The discovery on Monday of an underground tunnel being dug by terrorists to break prisoners out of Karachi Central Prison gives further cause for alarm as well as some for optimism. Sindh Rangers say that acting on an intelligence tip-off they raided a house in Ghousia Colony, a low-income neighbourhood near the jail, where they discovered militants digging a tunnel leading from an underground water tank in the house towards the prison.
The tunnel was reportedly 10 feet deep and 45 metres long and was nearing the prison walls at the time the raid was conducted. Rangers say the target was a dry well within the prison walls that could possibly be accessed to break into the prison yard. The planners of the tunnel apparently had detailed knowledge of the prison’s layout and knew which barracks held the most high-security prisoners, including terrorists and members of banned sectarian groups.
The house the terrorists purchased to use as a tunnelling site was located on the side of the prison they were tunnelling towards, which contains those specific barracks. Around 100 high security inmates are detained there and the assumption is that like previous prison breaks by the Taliban, this was also conducted with inside help.
In 2012 terrorists attacked Bannu prison, using waves of suicide bombers as well as heavy weaponry to chase away prison guards before releasing almost 400 captives. In 2013, after an attack on DI Khan prison sprang 175 captives, terrorists went through the prison and rounded up and executed five Shia prisoners, suggesting they had knowledge of individual prisoners and how to identify them.
Then Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed the attack had to have had inside help because reportedly a number of guards were absent from their stations at the time and the terrorists’ knowledge of the prison allowed them to gather their captives before security forces could respond. While it is commendable that the grinding edifices of security and intelligence services seem to finally be cooperating with law enforcement, this latest attempt in Karachi shows that many of the problems anticipated by analysts and raised by prison officials have not been addressed or even considered.
A plan of this nature requires in depth knowledge of not only the prison’s layout, but also the routine of guard changes, shift changes and holding areas. Like the attack in DI Khan, the alleged targets of the prison break also included sectarian killers. In DI Khan the terrorists freed several dozen prisoners associated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), indicating a Deobandi ideological and operational confluence.
Despite being officially banned, the LeJ has membership in major cities, begging the question of whether the police and prison authorities are not victims just of insiders but also sympathisers within their ranks. Men like Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, do not need to be actively involved in terrorism to become sympathetic to or brainwashed by sectarian and extremist propaganda. The attempted murder in Adiala Jail in September of a Christian man accused of blasphemy, where one of the guards smuggled a pistol into the jail to kill the inmate, highlighted once again the possible proclivity of individual police personnel to extremist narratives, and the basic security issues in prisons.
Why for example are high security prisoners kept together in one part of the jail instead of isolated separately? How was it possible for a guard to sneak a gun inside the prison itself? Reports also indicate that the prisoners in Karachi may have been able to communicate with the men attempting to free them. In June last year, authorities recovered 60 cell phones and dozens of SIMs from different prisons leading to questions about the security arrangements around high-value prisoners.
Police officials say that because some militants are influential outside the prison, they are able to enjoy ‘perks’ inside as well. Who provides them with perks and what is being done about it is the question. The Sindh government says it plans to build a new high-security prison in Jamshoro, but work has not even begun yet. Given the current security arrangements for terrorists and sectarian murderers, it cannot be completed fast enough.