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By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

In a daring attack, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists stormed the Central Prison at Dera Ismail Khan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province on July 29, 2013, and freed around 253 prisoners, including 45 top terrorists. 24 persons, including 12 Policemen, five terrorists, four prisoners, and three civilians, were killed in the attack and the counter attack by Security Forces (SFs). On July 31, 2013, Police rearrested 47 of the absconding prisoners.

Claiming responsibility for the attack, the TTP’s newly appointed ‘central spokesman’ Shahidullah Shahid declared, “Some 150 Taliban, including 60 suicide bombers, attacked the Central Prison and managed to free about 300 prisoners. They were looking in particular for two ‘commanders’ – Sufi Mohammad and Shaikh Abdul Hakim. The TTP has achieved its targets and their operation was successful.” Sufi Mohammad and Shaikh Abdul Hakim were ‘commanders’ of the TTP Swat Chapter. A TTP ‘commander’ further claimed that the ‘operation’ was codenamed Freedom from Death, cost PKR 11.5 million, and took six months to plan.

Confirming TTP’s claim of success, Mushtaq Jadoon, the Commissioner of Dera Ismail Khan Town, disclosed, on August 1, 2013, that more than 30 known terrorists, including TTP ‘commanders’ Shaikh Abdul Hakim, Abdur Rasheed, Haji Ilyas and Mamoor, who managed to escape from the Prison, had been involved in terrorist attacks, sectarian violence and kidnappings for ransom. Another terrorist, identified as Walid Akbar, who was allegedly involved in the bombings that targeted the Ashura (Shia festival of mourning) procession in Dera Ismail Khan Town on November 24, 2012, when 25 persons were killed, also escaped in the prison breakout. The Commissioner noted that among the escaped prisoners, 127 had been convicted and another 126 were facing trial.

This is the second major jail break engineered by terrorists that Pakistan has witnessed. Hundreds of TTP terrorists had stormed the Central Prison at Bannu in the Bannu District of KP and had freed nearly 384 inmates on April 15, 2012. Adnan Rasheed, who had masterminded the December 14, 2003, assassination attempt on then President General Pervez Musharraf, was one of the inmates who had then managed to escape. According to reports, of the 384 escaped inmates, 21 were facing death sentences, 94 were charged with murder, 30 were charged in narcotics cases, and another 145 were under trial. Information about the remaining 94 prisoners is not available. KP Home Secretary Azam Khan stated, on April 22, 2012, that, out of 384 prisoners who had fled the prison, 108 had voluntarily returned while 35 others had been arrested by the law enforcement agencies. There is no further information about the 141 other escapees.

Both these incidents have many similarities. Intelligence agency had warned the Government three months prior to the Bannu attack with specific information regarding the impending threat. Similarly, on July 27, 2013, a letter, addressed to the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, Deputy Inspector General of Police, District Police Officer and the Superintendent of Dera Ismail Khan Central Jail, marked “secret” and “most immediate” by intelligence agencies, had stated, “It has been reliably learnt that miscreants namely Umer Khitab and his associates affiliated with Gandapur Group/TTP are planning to carry out terrorist attack against Central Jail – Dera Ismail Khan on the pattern similar to Bannu jailbreak in near future. According to information, miscreants are in possession of sketch/map of Jail and have reached in the vicinity of Dera Ismail Khan for this purpose.”

The warning was followed by another alert to the KP Government, on July 28, 2013, reiterating the danger of an attack by the group led by Umer Khitab. To underline the urgency of the matter, officers were again warned through text messages on July 28 to take appropriate security measures. As a consequence, civil and military officers visited the prison to work out a ‘security plan’. The KP Home Secretary followed up and, on July 29, 2013, just hours before the attack, the Commissioner held a meeting of all law-enforcement agencies and the civil administration to discuss the issue. Over 100 jail guards and 75 personnel of the Frontier Reserve Force were made available, backed by the Elite Police Force and armoured personnel carriers.

