Letter from Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by war for nearly two decades. The largest UN peac

On 30 June, the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium. Over the course of a pallid and humid morning, several thousand soldiers marched down the wide, balloon-covered Boulevard Triomphal in Kinshasa, the capital, while tanks, Jeeps and other military hardware rolled past as part of a triumphant military parade. After an hour or so, President Joseph Kabila stood up to give a speech but the microphone was broken, like so much else in this blighted country, and his words were unheard by the crowd.

Since independence, as many as five million people have died in Congo's wars. The curse of Congo is to have promiscuous natural wealth in the world's roughest neighbourhood. It has diamonds, gold, cassiterite, coltan, timber and rubber - as well as the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history. For more than ten years, the United Nations has had a mandate to keep the peace here - but there has been no lasting peace, least of all in the eastern Congo, where violence continues between various militia groups who scavenge off the land, killing innocent people and each other as they scramble for resources in this mineral-rich country. Now, the gov­ernment of President Joseph Kabila wants the UN to leave altogether.

Kinshasa is a city of 11 million people, most of them confined to scorched tenement buildings and rusting tin shacks. The average wage is 90 cents a day in a city where a meal of steak and chips can cost $18. In the city centre, the Congolese elite live in luxury apartments, with rents comparable to those in central London. The UN headquarters is in the northern part of the city. The compound looks like an embattled fort in a war zone: high walls of barbed wire and broken glass sit behind concrete breeze blocks placed strategically along the road. Outside, people beg for money, with a refrain that I heard again and again: "Un dollar, un dollar, un dollar."

General Babacar Gaye is the Senegalese ­commander of the 20,000-odd UN troops in Congo. "Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers [but] it is a job only soldiers can perform," he told me when we met. "This is not classic warfare where the objective is to defeat the enemy. Occasionally you need to use force, to ensure things stay on track or to deter or ­convince. But you are accompanying a [political] process."

The soldiers operate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of "lethal force" to keep the peace. "Lethal force gives you more freedom of action," said General Gaye. "You can take the initiative when you feel that the population is under imminent threat." (In Rwanda during the genocide of 2004 the UN peacekeeping force, led by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian, was not permitted to use "lethal force" against the local population, and was thus rendered helpless to prevent the slaughter of as many as 900,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.)

Since independence, five million people have died in Congo's wars. After the Belgians left, Patrice Lumumba became the first indigenous prime minister, but his strident anti-imperialism alarmed the western powers and he was assassinated in a Belgian-US plot only three months after coming to office. In 1965, following a period of infighting, Mobutu Sese Seko, a tough but sharp army chief of staff, seized power in bloodless coup and, in 1971, renamed the country Zaire.

His despotic regime was toppled in 1996 by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a corrupt regional governor from eastern Congo. He was supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila had learned well from his predecessor and he installed his own sprawling kleptocracy as well as changing the country's name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But he made a fatal mistake: in 1998 he ordered the Rwandans and Ugandans to leave. They pulled back temporarily, before launching a counter-invasion during which they seized a third of the country.

Kabila called on the support of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, who entered the war on his behalf, bribed with the promise of access to Congo's vast mineral wealth. In 1999, the UN decided enough was enough and passed resolution 1279, which resulted in the creation of a permanent peacekeeping force in Congo. It is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in history. The war officially ended in 2003, but militia groups continue to operate with impunity - especially in the east, where Rwanda is fighting a proxy war against Hutu militia - and different ethnic groups from inside the country clash over land and territory.

The current president, in office since the assassination of his father in 2001, is Joseph Kabila Kabange, commonly known as Joseph Kabila. Aged 39, he is something of a mystery. Kabila has maintained close relations with the Rwandans (he fought alongside them during his father's rebellion against Mobutu) and this has aroused suspicion among political rivals and international agencies that his policies may not be entirely independent. A fear of ­assassination means he makes few public appearances and his intentions are opaque.

What is clear is that, from 2001 to 2006, he ruled as the head of a transitional government, one strongly influenced by the international agencies present in Congo. However, in 2006, following internationally supervised elections deemed "free and fair" by the UN, he emerged as the head of a sovereign state with a genuine democratic mandate. He then began to assert his authority, pushing back all foreign influence - including the UN.

However, there are suspicions that there may be something more sinister beyond mere grand­standing in his desire to have the UN leave Congo. Since the elections, he has displayed increasingly authoritarian behaviour. Local elections scheduled for 2010 have been postponed, and he wants to extend the presidential mandate from five to seven years. The chances of his forging a more dictatorial regime during his second presidential mandate (presidential elections are due in 2011) increase if the UN leaves, and international scrutiny with it.

