Sunday, December 04, 2005

Details Emerge on a Brazen Escape in Afghanistan

The New York Times

Details Emerge on a Brazen Escape in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 - The prisoners were considered some of the most dangerous men among the hundreds of terror suspects locked behind the walls of a secretive and secure American military detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Their escape, however, might as well have been a breakout from the county jail.

According to military officials familiar with the episode, the suspects are believed to have picked the lock on their cell, changed out of their bright orange uniforms and made their way through a heavily guarded military base under the cover of night. They then crawled over a faulty wall where a getaway vehicle was apparently waiting for them, the officials said.

"It is embarrassing and amazing at the same time," an American defense official said. "It was a disaster."

The fact of the escape was disclosed by the American authorities shortly after it set off an intense manhunt at Bagram, 40 miles north of Kabul, on the morning of July 11. But internal military documents and interviews with military and intelligence officials indicate it was a far more serious breach than the Defense Department has acknowledged.

One of the four suspects was identified as Al Qaeda's highest-ranking operative in Southeast Asia when he was captured in 2002, a fact that emerged only during an unrelated military trial last month. Another, a Saudi, was also described by intelligence officials as an important Qaeda operative in Afghanistan.

The detainees planned their breakout meticulously, United States officials said, apparently studying the guards' routines, getting themselves moved into a cell that was less visible to the guards and taking advantage of construction work that was intended to expand and improve security at the prison.

"Based upon the findings of the investigation, it appears that the detainees had a clear understanding of the operating procedures of the guards inside the facility," said the chief spokesman for United States military forces in Afghanistan, Col. James R. Yonts.

One American intelligence official said the prisoners also took advantage of "a perfect storm" of mistakes by the military guards. The escape is believed to have been the first from one of the detention centers established by the United States for people suspected of being terrorists after 9/11. Military officials, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the incident are classified, said there was still much they did not know about how the men escaped.

Although an American military police guard was initially suspected of having helped the prisoners, he was eventually cleared. Half a dozen other soldiers, including officers and sergeants, have received administrative punishments, a senior military official in Afghanistan said.

"It was bizarre to me," said Maj. Gen. Peter Gilchrist of Britain, who served at the time as the deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in Kabul. "I don't understand how it could happen."

Military officials have often cited the danger posed by the prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a reason for the extreme security measures and harsh conditions there. Prisoners are typically shackled by their hands and feet when outside their cells and rarely move without an escort of at least two guards. During interrogations, they have often been forced into uncomfortable "safety positions" or chained to a bolt on the floor.

The two prisoners believed to have led the escape, Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti who was the former Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia, and Muhammad Jafar Jamal al-Kahtani, the Saudi, had for months been awaiting transfer to Guantánamo Bay, officials said. For reasons they have not explained, the military authorities gave different names for both men in announcing the escape last summer.

At the time of Mr. Faruq's arrest in Jakarta, Indonesia, in early June 2002, he was considered one of the most important Qaeda figures ever captured by the United States. Three months later, he told C.I.A. interrogators at Bagram that he had been sent to the region to plan large-scale attacks against American Embassies and other targets there.

Intelligence officials gave differing views on the importance of Mr. Kahtani. One official described him as having been responsible at one point for maintaining Al Qaeda's operational support structure in Afghanistan; another said he was an important Qaeda fighter, but not a senior-level operative.

According to a classified, one-page military report on the escape that was reviewed by The New York Times, those two detainees - along with a Syrian prisoner identified as Abdullah Hashimi and a Kuwaiti named Mahmoud Ahmad Muhammad - were being held with four other men in Cell 119, on the ground floor of the Bagram prison.

A senior military official said each of the prisoners who escaped was moved into the cell in the days before his escape after causing problems with other detainees. The main cells at Bagram are large wire cages that can be easily surveyed by guards patrolling the catwalks above them. Cell 119, by contrast, was somewhat apart and out of the way, officials said. Asked whether the prisoners might have fabricated the disturbances to be moved together into Cell 119, the senior official said, "The investigation revealed credible factors that support this theory."