After the incident, however, KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak claimed, on July 30, 2013, that “no prior intelligence regarding this incident was shared”.

Despite the forewarnings, preparations and re-enforcements, it is significant that the terrorists succeeded with a minimum of fatalities, principally, as in the Bannu attack, because of linkages between the SFs and the terrorists, which were an open secret in both incidents. Significantly, after the Bannu attack, the TTP had claimed, “We had maps of the area and we had complete maps and plans of the jail as well. All I have to say is we have people who support us in Bannu. It was with their support that this operation was successful.” After the Dera Ismail Khan attack, an unnamed security official noted, "It is very difficult to attack such a place without proper information or contacts. Some prisoners were suspected to have been in touch with the militants by mobile phones provided by sympathetic wardens. They are corrupt, lazy and unprofessional.” More worryingly, "Most policemen ran for their lives once the attack started, leaving their weapons behind… They even gave up their own guns, providing the attackers with more ammo."

Meanwhile, preliminary investigations in the July 29 attack have revealed that Operation Freedom from Death was masterminded by Adnan Rasheed, one of the terrorists who had escaped during the Bannu Central Prison attack. Adnan Rasheed is currently the ‘chief operational commander’ of Ansar al Aseer [Unit for (support of) Prisoners]. Significantly, the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on February 6, 2013, jointly formed Ansar al Aseer, a special unit of fidayeen (suicide attackers) whose prime mission would be to carry out attacks on Prisons all over Pakistan to secure freedom for the incarcerated cadres.

The success of these operations depends largely on the fact that prisons in Pakistan have become virtual safe havens for terrorists. Arrested terrorists operate freely from within the Prisons, communicating with their organisations and cadres. For instance, the June 26, 2013, attack on Sindh High Court Judge Justice Maqbool Baqar near Burns Road in Karachi was planned from Karachi Central Prison. 10 persons were killed and another 15 were injured in the attack.

In a report titled "Reform of the prison system in Pakistan", released on October 12, 2011, the International Crisis Group (ICG) observed that the prison system in the country was "corrupt and dysfunctional”. Illegal detentions by the military, exacerbated local grievances, creating fertile ground for extremist recruitment, particularly in KP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the report added. Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, an adviser to then Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, after his visit to a Prison in the Haripur District of KP on June 8, 2011, observed that prisons had become breeding grounds for extremists, and outfits such as TTP and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan [SSP, now known as Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jama’at (ASWJ)] had taken their “ideological campaign” to prisoners.

Interestingly, soon after Bannu attack, on April 24, 2012, the KP Government approved the purchase and immediate installation of cellular phone jammers, walk-through scanner gates and other equipment at all prisons in the Province to counter future attacks. Earlier, on April 25, 2012, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Muhammad Akbar Khan Hoti, noted, “We have requested the Army to take over four central jails ... in Peshawar, Bannu, Haripur and Dera Ismail Khan ... as we would easily be able to take care of the remaining 18 jails”. In addition, on July 3, 2012, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities had decided to build an underground prison to hold terrorism suspects incarcerated throughout the Province. A few of these steps have been implemented. On August 4, 2012, the KP Government initiated work on the installation of cell phone signal jammers in six ‘sensitive’ prisons, including the jails in Peshawar, Timergara, Bannu, Kohat, Haripur and Dera Ismail Khan. It also allocated PKR 213.5 million in fiscal 2012-2013 for building the underground prison.

The Police in KP has a sanctioned strength of 78,320 and a population of about 22 million, yielding a fairly healthy ratio of 356 Policemen per 100,000 population. Unfortunately, much of the Force is compromised and ideologically ambivalent, yielding very low levels of efficiency and a security apparatus that remains deeply vulnerable to the complicit arrangements between Pakistan’s power establishment and the Islamist extremist formations that dominate much of the politics, and all of the terrorism, in the country.

[Source: SATP]

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