AOAV: all our reportsIndependent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan

Scrutinising allegations of UK Special Forces’ extra-judicial killings: why was crucial evidential data deleted from SF servers?

UKSF, ITS1 Server, Data Deletion, Operation Northmoor, Royal Military Police, Forensic Wiping, Afghanistan Conflict, Extra-Judicial Killings, Judicial Inquiry, Cover-up Allegations, Digital Forensics.

The Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan has examined why data on the ITS1 server, used by the UK Special Forces (UKSF), was deleted. This investigation is not just about technicalities of data management but probes into a deeper, more alarming possibility: did the UKSF intentionally delete data to obstruct an inquiry into serious misconduct, specifically unlawful killings in Afghanistan?

Context of the Inquiry
The root of this investigation lies in Operation Northmoor, initiated in 2015 by the Royal Military Police (RMP). This operation aimed to examine allegations that UKSF members were involved in extra-judicial killings during their deployment in Afghanistan. The ITS1 server, containing potentially crucial emails and documents, became a focal point. However, the UKSF’s resistance to surrendering this server, citing operational concerns, raised eyebrows and suspicions.

The Issue of Data Migration and Possible Deletion
As talks progressed between UKSF and RMP regarding access to ITS1, UKSF began migrating data to a new system. The RMP, wanting to ensure that evidence was not lost, requested that the ITS1 server be preserved. Despite assurances, WO2 Jim Priddin from the RMP, specialising in cybercrime and digital forensics, found that data had been deleted from ITS1 during a visit in late 2016.

Witness Accounts and Revelations:

  • WO2 Jim Priddin: his discovery that the S-Delete program (used for secure data erasure) was employed on the server, contradicted UKSF’s assurances.
  • N2311: an information manager with UKSF, involved in the migration, was initially unaware of any data alteration.
  • N5595: investigated the use of S-Delete, revealing it was part of a server life extension project conducted without military oversight.
  • N5859: in charge of ITS1’s Communication Information Systems, was not informed about S-Delete’s use.
  • N5857 and N5858: CivCon4 employees trained in using S-Delete, confirmed UKSF’s approval for its use between June and August 2016.

Why This Raises Concern
The use of S-Delete is particularly troubling. It’s not just about deleting files; it’s about erasing them in a way that makes recovery almost impossible. This action, especially in the context of an ongoing investigation into serious crimes, hints at a deliberate attempt to hide evidence.

The inquiry must unravel several layers:

  • Chronology of Events: establishing a timeline is crucial, but the inquiry must also dive into the intentions behind each action.
  • Data Deleted: what was the nature of the deleted data? Was it directly relevant to the investigation into extra-judicial killings?
  • Decision Makers: who authorised the use of S-Delete? Was this a rogue action or part of a larger, coordinated effort to obstruct justice?
  • Backups and Recoverability: while backups existed, the inquiry needs to determine if they are complete and unaltered.

This situation is more than a procedural discrepancy. It touches upon the integrity and accountability of military forces, especially elite units like the UKSF. The inquiry isn’t just seeking to establish facts; it’s trying to determine if there was a systematic effort to avoid scrutiny and, if so, why.

The counsel to the inquiry, including Oliver Glasgow KC, Jonathan Polnay, and Kerry Broome, are tasked with navigating this. Ensuring that this investigation doesn’t just end as a technical assessment of data management but as a thorough examination of potential misconduct and the safeguarding of justice.

The outcome of this inquiry has far-reaching implications. It could impact the public’s trust in the military, especially in how elite units conduct themselves in conflict zones. If evidence of a cover-up is found, it would call into question the ethical standards and oversight mechanisms within the military.

Conversely, if these allegations are disproved, it could reinforce trust in the military’s integrity and its systems of accountability.

As Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence said: “In essence, the inquiry into the ITS1 server and the UKSF is about more than just data deletion. It’s a quest for truth in a scenario where the stakes are high, both for individual accountability and institutional integrity.”

The final judgment, therefore, is of major interest – not just to those directly involved but to anyone concerned with the conduct of military forces in complex and challenging environments.