Pakistani Taliban Jailbreak: An Inside Job?

Even the militants say they’re surprised by how easy it was. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on a spectacularly brazen prison escape and what it means for peace in Afghanistan.

Even as Afghans remain stunned by Sunday’s coordinated insurgent attacks on diplomatic and military targets in Kabul and three other cities, Pakistani Taliban members are crowing over a spectacular exploit of their own.

Late Saturday night, Attaullha, a 25-year-old fighter belonging to the TTP—the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, as the Islamist rebel group calls itself—was suddenly ordered to get ready for battle. He recalls asking his commander what the night’s mission would be. “We are going to a wedding party,” the commander told him, “to bring home a bride.”

The young gunman soon realized that whatever his commander meant, it had to be something very big indeed. Leaving their base outside the lawless North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, Attaullah traveled east for hours together with dozens of other fighters armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Around 1 a.m. they finally pulled up outside a high-security prison on the main road through the city of Bannu. Attaullha tells The Daily Beast he was shocked to see more than 100 other Taliban fighters already gathered there in cars and pickup trucks, poised to attack. Other TTP insurgents had established a security cordon around the jail blocking all roads in. The stage was set.

The assault on the prison began around 1:30 a.m. Firing their AK-47s, launching RPGs and throwing hand grenades, the fighters blasted open the main gate and headed straight for six of the facility’s barracks, encountering little or no resistance from the 30 or so guards on duty. As one of the escapees later told The Daily Beast, the gunmen shot off the locks of the cells, shouting “Adnan Rashid! Where are you?”

Rashid was the “bride” they had come to take home. The former Pakistani Air Force technician was on death row for his alleged role in a failed 2003 assassination attempt on Pakistan’s then president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. When the gunmen finally found Rashid and let him out, they could scarcely contain their joy, the escapee says: “They kept shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ” But Rashid was only one of the nearly 400 prisoners who were freed in the jailbreak, the largest in Pakistan’s history. At least 20 of the escapees were “dangerous prisoners and militants,” according to a Pakistani official.

Embarrassed Pakistani authorities are still investigating how it was possible for as many as 200 militants to assemble and lay siege to an important penal facility just a few minutes’ drive from one of the area’s biggest cities. Despite repeated calls from help from terrified, outmanned, and outgunned prison staff and policemen inside the jail, police and other security services in the area apparently played possum, failing to intervene until the two-hour siege was over and the nearly 400 prisoners had escaped.

The lax security and absence of emergency response are doubly hard to explain, given the prison’s dangerous location. Bannu is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, just across the border from North Waziristan, the biggest hive of militants in Pakistan. It’s home not only to the Afghan Taliban’s notorious Haqqani network but also to fugitive al Qaeda operatives—and to the group that staged the break, the TTP. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is an umbrella group of some 40 militant jihadi groups that are at war with Coalition forces inside Afghanistan and with the Pakistani government.

When the attack began, Shahab Khan was asleep in his room near the front gate, just inside the jail. The prison staffer tells The Daily Beast he was awakened by shouting at the gate. At first he heard men hurling insults at the handful of guards on duty outside. Then gunfire and explosions shook the prison. Khan grabbed his phone and tried to summon reinforcements. “I kept calling the police control room for help,” he says. “I called 15 times, but help didn’t arrive. No one showed up.”

Ordinarily, about 150 police are on duty at the prison, but last weekend only 30 or so showed up, and only a dozen were armed, according to one prisoner who was freed in the attack. The whole thing looks suspicious to him. After the shooting stopped and the gunmen were gone, he returned voluntarily to serve out the remaining three months of his nine-month sentence. According to his lawyer, police at the jail didn’t fire a single shot in response to the militants’ assault.

Attaullha, the TTP fighter, is similarly nonplussed by the lack of response to the raid. “I’m sure the nearby police station saw us arrive,” he says. “Thank God they didn’t react.” Even when the insurgents’ long convoy departed the prison and snaked its way back into North Waziristan, triumphantly bearing the freed prisoners, there were no pursuers. Attaullha says he rode back to Mir Ali in a car packed with about 10 other people, including escapees. “No one followed us, no one touched us,” he says. As they arrived in Mir Ali, he says, fellow insurgents welcomed them with shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and volleys of celebratory gunfire “Our amirs [commanders] were looking to free our brave jihadis,” Attaullha says proudly. “And we got them.”

In the opinion of many Afghan officials, the jailbreak is one more piece of evidence that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is conspiring to destabilize Afghanistan. One Afghan diplomat tells The Daily Beast he’s convinced that most of the escapees are already on their way to join the Afghan rebels. “Those who escaped from Bannu could already be in Afghanistan, ready to kill Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces,” he says. “I’m sure Pakistan is telling jailed militants that if they promise to fight in Afghanistan, they will be freed.”

Pakistani authorities must have known the jailbreak was coming, the diplomat says. “How could a convoy full of armed militants drive from the tribal area and back without any trouble?” he demands. “In Bannu, a bird could not fly without the knowledge of the ISI. So how can a flock of Taliban move in and out of the Pakistani military stronghold without being challenged?” He says it’s no coincidence that the jailbreak took place only 12 hours before the Afghan Taliban unleashed their Sunday afternoon attack on Kabul and three provincial cities. “I think the deal was that if Pakistan helps by freeing the prisoners, then the [Pakistani] Taliban will help Pakistan by attacking in Kabul,” the diplomat theorizes.

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As overheated and paranoid as his remarks may sound, they typify the bad blood that’s festering between the two countries. An Afghan intelligence officer contends that Pakistan “encourages” TTP militants to fight in Afghanistan. According to him, Pakistan’s military operations in the tribal area have targeted only those militant groups that are at war with Islamabad, while insurgents who are fighting in Afghanistan are left undisturbed. “It’s like a doctor putting a bandage on the ass of a patient who has a serious head wound,” the intelligence officer says.

Such poisonous suspicions have only been deepened by the jailbreak. And that’s bad news for America. If there’s any hope of getting the Taliban to the peace table and stabilizing Afghanistan as U.S. troops pull out, it depends on cooperation and trust between Kabul and Islamabad. Instead, things just keep getting worse.