This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets. …

The potential for danger was actually apparent very early in the events of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, even before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, it was widely reported that thousands of prisoners had escaped from Egyptian jails, including militants. A lengthy hagiographical account of how “the mujahedin” had escaped from the Abu Za’bal prison soon appeared on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network, a jihadist web forum. …

Nor were jail breaks and prisoner releases limited to Egypt. They have also helped to change the shape of both jihadist and also more moderate Islamist currents in Tunisia, Libya, and also Yemen. Underscoring this, a September article from jihadist intellectual Abu Sa’d al Amili directed toward members of an al Qaeda front group in Yemen extols the virtues of imprisonment. “Prison might be a period of education or further strengthening for the prisoner,” he wrote. “God the Almighty is preparing the prisoner for great events and heavy responsibilities that he could not have borne before his imprisonment or if he had remained free.”