More than 150 police officers are searching for a terror suspect who escaped from a London prison by strapping himself to the underside of a delivery van, as questions mount over how the audacious breakout was allowed to happen.
The British government pledged on Thursday – the second day of the search – that Khalife would be tracked down.
Khalife orchestrated a bold jail break from Wandsworth prison on Wednesday morning while dressed as a chef. Police confirmed Thursday that he had attached himself to a delivery van as it left the prison.
The suspect is a serving member of the British military who is awaiting trial on terror charges, over allegedly planting fake bombs at a military base, according to the UK’s PA Media news agency.
Police laid out the timeline of Khalife’s escape on Thursday.
The soldier was declared missing at 7:50 a.m., they said. The Metropolitan Police were alerted 25 minutes later, and officers tracked down the delivery van at 8:37 a.m. just two miles east of the prison, on a street in Putney, southwest London.
By then, Khalife was gone and all that remained of his escape was the strapping officers discovered under the van.
British Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the government will launch an independent investigation into the incident. Addressing the UK parliament on Thursday, Chalk said he had already ordered an internal probe into the decision to place Khalife in a lower-security jail.
“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.
The justice secretary stressed that Khalife “will be caught in due course and will face a trial.”
‘State of disrepair’
Opposition MPs in Britain criticized the ruling Conservative government following the jail break, accusing ministers of plunging the judicial system into a parlous state due to years of austerity programs.
Politicians from the Labour party demanded that the government “urgently” explain how Khalife was able to escape, telling Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “get a grip.”
“We know that the criminal justice system after 13 years of Tory Government is in a state of disrepair. We know that there are huge problems with prisons,” MP Shabana Mahmood was quoted saying by PA Media.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, also from the Labour Party, said the case raised concerns about why a suspect “charged with national security offenses, wasn’t being held in a higher security prison.”
Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Thursday she had questions about “security checks and staffing levels” in the prison on the day of the jail break.
“There have been a series of warnings about the situation at Wandsworth, including the level of staff absences and sickness, and the lack of shifts being covered,” she added.
Last year, the UK’s prison inspection watchdog warned staffing levels “remained a serious problem” at Wandsworth prison.
The HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) reported a 30% drop in the number of staff available for “fully operational duty,” from September 2021 to June 2022.
“This had a deleterious effect on the running of the prison, and it was to everyone’s credit that for the most part the designated, or at least basic, regimes were still delivered,” HMIP said.
It added that 44% of staff “were absent or unable to carry out their normal duties,” when the watchdog inspected the prison in September 2021.
Government officials, including Chalk, have taken pains to emphasize that escapes from British prisons are incredibly rare. Data from the British government shows that there was just one escape across England and Wales in 2021-22, none in the proceeding period, and only a handful in the years prior to that.
“It is extremely rare for prisoners to be able to escape. So, it’s vitally important that we do investigate it. And we look at all the processes that were in place,” government minister Michelle Donelan told the “Today” program on Thursday.
The Met urged the British public to help locate Khalife, who is of slim build, has short brown hair and is around 6 feet and 2 inches tall, according to officers.
After news emerged of his escape on Wednesday, a police alert was issued to ports and airports, triggering additional security checks and impacting travel across the country.