Police are investigating whether fugitive terror suspect Daniel Abed Khalife’s “clearly pre-planned” escape from Wandsworth Prison was an inside job, as the first potential sighting of the fugitive was confirmed.
A national manhunt was sparked on Wednesday morning after the 21-year-old British Army soldier – accused of planting fake bombs at his former barracks – slipped past guards at the Category B prison by clinging to straps placed underneath a food delivery truck.
After two days of sparse leads, Scotland Yard said on Friday afternoon that the force was investigating a potentially “very significant” possible sighting of Khalife walking away from the BidFood van near Wandsworth roundabout.
Security officials told The Independent on Thursday that Khalife, a military computer engineer, may have been attempting to “graduate” to spying for Iran with material he is accused of gathering from the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Personnel Administration System.
Khalife is understood to have served as a communicator with the 22 Signal Regiment. That regiment’s role is to offer comms support to Nato’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC), described by one expert as the military alliance’s “premier reaction force”.
As a result, the regiment is “a juicy intelligence target” for the Western military alliance’s adversaries, former Nato analyst Dr Patrick Bury told The Independent.
Speaking of its role, he said: “It’s obviously sensitive stuff and you’re dealing with secure communications which is all manner of electronic and radio communications, and satellite and beyond, for Nato’s basically premier reaction force.
“So if you’ve got someone on the inside who can provide some information about that, the question is – what access did he have? We’ve seen from Snowden how a computer network engineer often can get the whole gamut, legitimately or not.”
“It’s secure, it’s highly sensitive – it’s a juicy intelligence target. Why would the Iranians want to do it? To trade, of course with the Russians, and perhaps to trade with China,” added Dr Bury, now a defence and security expert at the University of Bath.
Metropolitan Police chief Sir Mark Rowley confirmed on Friday morning that officers were investigating the possibility that Khalife had help from anyone inside or outside the prison walls.
“The fact he could strap himself onto the bottom of the wagon, there’s obviously some logistics involved,” Sir Mark told LBC.
“Just to work out a prison escape – how you can do the logistics of it and get the right equipment, and how you’re going do it – is unlikely to be something you do on the spur of the moment.”
He added: “We’re going to have to look at everything as part of this investigation – did he do this on his own? Did anyone inside the prison help him? Did anyone outside the prison help him?”
Sir Mark warned it was “extremely concerning” that the former Royal Signals Corps soldier was “on the loose”, and said that “well into three figures” of officers were now involved in the hunt, in addition to Border Force and forces elsewhere in the country.
Khalife, who describes himself as a network engineer on LinkedIn, had been awaiting trial on three charges, including gathering information likely to be useful to an enemy.
He is also accused of planting fake bombs at his barracks in Stafford, before fleeing the military site and evading capture for a further 25 days.
The Met’s counter-terrorism commander Dominic Murphy told reporters on Thursday: “He was a trained soldier – so ultimately he has skills that perhaps some sections of the public don’t have.
“He’s a very resourceful individual, clearly, and our experience of him shows that, so nothing is off the table with him at the moment.”
It came as explosive experts were forced to close the Channel tunnel terminal in Kent on Friday after a suspicious vehicle was stopped during a routine check.
A man has been detained and a cordon remains in place, but police have confirmed that the incident is not connected to the ongoing search for Khalife.