Manchester Bombing: Inside UK’s Counterterrorism Failures

Tony Thorne was one of the officers on the Apollo project, advising the team on the mission of consolidating large volumes of data. Thorne, a former counter-terrorism officer with the Welsh Counter-Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Unit, said he was shocked by what he saw in Scotland. “We left Scotland with a process that was incomplete or incomplete in any way,” he said.

Key issues highlighted during the test run were immediately apparent, according to emails and internal memos from 2014 and 2015 reviewed by BuzzFeed News.

The officers described a system that “failed frequently” and “timed out in 10 minutes”, malfunctioning so severely that they significantly increased “the time it took to perform a simple task. “

Even basic searches cause trouble. One officer described how he put in a search term and got too broad a result. He started sifting through the documents manually to find out which ones he really needed – but when he did, the system crashed. When he logged back in, he entered the same search terms and noticed that “the search results were not the same”.

Officers using the new systems also report serious difficulties with the very problem the NCIA is aiming to solve: communicating with other forces and agencies. After a suspicious person entered the UK by plane, an officer reported that they received an important intelligence report from officers at the airport in an unreadable format. Another told a member of the Apollo team that the NCIA’s inability to share intelligence with other regions that still use the legacy system was an important risk that “could lead to failure in the field.” intelligence sector”.

The quality of intelligence that makes it into the system is often poor. In some cases, NCIA has had irrelevant information removed; In others, critical intelligence is not visible on the NCIA at all. One officer complained that the system’s “auto-import” of documents had nothing to do with terrorism. “This matter is something that is always talked about,” the officer wrote, “but now that we are alive, there seems to be nothing to be done about it.”

The NCIA was built on the template of an already existing system called the Department of Home Affairs Major Mainstream Investigations System (HOLMES), four sources told BuzzFeed News. The problem, one person said, is that HOLMES is used to investigate incidents that have occurred while NCIA is intended to prevent attacks from happening. Another officer told BuzzFeed News that building the NCIA on top of the HOLMES system caused defects that made large amounts of intelligence difficult to find.

The officers reiterated these concerns in their official emails and reports. One of the key features borrowed from the HOLMES system was a search engine that, like Google, was supposed to allow officers to quickly retrieve documents containing a certain word, regardless of the specific word. where the entity appears on the profile. If it works, this will make it much easier to find specific intelligence on potential terrorists from hundreds of thousands of files.

But the search engine doesn’t work. Employees find that if they put in the same search term multiple times, they will often get a different result each time. Search engines also can’t scan birth dates, making it much more difficult to identify the right document.

This shortcoming combines with another major problem. From the outset, it was obvious that many duplicate records would find their way to the NCIA – as it is compiling data from multiple forces that often own the same files on a given individual. An internal report seen by BuzzFeed News acknowledged that this would have a “triggering” effect that baffles analysts. But in the end higher levels decided that “there would be no duplication” until the entire UK adopted the NCIA.

A Manchester-based officer who later started using the NCIA told BuzzFeed News that duplication makes finding what you’re looking for like “finding a needle in a haystack” – a struggle to the point of ” you could miss important intelligence leads.”

Thorne, a counterterrorism detective with the NCIA, is growing increasingly concerned. “Unfortunately,” he wrote to colleagues in a February 2014 email, “as we are all well aware that the NCIA has attempted to deliver on its promise and is not fit for purpose.” .

The NCIA implementation has already begun to move forward.

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