After a head count of prisoners at 1:50 a.m. on July 11, the military report states, the sergeant of the guard on duty at the detention center, now called the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, reported all of them accounted for, the report states.

About two hours later, at 3:45 a.m., as the detainees were being roused for the morning prayer, the four detainees were discovered missing from their cell. The military police battalion on duty at the prison, Task Force Cerberus, immediately locked down the prison and began a search, the report said.

How the men got out of their cell remains a mystery, officials said. Two senior military officials said some equipment was temporarily moved beside the cell, partly obstructing the guards' view. One senior military official said investigators believe the prisoners managed to pick the lock with implements they had fashioned while detained.

There were also suspicions that one of the American military guards, who had had disciplinary problems, might have deliberately left the door open, two senior officials said. But those suspicions were eventually discounted and the guard was never charged, they said.

The four men escaped out the southeast door of the main prison building, the report said. Military and intelligence officials said the detainees left behind their bright orange prison uniforms, apparently changing into less conspicuous blue prison garb that they might have somehow hidden in their cells or knew where to find elsewhere.

At the time, several officials said, construction crews had been working to expand and reinforce the prison, a cavernous aircraft machine-shop built by the Soviet military during its occupation of Afghanistan and converted by the American military into its primary screening center for terror suspects captured overseas. The breakout took place only days before a series of tougher security measures, including surveillance cameras and brighter lighting, were to be put in place.

The American forces have released more than 250 Taliban and other prisoners from Bagram this year as part of an Afghan national reconciliation program. Still, they have had to refurbish the prison to hold the roughly 500 detainees who remain.

The escapees also appear to have taken advantage of the construction work to move through an exercise yard and out of the prison compound. Another indication that the four men might have received help in their escape, officials said, was the apparent speed with which they found their way through a maze of buildings and roads to a small, damaged section of the perimeter wall surrounding the vast Bagram Air Base.

Once they found the faulty section of the packed-dirt wall, officials said, the detainees were able to crawl beneath the concertina wire that topped the barrier and drop down on the other side in an area of agricultural fields and abandoned homes.

"There were three or four points where they could have been caught," one American intelligence official said. "The escapees got very lucky." Within minutes of the escape, American forces began fanning out across and outside the prison, concentrating on the area near the faulty section of the wall. As the base sirens blared an alert and Cobra and Black Hawk helicopters hovered overhead, American soldiers and Afghan policemen scoured fields and homes in the area.

The district police chief, Colonel Assadullah, said in an interview in Bagram that he was asked to have his men search for a yellow pickup truck, which was apparently seen leaving the area. The district governor, Kabir Ahmad, said the Afghan authorities set up checkpoints on the highway leading to Kabul and other roads in the area, but turned up nothing suspicious.

Military officials said American soldiers questioned laborers who had been working at the prison, as well as local Afghan officials. But no arrests were made, and neither Afghans working at the base nor American officials said they knew of any laborers fired as a result of the inquiry.

In a recent interview, a former Bagram prisoner, Moazzam Begg, said he had heard during his detention there that American intelligence officers had once proposed staging an escape to release a detainee whom they wanted to act as a double agent against Al Qaeda. He said he had no knowledge that any such scheme had been carried out, and several American officials strongly dismissed the idea that that had happened with Mr. Faruq and the others.

In a videotape delivered to the Pakistan bureau of the Arab-language satellite television station Al Arabiya, Mr. Kahtani boasted about the preparations for the escape, suggesting that they had been painstaking.

"We decided to escape on Sunday because that is the day off for the nonbelievers," he said on the tape, which was broadcast Oct. 18. "To escape we studied the plan very carefully."

Sultan M. Munadi and Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Bagram, Afghanistan for this article.