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

A security official has said it is “almost certain” a terror suspect who escaped from a prison while strapped to the bottom of a food delivery truck had inside help to flee.

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

Khalife was being held on remand after he was accused of planting fake bombs at a military base, and airports and ports have since been put on high alert over fears he will try to leave the country.

A security official told The Independent that all prison staff were being interviewed after the major security breach.

“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,” he said.

It comes as Justice Minister Alex Chalk said “no stone must be left unturned” in figuring out how Khalife escaped as he launched an investigation into what happened.

It is understood that Khalife’s father is Iranian while his mother is English.

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, guerkhas and the royal marines. Khalife would have had access to state-of-the art defence electrical equipment.

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

He has launched an independent investigation into why the suspected terrorist was placed in the Category B prison and sought assurances on “measures being taken to ensure the security of prison”, calling for findings by the end of the week.

He also denied that Khalife had been moved from high-security prison HMP Belmarsh to the lower-security prison at Wandsworth. “He was never in Belmarsh,” he told MPs.

The category B reception and resettlement men’s prison opened in 1851 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

(PA Archive)

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

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.

The report said: “A serious security breach had led to an escape in 2019; we were given some assurance that action to prevent further escapes had been taken in response to the investigation that followed.

“However, current local security data evidenced some concerns in the physical aspects of 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.”

The report also described the Victorian prison as “overcrowded”, “crumbling” and “vermin-infested”.

Violence was on an upward trend, the report noted, while staff shortages had prevented the prison from providing inmates with a “basic regime”.

Inspectors said that despite a reduction in population since the previous inspection, it remained one of the most one of the most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales with nearly three-quarters of prisoners doubling up in cells designed for one.

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

A progress review in April 2022 found the prison remained very overcrowded, with many prisoners living in “very poor conditions”.

Charlie Taylor, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that concerns at Wandsworth have been flagged over a number of years.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “This is very concerning because Wandsworth had a previous escape in 2019 as well. Obviously any prisoner getting out of the jail is extremely rare event. But particularly a prisoner who’s accused of a terrorist offence makes it all worse.

“But to some extent, our concerns about Wandsworth over number of years make it a jail that’s more likely for this sort of thing to happen. Particularly the lack of staffing which has dogged the prison. I think when we last inspected at the end of 2021 they were 30% short of staff.”

He added: “It may be that things have improved since we last inspected the jail. But certainly it’s been an ongoing issue with the prison, particularly as it is such an overcrowded but also very busy prison.”

John Podmore, former governor of Brixton and Belmarsh prisons, said Khalife “should have been in Belmarsh” and that he “couldn’t understand” why he wasn’t.

He told Radio 4: “The prison kitchen is a plum job. And it goes to the most reliable, allegedly reliable, trusted prisoners chosen by staff.

“And it is a very vulnerable area. It’s where we’ve seen vehicles keep coming, going in and out. goods coming in and out on a regular basis.

“It’s the kitchens usually close to the gate. So it’s a very vulnerable area. So you choose who goes there very, very carefully.”

Khalife is thought to have strapped himself to a van from wholesale food suppliers Bidfood.

In a statement the company said: “Yesterday morning we were made aware of a security incident involving one of our vehicles, whilst out on delivery.

“We can confirm that our driver fully cooperated with the police on this matter before returning back to the depot. We will continue to assist the authorities in their ongoing investigation.”

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 Rosena Allin-Khan said she had raised concerns about staff shortages at the prison “months ago”.

She told the Independent: “Last December, just seven prison officers were on a particular 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”.

He told Sky News: “This is an old London prison which serves the local force and is incredibly overcrowded. It’s supposed to hold no more than 950 men, but at the end of July, it was holding more than 1600.

“It’s got chronic staff shortages as well, and those two facts together provide the background to the story which is dominating the headlines today.”

The Prison Officers’ Association blasted the government for the “decimation” of the Prison Service following the escape, adding: “Cuts have consequences.”

POA National Chair Mark Fairhurst said: “Wandsworth is one of the largest prisons in the country and is overcrowded and under-resourced.

“The chronic staffing shortages and lack of adequate training for staff highlight the need for an urgent review of how our prisons are run. We await the results of an internal investigation so we may ensure this is not repeated.”

POA General Secretary Steve Gillan added: “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 900 million 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.

“Our job as a trade union is to make sure that it’s thorough investigation and not just a blame culture,” he added.

“Over the years I know my members at Wandsworth have struggled. They are working in difficult circumstances with a dreadful lack of staff.

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

However, Downing Street insisted it was too early to blame cuts for the escape. Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman 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.”

Asked whether the PM is concerned about staff shortages, the official said: “We recognise the need for more staff – and that’s why we’ve increased the workforce by 4,000 since 2017.”

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