The UN Security Council is not sure that ­Kabila is ready to take full control; under its new mandate, the UN peacekeeping presence was extended earlier this year to run until 30 June 2011. The decision followed the call in May by the ­government for an end to the UN peacekeeping mission at the latest by mid-2011, before the planned presidential elections scheduled for November that year. "Everyone was a bit surprised by the government's decision," General Gaye told me. "It is not our intention to remain indefinitely in the Congo. But we feel it is best not to leave the country in a precipitous way that will create a return to square one."

This is what human-rights groups fear most: the chaos that may fill a UN-shaped hole in the country.

One morning in Kinshasha, I visited a ramshackle government building to speak to Lambert Mende, Congo's smooth and smiling minister of information. "The UN has done a good job in Congo," he said. "But it has been ten years that it is here. No nation in the world accepts that others fulfil tasks on their behalf. They are here for a given time. And this time should end one day."

Peacekeeping is by its nature temporary; the UN is never any more than a guest in someone else's country. Whether widescale violence returns to Congo will depend on the ability of its own army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), to keep order. But what exactly is the army? Last year, 22 militia groups were invited to stop killing and join up. Absorbed into the FARDC, they retained parallel chains of command, "taxing" and terrorising the local population. Many believe the FARDC is a collection of killers and rapists who now wear one uniform instead of many. I put this to Mende. "Two and a half per cent of the army is in prison," he said, rather triumphantly. "I know very few armies in the world which, in the middle of a conflict, would immobilise 2.5 per cent of its forces for disciplinary reasons. They never tell you this!

“The Congolese army is being rebuilt. In 18 months it will be sufficiently trained to defend the Congolese people, and to deal with this existing threat in the east [of the country] - which is a residual threat, not a significant one. We will be ready and that is the truth," he added.

Ever since Belgian rule, Congo has fed the world's lust for resources. during colonial times, we wanted rubber; today we want cassiterite and coltan, minerals that are used in the manufacture of PlayStations and mobile phones.

Congo has a border with nine countries, seven of which have had armies on its soil in the past 30 years. In 1998 the Rwandans invaded, citing the need to combat Hutu rebel units that had fled into Congo; a claim somewhat undermined, as their armies headed not for the Hutu encampments but for the mineral mines in the north-east of the country, where foreign-backed militia continue to loot and kill. On 24 February 2003, before the UN arrived in Congo, rebel militias entered Bogoro - a village near the small town of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province in the north-east, close to the Ugandan and Sudanese borders - and killed more than 200 people, a crime for which the militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui are now on trial at the International Criminal court in The Hague.

One afternoon, I went out on patrol with Banbat 7, the Bangladeshi peacekeeping battalion in Bunia, and there I met a woman named Banébuné; she was 13 when the militia raided her village that February day seven years ago. "They were killing with machetes," she said. "They were saying, 'Don't waste bullets - just slash them.' There was so much blood. Children, old people, even pregnant women - anyone who couldn't run was cut down."

How did the FARDC army respond? "They did nothing." I asked Banébuné how she felt about the people that raided her village. "I cannot forgive them," she told me. "Only God can forgive. I pray to him that justice will find those that did this."

Another villager called Mwengwe picked up the story. He used to farm cows but the militia stole them, he said. "When we heard the firing, we all fled to the school." But the militia were waiting in the classroom where we now stood. "I jumped out of the window and ran away.

I wasn't alone; there were many of us running. But on the way so many were killed. I lost my mother and two of my sisters [in the slaughter]." As we were leaving, Mwengwe asked if someone from the government would put head­stones on the graves as had been promised.

In July 2003, the UN passed Resolution 1493, bringing Chapter VII to the Congo. Back at base, General Hasan, the Bangladeshi commander, spoke of how effective it had been. "A peacekeeper is the most constrained man," he said. "Chapter VII enabled us to properly protect civilians. "

The last rebel attack was in February this year. Militias had emerged from the bush to shoot dead three villagers before fleeing. The situation remains uneasy, but there has at least been an improvement and local people feel safer. "Guns are a last resort - to save people who don't have guns," General Hasan said. "So it is for the greater good."

It is the UN mission, bolstered by Chapter VII, that has made the difference in Bunia, not the Congolese army. But a larger conflict still smoulders. I travelled on a UN helicopter 300 miles further north to the town of Dungu, in the Haut Uélé district, where the murderous Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army has its stronghold. Led by the notorious Joseph Kony, a high-school drop-out who believes he is God's spokesman on earth, the LRA has, since its formation in 1986, kidnapped as many as 30,000 children and displaced over a million people. In 2005 the government of President Yoweri Museveni forced Kony and his followers to flee Uganda; they settled in Congo's Garamba National Park. They have been killing and raping ever since.

