officials said they had learned and were now prepared to prevent similar attacks in the future, however the Ghazni jailbreak proved that the officials did not learn anything.” According to Sarkhat daily, jail superintendent Muhammad Latif Hassanyar and security director Omarakhan had not been at their duty stations when the attack happened.
The multiple attacks in Ghazni on 14 September 2015 was a complex operation, targeting a large number of check posts and involving a large number of Taleban fighters. Most of them had apparently not been told what the main target was (except 50 of them, among them, the ten suicide attackers). Interestingly, several separate groups of Taleban fighters participated in these attacks and every group was given a different task without knowing the tasks of the other groups. A source close to the Taleban said that one group of fighters had simply been instructed to follow their commander and only around midnight, when they realised they were close to the main Ghazni-Paktika highway and near the jail, were the fighters told they were attacking the central jail of Ghazni. This group, which he said consisted of 180 men, did not attack the security check posts around the jail; instead, some of them entered the jail after the blast and freed the inmates. Others were told to target the government reinforcements if they showed up, and otherwise to just accompany the freed prisoners to the villages – which they did.
Moreover, the Taleban simultaneously attacked several security posts around the jail and in other parts of the city, as well as in the districts. Targets included the base of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and the check-post in the former base of the US Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Ghazni city, two posts in Qala-e Qazi and Zargar immediately outside the city, and posts in Suleimanzai (in Deh Yak district), and Mullah Noh Baba (in the south west of Andar district). This seems to have successfully confused the Afghan security forces, a trick that the militants did not try in other jailbreaks. Not letting their own fighters know the full plan also appears to be a tactic not used in other, similar attacks, particularly on jails.
Later on the day of the attack on 14 September 2015, the Ministry of Interior said that three – of the 355 – escaped prisoners had been re-arrested, although local sources a week later could confirm only one (a prisoner who had originally been sentenced for theft and who was re-arrested in the Zarghar area near Ghazni city). Former police chief Angar later told AAN that, since then, 28 prisoners had been recovered; he said most of them had returned voluntarily and a small number were re-arrested. This figure has not been confirmed by other sources aware of the incident.
Although NDS director Ali Ahmad Mubariz on 3 October 2015 said that an operation had been immediately launched to track down the freed prisoners, no one in the surrounding areas appears to have seen a single police or government force. If the government had indeed conducted such an operation, local people said they would probably have encountered the Taleban fighters who were waiting for them in Mangor area, not more than ten kilometres to the south of the city.
After the Ghazni jailbreak; flowers and executions
AAN has followed what happened to the prisoners who were freed and found that they were first moved by the Taleban to several villages in Andar district (which neighbours the district centre to the south-west) and then sent to Giro and other districts of the province. Locals in Alizai, Kamalkhel and Hayatwal villages told AAN that a large number of people came to Andar to greet their freed relatives with flowers. Habib Rahman, a Taleban commander from Hayatwal village who is also known as Mansur, and his brother, were welcomed in this way; both received flowers after they arrived in Andar.
Taleban jailbreaks do not only involve the release of their own comrades, but often also general criminal prisoners. After the prisoners’ arrival in Andar, the Taleban divided the prisoners in groups, selecting those whom they believed should be punished and those who should be released. The first group included former members of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and major criminals. Two prisoners were executed by the Taleban. All others, AAN was told, were freed a week after the jailbreak. Some of the freed prisoners who had previously worked in the ANSF were asked for a guarantee that they would not rejoin the government’s forces.
The two prisoners the Taleban executed were Enayatullah Taqat, also known as Natak, from Andar district, and Alawadin from Qarabagh district. Natak ran in the provincial council election in 2014, while Alawadin was with the police in Qarabagh district. The reason for the executions, according to a local source, was that they had committed serious crimes. Natak, who was also the stepbrother of former Andar district chief Lahur, had apparently been involved in kidnappings as well as murders. According to a local teacher who spoke to AAN, Natak had, in the autumn of 2014, killed a man called Sharaf from Laghar village and married his wife a month later. He said Natak had also kidnapped a person from Ghazni city in spring 2015 and had only freed him after receiving a ransom.
