A U.K. terror suspect remains at large after he escaped a prison in southwest London dressed in a prison-issued chef’s uniform before strapping himself to the underside of a food delivery van that was leaving the prison grounds.
Daniel Abed Khalife, 21, is a former British army soldier accused of planting fake bombs at a military base and violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
A security official told The Independent that it’s “almost certain” Khalife had the help of insiders at HMP Wandsworth.
“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 official told the outlet.
Since he was reported missing, Wandsworth has been put on lockdown and a major nationwide manhunt has launched.
Addressing the U.K. parliament on Thursday, British Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the government will launch an independent investigation into the escape.
“No stone must be left unturned in getting to the bottom of what happened. Who was on duty that morning, in what roles ranging from the kitchen to the prison gate, what protocols were in place,” Chalk said.
Khalife is believed to have been working in the Wandsworth kitchen at the time of his escape. He was wearing a chef’s uniform of a white T-shirt, red and white checkered pants and brown steel toe cap boots.
Although police do not believe he is a risk to the public, they’ve asked people not to approach him and to alert authorities instead.
Khalife is accused of placing three canisters with wires outside a U.K. Ministry of Defence site in January, according to the BBC. He is also accused of working for Iran and collecting sensitive personal information about soldiers from a Ministry of Defense database.
He has denied all charges against him.
A former prisoner of Wandsworth told Sky News that Khalife’s escape is not surprising given the “absolute dysfunction and chaos” at the jail.
Chris Atkins, who was an inmate seven years ago, told the outlet that the prison has “nowhere near enough resources” and there are “far too few officers with very little training.”
“(The escape) didn’t surprise me all that — I’m surprised doesn’t have more often, to be honest with you,” Atkins said.
David Shipley, an ex-inmate of Wandsworth and film producer who was imprisoned between February 2020 and December 2020 for fraud, corroborated Atkins’ claims, telling the BBC the jail “didn’t function” and that prisoners often went missing, only to be found later in another cell.
“It happened all the time.… They would just lose people,” Shipley said.
Charlie Taylor, the country’s chief inspector of prisons, insists that escapes from U.K. prisons are “now very rare,” but admits that staff shortages in Wandsworth are “the source of many problems.”
Speaking to the PA news agency, Taylor said: “Something obviously went wrong in terms of security, and that will come out over time. But the issue that we are particularly concerned about is there are too many prisoners in Wandsworth for the amount of staff who are there. And that ultimately is the source of many of the problems in the jail.”
Worried that Khalife may be trying to flee the country, ports and airports have increased their security checks, triggering delays and long lines in some places.
Long lines of trucks have been spotted along highways M20 and A20 in Kent, waiting to enter the Port of Dover — the main boat crossing from England to France.
In a social media post, Heathrow Airport said that “due to additional security checks being carried out, waiting times for departing passengers may be longer than usual.”
Meanwhile, opposition politicians are raising questions as to why Khalife was being held at Wandsworth in the first place, arguing he should have been awaiting his November trial at a higher-security facility.
The prison, which is in the middle of a residential area, holds around 1,600 defendants appearing at London courts and offenders due to be released in five wings.
In 2022-23 annual prison performance ratings, carried out by the U.K. Ministry of Justice, the Wandsworth prison was given a “1,” meaning it was a prison “of serious concern.” The ratings are determined partly by the security and stability of a prison.
A spokesperson for Wandsworth told the BBC that an internal investigation had been launched to determine exactly why Khalife was held at the Wandsworth facility and whether security procedures were accurately followed.
“The justice secretary is working to understand from operational colleagues this evening both the categorization decision and the situation that led to the escape, what protocols were in place and if they were followed,” the spokesperson said.
— With a file from The Associated Press