‘Almost certain’ terror suspect who escaped Wandsworth prison had inside help

Exclusive: Security official tells The Independent the escape was ‘orchestrated not opportunistic’ – as it’s revealed inmate was questioned over spying for Iran

Kim Sengupta,Amy-Clare Martin
Thursday 07 September 2023 21:59 BST
Prison escape of Daniel Abed Khalife was 'clearly pre-planned', Met Police Chief says

Intelligence sources have said it is “almost certain” a terror suspect who escaped from prison while strapped to the bottom of a food delivery truck had inside help.

A manhunt is underway after former soldier Daniel Abed Khalife, 21, fled HMP Wandsworth wearing a chef’s uniform on Wednesday morning.

Khalife, who is accused of planting fake bombs at a military base, allegedly “graduated” to attempted spying for Iran, The Independent understands, as the hunt continues to stop him fleeing the country.

“All the indications are that this was an orchestrated job and not an opportunistic escape. It is almost certain that he had some inside help from the prison,” the intelligence official said.

It comes as justice secretary Alex Chalk said “no stone must be left unturned” to uncover how Khalife escaped, while the chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, said the 170-year-old jail was “in a real state” and “needs closing”.

The soldier has been charged under the Official Secrets Act with collecting information about fellow members of the armed forces which could be of benefit to the enemy. It is alleged that he had obtained the material from the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Personnel Administration System.

Khalife, who served as an IT specialist with the Royal Signals Corps, is also accused of leaving fake bombs at a military base. He disappeared for three weeks after planting the devices before he was arrested on 26 January. He was subsequently dismissed from the army.

Khalif, a British citizen whose father is said to be Iranian, then allegedly attempted to pass on the information to a foreign power, believed to be Iran, according to security sources. They say that he sought to “graduate” into spying with the material he had obtained from the MoD.

A former soldier who has close knowledge of the suspect’s time in the army said he was not known to be religious or show a keen interest in politics. “He wasn’t any trouble and was always seen as a decent guy,” they said.

Units from the 16 Signals regiment are attached to elite frontline British Army regiments including special forces, parachute regiment, Gurkhas and the royal marines. Khalife would have had access to state-of-the-art defence electrical equipment.

In an update on Thursday evening, police revealed Khalife had just a 65-minute window to make his break for freedom between when the Bidfood delivery van he fled on left the prison gates at 7.32am and when police caught up with it on Richmond Road at 8.37am.

Commander Dominic Murphy of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command Unit said it was a “little unusual” that there had been no confirmed sightings of him since.

The category B men’s prison opened in 1851
The category B men’s prison opened in 1851 (PA Archive)

Updating MPs on the manhunt earlier on Thursday, Mr Chalk told the Commons that strapping was found on the underside of the escape van, adding: “All lines of inquiry being considered.”

The independent investigation will look into why the suspected terrorist was placed in the category B prison, instead of the more secure category A Belmarsh prison.

The inquiry comes as it emerged that concerns around security at Wandsworth were flagged last year following the escape of a prisoner in 2019.

An inspection report for the southwest London prison, dated September 2021 but published last year, noted that a “serious security breach” had led to the previous escape.

Inspectors said they were given “some assurance” that steps had been taken to prevent further breakouts. However, they still noted “some concerns” in relation to “physical aspects” of the security.

Discussing further security measures, including the smuggling of drugs, it added: “Although there had been some improvements to physical security measures to tackle drug supply, and mandatory drug testing had begun during the inspection week, more staff training was needed in key areas, such as the gatehouse and the post room, to provide a consistent approach.”

John Podmore, former governor of Brixton and Belmarsh prisons, told The Independent that if Khalife had been in Belmarsh “this wouldn’t have happened” – saying it was “extraordinary” that a terror suspect was held in a category B prison.

He said checks underneath, on top and inside vehicles were “basic” procedure, adding: “Something has gone drastically wrong. Whether it’s nefarious with collusion from inside the prison or just a massive c**k up, I don’t know.

“But the longer he’s out without being caught the more I think about collusion rather than the guy just got lucky and made an opportunistic escape.”

Ben Shephard accuses MP of ‘trying to score political points’ in terror suspect hunt

Mr Taylor said concerns at Wandsworth had been flagged over a number of years and that, with poor staffing, there is “always a danger that people will drop the ball and make a mistake”.

He said that when he inspected Wandsworth two years ago, “Thirty per cent of staff were unavailable for full duty”, which means that “some of the basics just don’t get done”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer called for the inquiry to look at the “already pretty damning reports into Wandsworth – issues about staffing, issues about buildings”, adding that in the past 10 years there have been 10 justice secretaries.

Labour MP for Tooting Rosena Allin-Khan said she had raised concerns about staff shortages at the prison “months ago” citing one night last December when there were just seven prison officers on a night shift to look after 1,500 prisoners.

“Frequently, only half of staffing slots are filled on any given shift and I believe it was only a matter of time before mistakes occurred and incidents took place.”

She added: “I just hope that this is a wake-up call for the government to listen to staff and their unions and sort out their mess.”

Rob Preece, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, claimed the prison has been under “significant pressure” for a “very long time”, while the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) blasted the government for the “decimation” of the Prison Service following the escape.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA, said: “No one ever wants to see an escape from prison but since 2010 this union has been on record as saying cuts have consequences.

“You cannot take out £900m from the budget with reduced staffing levels up and down the country and expect the Prison Service to operate as if nothing has happened.”

He warned that there will be “very difficult questions to be answered” as the inquiry into the escape unfolds.

“I hope everything is looked at and lessons are learned. If you cut your budget you have got to accept that there are consequences,” he said.

However, Downing Street insisted it was too early to blame cuts for the escape. Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “That would be very much acting without all the facts. There is an investigation that’s taking place.

“We are delivering the biggest expansion of prison places in over a century. There’s an investment of £4bn to create 20,000 extra places. We’re increasing pay to prison officers and so we are acting both to increase places and to boost staff.”

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