Alawadin was executed in the neighbouring district of Qarabagh. He had been involved in killings and robbery. A local resident told AAN that Alawadin had killed his brother, who was working as a doctor in Kandahar, on 1 March 2015. The brother had been driving from Kandahar to his hometown Moqur, when Alawadin, who had recently been deployed to Moqur district as a policeman, asked the victim to drop him off at Moqur bazaar, together with a friend who was a member of the ALP. On the way, between Janda and Moqur, Alawadin and his friend stabbed the doctor, threw his body into a nearby well and stole his car. When the family of the victim learned about this, they informed the district officials, who arrested Alawadin. The other man fled.
How the jail break could have happened
Talking to AAN, deputy governor Ahmadi gave several reasons why the Ghazni jailbreak may have been so successful. He said that, first of all, also according to the investigation team from Kabul, there had been a lack of coordination between the security forces. The jail guards did not inform the nearby security posts; and the police and the army stationed nearby did not show any reaction, even though they must have seen and heard the fighting. There is a security post of ANA soldiers about a kilometre to the southeast of the jail on Kohibad hill, from where soldiers only fired a couple of warning shots in the air, but according to former Ghazni Governor Faizanullah Faizan, they did not contact the jail guards to ask what was happening or if they needed help; nor did the jail guards inform them.
There are, all in all, ten police check-posts in the neighbourhood, but none came to help or rescue the jail guards or to stop the attack. There may be valid reasons for inaction by some of the posts: they could have been confused because they were also attacked, or they did not receive information from the jail security guards. Others may not have come out of their posts for fear of being ambushed by the Taleban fighters outside the posts. However, according to Ahmadi, if they had reacted and with coordination, the attack could have been fought off, or at least they could have prevented such a large number of prisoners from fleeing.
Secondly, according to Ahmadi there was weak management and coordination within the jail protection unit, who did not act as they were supposed to: they barely fought the attackers and did not prevent them from getting into the jail. He said the jail guards did not resist because they were not “serious and faithful people.” Some of the guards were sleeping, he said, while some others had intentionally failed to resist. Last but not least, he said there was the possibility that the Taleban had a secret agreement with some of the jail officials. Ahmadi particularly mentioned superintendent Muhammad Latif Hassanyar and his deputy Agha Jan, who were arrested on 14 September 2015, together with three security guards, on suspicion of negligence and collusion with the Taleban.
Faizanullah Faizan, a former Ghazni Governor who closely followed the jailbreak, also said the jail guards did not honestly resist the attack. He confirmed that the guards near the entrance did show a reaction but received no support from their colleagues, and that this was why only these seven guards were killed. He moreover said that, if the jail guards had immediately informed the nearby soldiers and the police, they could have at least stopped the prisoners from escaping the jail. Faizan, who was a mujahedin fighter in the 1990s, had at the time himself participated in an attempted jailbreak. Comparing this jailbreak with his own experience, he told AAN: “We failed to break into Ghazni jail in the 1990s because the police forces reacted honestly and were well-coordinated.”
One source close to the Taleban said that after the prisoners were freed, a Taleban commander looked around the entire jail, but could not find a single security guard. “It means all the guards of the jail either hid somewhere or escaped during the attack,” he said. This, despite the fact that, based on the attendance sheet, 110 of the total of 173 guards were supposed to have been present on the day of the attack (although according to deputy governor Ahmadi only 60 guards were actually there). Moreover, according to Ghazni police chief Angar: “We found that only four pika machine gun bullets, seven kalashnikov bullets and five pistol bullets were fired by the jail’s security guards and not a single bullet hole could be seen in the exterior walls of the towers.” This is another indicator that the jail guards in the central towers did not resist; if they had done so, they would have been shot at by the Taleban fighters.
