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Months of planning led to Pakistan prison break that freed scores of terrorists

A daring prison break earlier this week during which Pakistani Taliban insurgents freed about 250 of their colleagues was meant to convey that the group is a major threat to national security despite losing swaths of territory, havens and strategic conduits in the northwest tribal areas during military counterterrorist operations this year.

Al Qaida activists with knowledge of the details of the raid said the Dera Ismail Khan prison in northwest Pakistan, reputedly one of the most secure in the country, was one of several high-profile targets that militants from the Taliban, whose formal name is Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, had selected during a nationwide intelligence gathering operation between January and March.

The list was drawn up prior to a Taliban offer of peace talks extended to the right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party during campaigning before the May general election that the PML-N won, the activists said. The party’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, had said during his campaign that he would attempt to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency, which has cost Pakistan 48,000 lives and about $60 billion. But the Taliban feared that once Sharif was prime minister he would withdraw the offer under pressure from the military and the United States. The planned series of attacks was intended to apply pressure so that he would not, the activists said.

The Afghan and Pakistani al Qaida activists spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge operational details and feared they would be killed by their terrorist colleagues or Pakistan’s security forces if their identities were revealed.

The plan was drawn up amid great secrecy by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leadership, including its nominal leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, with input from a handful of educated, ideologue faction leaders. They included Adnan Rasheed, a convicted terrorist who last year was busted out of prison in Bannu, a town immediately to the north of Dera Ismail Khan, in a raid that served as a dress rehearsal for Tuesday’s jailbreak.

Since being appointed prime minister in June, Sharif’s attempts to set up a peace process have been stymied by the powerful military, which has directly ruled Pakistan for half its 66-year existence and monopolizes foreign and defense policymaking. He also has been preoccupied with addressing massive power shortages and resolving a low-intensity nationalist insurgency in western Baluchistan province.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and its allies, notably the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani affiliate of al Qaida, put the prison-break plan into action in June, the al Qaida activists said. That plan involved about 200 militants, split into units of 10 to 15 fighters. Each unit was led by a commander involved in prior reconnaissance of the target, an organizational structure that ensured familiarity with the prison’s geography and facilitated better coordination between the unit leaders during the operation. The fighters themselves were not aware of the target until their deployment, to prevent leaks, the activists said.

The Taliban units launched their assault on the jail from five points, targeting its main gate and walls with rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-mounted rockets and mortars. Two units scaled the prison’s walls under cover of fire from medium- and heavy-caliber machineguns. Other units positioned three explosives-laden vehicles at the prison entrance and subsequently inside the prison to slow any advance by security forces when they arrived. Similarly, the militants planted many improvised explosive devices in the prison and in buildings outside. The assault force’s planned escape route was also booby-trapped with roadside bombs.

The activists said five 10-man units were deployed away from the jail and kept in reserve. In case the assault on the jail took longer than planned, and the militants inside were surrounded by security forces, the reserve units were to attack them from the rear.

The operation was completed in two hours, 40 minutes, and the militants were gone before the military arrived and surrounded the prison. The 250 prisoners they’d freed included about 40 experienced but otherwise not extraordinary militant commanders who’ve been repatriated to their parent factions in the tribal areas, as part of a quid pro quo for those factions’ logistical support of the operation, the activists said.

Similar tactics were adopted during a July 25 assault on an office of the military’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate in the southern town of Sukkur. That attack killed nine ISI operatives in an area that had previously not seen terrorist activity.