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Pakistan prison escapee evolves into al Qaeda-backed jailbreak artist

Security officials stand near a damaged jail gate after inmates escaped from the prison in the town of Bannu, northwest of Pakistan, in this
Security officials stand near a damaged jail gate after inmates escaped from the prison in the town of Bannu, northwest of Pakistan, in this

By Katharine Houreld

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The young Pakistani militant pounds a boxing bag, removes a pistol from its holster and fires in slow motion across gently sunlit fields.

"After eight years in a death cell, he came out - by the grace of Allah - and now he is back on the battlefield," intones the YouTube video voiceover.

Adnan Rasheed, the long-haired, laughing star of the video, escaped that death cell and went on to set up an Islamist group specializing in jailbreaks, masterminding a raid that freed 250 prisoners, including Taliban militants.

Little was known about the group, Ansar al-Aseer, before the July 30 raid on the jail in the northwestern Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan. A well-funded alliance of fighters armed with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades carried out the attack with military-like precision.

Drone strikes have killed many senior militants, but the jailbreak shows how Pakistan faces an uphill struggle in tackling a Taliban insurgency even as the Taliban step up attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. Most NATO troops there are due to leave next year.

Militants from the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, banned Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and al Qaeda all co-operated in the jailbreak, security officials and militants said.

Several similar groups have broken up after short periods and the durability of Ansar al-Aseer is not yet clear. But the story of 33-year-old Rasheed, jailed for trying to assassinate former President Pervez Musharraf, illustrates how low-ranking foot-soldiers can evolve into prominent militant commanders.

AN OFFICER NICKNAMED "TALIBAN"

As a young air force officer, Rasheed dreamed of studying in Germany, he told the militant magazine Azan.

But after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States he decided to join the Afghan Taliban. His desertion earned him the nickname "Taliban" and 14 days in military jail.

Later he tried to become a suicide bomber but returned to the air force, discouraged, when his militant group split, he told the magazine. He only returned because he hoped to fight neighboring India, he said.

In 2003, Rasheed and three other members of the air force tried to blow up Musharraf, angered by his alliance with the United States.

The men were jailed, but last year Rasheed escaped with nearly 400 other inmates when militants attacked that prison. Since then, he has appeared in two videos with Ansar al-Aseer, dedicated to freeing militant prisoners.

"My beloved brothers behind bars ... I didn't forget you," he said in Urdu in a video released in January, sitting cross-legged under a tree with two bearded men who later in the clip speak in Russian and German. "The first purpose of this group is to make your release possible by all means."

In the second video, called "Death Squad for Musharraf", Rasheed threatens to send the former president, himself charged with the 2007 murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, "to hell" and his small group of masked fighters perform push ups, leapfrogs and marksmanship exercises.

Last month, Rasheed wrote a letter justifying the Taliban's attempted killing of schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, a campaigner for girls' education in Pakistan. Malala was shot by Taliban gunmen in October as she left school in northwestern Pakistan.

So far, Rasheed's group is relatively unknown. The Taliban already have well-established sub-units, including the Tora Shpa or "Black Night," which raises cash through bank robberies and kidnappings, and the Khorasan, who torture and kill those suspected of directing drone strikes.

AL QAEDA BACKING

Ansar al-Aseer was mainly funded by the Taliban and helped by al Qaeda trainers, two Taliban militants said. Three of the al Qaeda trainers - a Saudi Arabian, a Kuwaiti and a Yemeni - were killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan last month, one of the militants said.

"Ansar al-Aseer's aim is to attack the jails and sub-jails where our mujahideen brothers are present," a senior Taliban commander told Reuters. "Financially it is supported by a number of groups ... al Qaeda provides support and weapons training to the new recruits."

But militant sub-groups frequently disband or change names to confuse security services or as loyalties shift, said Saifullah Mahsud of the FATA Research Center, which tracks militant activity in Pakistan's tribal areas.

The jailbreak was the first time many militants had heard of Ansar al-Aseer, he said.

The attack on Dera Ismail Khan underscored the militants' ability to infiltrate the security forces. A handful of fighters went to town three months beforehand to cultivate police and prison contacts, a security official said.

One such sympathizer opened the prison's main gate for the militants, he said.

The jailbreak itself had been meticulously planned. Some fighters donned police uniforms. Others disguised as a military convoy roared down from the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan. Plainclothes fighters cut power to the jail and set up nine roadblocks to ambush reinforcements. Radio messages tricked soldiers into preparing for an attack on the barracks.

The tactics were so successful that the attackers did not use the seven suicide bombers they had on standby, the security official said.

After the attack, authorities said they would beef up security around high-profile detainees. But few think that will deter future raids.

"The state is not waking up," the security official said. "We are going to see more of these attacks."

(Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie)

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