Three days after a former British Army soldier facing terrorism charges engineered an audacious escape from a London prison, setting off an intense nationwide manhunt, he was captured by the police on Saturday morning only a few miles way.
The Metropolitan Police Service said the fugitive, Daniel Abed Khalife, was apprehended just before 11 a.m. in the residential London district of Chiswick. He broke out of Wandsworth prison on Wednesday morning by strapping himself to the bottom of a food delivery van, according to government officials.
Mr. Khalife, 21, is scheduled to go on trial in November on charges that he left fake bombs at a military base to stir fears of a terrorist attack. He is also accused of gathering information that could benefit a foreign enemy, reported to be Iran.
The search for Mr. Khalife became one of the largest in recent British history, with hundreds of police officers blanketing airports, seaports, railway stations and the English Channel tunnel. On Friday night, police helicopters circled above the Thames, as the search zeroed in on Chiswick, an affluent west London district on the north bank of the river, about seven miles from the prison.
Police officials said Mr. Khalife’s military training might have helped him elude the massive manhunt for longer than expected. Despite about 50 calls from the public with potential leads about his whereabouts, the police said, they had not received a reliable report of a sighting of the fugitive until Friday, more than 48 hours after his escape.
Mr. Khalife had “skills that perhaps some sections of the public don’t have,” Commander Dominic Murphy, the head of the Counter Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police Service, said to reporters.
Mr. Khalife’s escape quickly bubbled into a political headache for Britain’s Conservative government. Former correctional officials said a prison break at Wandsworth was not a surprise given the depleted state of the facility and overcrowding. The opposition Labour Party said the prison was short-staffed — symptomatic of an overstretched criminal justice system under Tory government.
There were also questions about why Mr. Khalife was not being held at a maximum-security prison, which is customary for terrorism suspects. Wandsworth is a Category B prison, one level below maximum security. Category A prisons are typically used to house prisoners charged with terrorism or whose escape would pose extreme danger to public safety or national security.
The Metropolitan Police said they did not view Mr. Khalife as a grave threat to the public, though on Wednesday it urged people to call the police emergency phone line if they spotted him, rather than risk any contact with him.
“We have no information which indicates, nor any reason to believe, that Khalife poses a threat to the wider public,” Commander Murphy said, “but our advice if you do see him is not to approach him.”
In addition to the allegations of planting fake explosive devices, Mr. Khalife has been accused of collecting information that could be useful to an enemy. Some newspapers reported that he was aiding Iran.
Mr. Khalife joined the army in 2019 and was based at Ministry of Defense Stafford, also known as Beacon Barracks, in Stafford, England. At a court hearing after his initial arrest, prosecutors said he planted the devices “with the intention of inducing in another the belief the item was likely to explode or ignite.” He has denied the charges.
There were only sketchy details about how Mr. Khalife managed to escape, though initial reports were sensational enough.
Straps found under the delivery vehicle suggested Mr. Khalife “may have held onto the underside of it in order to escape,” Alex Chalk, the Conservative lawmaker responsible for justice issues, told Parliament on Thursday. Police officials said the escape showed signs of advance planning, and they did not rule out the possibility that he had been helped by other prisoners or guards inside the prison.
The Times of London reported that he had been working in the prison kitchens. Mr. Khalife was wearing a white T-shirt, red-and-white checkered pants and brown steel-toe boots, according to the initial police statement. He is believed to have changed clothes, and on Saturday, the police said he was wearing a black baseball cap, black T-shirt and dark-colored bottoms.
A former head of security at Wandsworth, Ian Acheson, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today program that the escape was “incredibly embarrassing for the prison service, but it’s not entirely surprising.”
“There would have had to have been multiple breaches of human and physical security,” Mr. Acheson said, adding that “Wandsworth, like so many of our flagship prisons, is in free fall” because of a lack of resources.
After a surprise inspection of Wandsworth in 2021, the government’s chief inspector of prisons described an overcrowded facility where a lack of staff forced managers to regularly cancel activities such as exercise time for inmates. A “serious security breach” had led to a previous prison escape in 2019, it noted.
“We were given some assurance that action to prevent further escapes had been taken in response to the investigation that followed,” the report said. But it also referred to “some concerns in the physical aspects of security.”
In Parliament, a senior Labour shadow minister, Pat McFadden, asked the government why a “terror suspect like Mr. Khalife was being held at a lower-category-security prison like Wandsworth in the first place.”
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative deputy prime minister, said the government had opened an investigation into Mr. Khalife’s escape to ensure “we learn the lessons of what led to this.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Britain had 4,000 more correctional officers now than in 2017, and he rejected Labour’s criticism. “During their 13 years in office,” Mr. Sunak said to ITV News, “there were 10 times the number of escaped prisoners than you’ve seen in the 13 years of Conservative-led government.”
While Britain has added officers recently, government data showed that the number of full-time prison officers had fallen by about 2,000 since the Conservatives came to power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
And while prison escapes have become rare in Britain — just 17 since 2010, compared with 177 between 2007 and 2010 — those numbers declined rapidly during the first few years of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government. The number of escapes was much higher under the previous Tory government.
Wandsworth was the site of one of the most famous modern-day escapes. In 1965, Ronnie Biggs, a member of the gang that carried out the Great Train Robbery of 1963, scaled the prison’s wall with a rope ladder and was spirited away in a van parked outside. He was at large for 36 years before voluntarily returning to Britain, and a prison cell, in 2001.