Angar also pointed to what he considered interference in the hiring of jail staff. He said that parliamentarians in Kabul and provincial council members in Ghazni had interfered in the appointment of the staff (including the superintendent and security guards) which meant that they were more loyal to the MPs than the government, lacked professional skills and had not been trained in security tactics. He thought they had either lacked the ability to inform the other security forces and/or had not seriously tried to resist the attackers.
Earlier jailbreaks; differences and similarities
Since 2001, Afghanistan has experienced eight Taleban-planned jailbreaks in which a total of 1,954 prisoners were freed and 17 jail guards killed. In the first jailbreak in 2003 in Kandahar’s Sarpoza prison, the Taliban tunnelled their way out of Sarposa and forty-one prisoners escaped. After a weeklong search, only a handful was recaptured). In a second jailbreak in Kandahar in 2008, Taleban fighters carried out a massive attack, which killed 15 security guards, and freed at least 1,200 prisoners including important Taleban members. Before the attack, the Taleban had apparently warned locals living in the vicinity of the prison that they should evacuate their houses. (1) In the third break into Sarpoza prison in 2011, 500 prisoners were freed through a one kilometre long underground tunnel that had been dug by the Taleban. In the north, in Sar-e Pul province, Taleban fighters were able to free 170 inmates in 2012. The jailbreak followed a powerful bomb blast inside the building and a well-coordinated attack from three directions.
Smaller jailbreaks include from Farah prison when inmates broke out by digging a tunnel from their cell to the outside, on 28 November 2009. Officials captured a thirteenth prisoner as he tried to escape. Eight months later, on 18 July 2010 after a bomb went off at the main gate of the same prison, nineteen inmates escaped. Officials said that only one guard was killed. They also had said that eight escapees were re-arrested. In Zabul, eight prisoners overpowered a jail guard, who had taken them out for the Fajr dawn prayer, and fled on 15 July 2009. Lastly, four foreign prisoners escaped from the heavily fortified and well-guarded then US-controlled Bagram jail in 2005. Military officials familiar with the episode said the suspects are believed to have picked the lock on their cell, changed out of their bright orange uniforms and made their way through the heavily guarded military base under cover of night. They then crawled over a faulty wall where a getaway vehicle was waiting for them.
Interestingly, none of these jailbreaks caused many casualties on the side of the Taleban. Only during the Sar-e Pul jailbreak were three insurgents reportedly killed, and one suicide attacker in Kandahar in 2008. This suggests these operations were all well-planned, but also points to the likelihood of repeated inside assistance.
Since the Ghazni jailbreak, two more have ensued. When Kunduz city fell to the Taleban on 28 September 2015, about 700 prisoners were freed, (see a video here), while in another jailbreak, in Ghorian district in the western Herat province on 21 October 2015, six Taleban prisoners were released.
It seems that the Taleban fighters were smart enough and well-prepared enough to carry out their operation exactly as they wanted. They distracted the Afghan government forces by attacking several security check posts at the same time. They also kept their own fighters largely unaware of the plan. Though officials said there was inside cooperation with the Taleban at the government’s side, it also seems that, if this had indeed been the case, there would have been no need for such a big, complicated operation or such a high level of secrecy. Even bearing in mind the multiple attacks that night, the Afghan government displayed great confusion in response to the attack. They were uncoordinated and failed to even try to foil the attack and the escape of the prisoners. If the jail protection guards had immediately informed all the surrounding check posts, the Taleban fighters could have faced a much stronger resistance. It is less likely they could have freed all the prisoners and taken them to local areas while losing so few fighters.
Although, the jailbreak in Ghazni is over, it is clear that similar attacks can happen again, unless the Afghan government manages to improve the protection of its jails and other key institutions.
(1) For a detailed account of 2008 Sarpoza jailbreak see Graeme Smith’s book “The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan,” Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2013 (pp. 215-233).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020