In 2008, Congo, Uganda and South Sudan undertook a joint military campaign against the LRA, "Operation Lightning Thunder", but which failed to kill Kony and his lieutenants, who disappeared into the bush. They took their revenge on the local population. On 24 and 25 December, the LRA simultaneously attacked three surrounding Congolese towns, and 500 people were killed in what became known as the Christmas Massacres. The LRA remains the main threat to peace in this part of the country; the freedom it has to strike will be a test of both the UN and of FARDC's efficacy and of the possibility of lasting stability in Congo.

At Dungu airport, we were greeted by a Tunisian peacekeeper in a battered Jeep, with one door hanging from its hinge. The Jeep's tyres churned up red dust as it sped along a dirt track on the approach to the Guatemalan special forces base, a few kilometres from Gar­amba. A ten-foot-high barbed-wire security fence surrounded the camp, with watchtowers at each corner of the perimeter. Three white tents, with "UN" emblazoned across them, 30 feet long and ten feet wide, were home to 80 soldiers. Three UN Jeeps, with mounted machine-guns, lined the dirt courtyard, and near­by helicopters took off and landed.

The FARDC camp was located 30 metres away along the same dirt track. In place of gates there was only a makeshift barrier - a gnarled tree trunk that was raised and lowered by a bored soldier. A huge white tent was home to a group of 100 men. The front two poles of the tent had fallen down and the whole thing was close to collapse. Two rusty Soviet-era Jeeps were parked next to the tent. Someone had painted "FARDC" on a piece of cardboard and hung it by the entrance. This was the camp of the troops who will be required to protect the people once the UN peacekeepers have gone.

The Guatemalans are on the front line of the peacekeeping mission and, after much argument, I was allowed to go out on patrol with them to Dungu. The patrols, explained our guide, Private Byron Monzon, were vital because of the LRA threat in the region.

It began to rain heavily as we set off and our vehicle was soon sluicing across the saturated, pitted road. A soldier sat at the mounted machine-gun. "As far as we know, the LRA have rocket launchers," Monzon said as we drove along Dungu's main street. Children played in pools of mud, and women - it is always women - struggled beneath improbably heavy loads.

We were meeting Rémy Sitako, a local priest. "Since the LRA arrived, things have worsened," he said, sitting in his gloomy office, lit by single splinter of light from a tiny window. "They commit massacres and burn houses. Sometimes they mutilate. They cut off people's lips and ears . . . I believe some undisciplined elements in the Congolese army are also involved."

What did he think of the UN and its peacekeeping mission? "Occasionally, they take part in joint operations to re-establish security.

This is reassuring. But we would like them to intervene more." What if they were to leave? "Insecurity is still too high. If they go now, there will be a catastrophe."

The key to security is the night patrols. The LRA uses the cover of darkness to scavenge from or raid local villages. One evening, out on patrol, we travelled with two platoons for safety as our armoured personnel carrier cut its way through maize fields. On the edge of the town, we paused alongside a bridge straddling a stream. What happened next happened very quickly: without warning our vehicle surged across the bridge and swerved to the right, creating a protective shield for the three Jeeps ­behind it. Six soldiers jumped out and formed an armoured wall while four more soldiers fanned out across the bridge. There were guttural shouts in Spanish and another six soldiers from the Jeep behind ran into thickets of bush either side of us. Gun-mounted lights crisscrossed in the gloom. Monzon whistled and two villagers emerged from the darkness. The LRA had been sighted two kilometres to the north, they said, not close enough for engagement but close enough for alarm. Monzon was relaxed enough: troops from the LRA will not attack tonight, he said. They do not like to fight those who can fight back.

Spend any time in Congo and you quickly become articulate in the language of international diplomacy - "failed state", "nation-building", "peacekeeping" and so on. On the ground, you understand the hollowness of all such talk. But on that night patrol in Dungu, I understood the importance of the UN's continuing role in the country, because it is the peacekeepers alone who have the means to protect the people.

There is a fundamental political difference in Congo today between the government and the UN: the latter wants greater transparency and democracy; President Kabila wants nothing of the kind. He wants the UN peacekeepers out; the UN fears the violence that would follow its departure. The UN mission is underfunded, overstretched and imperfect. Tens of thousands of innocents continue to suffer, as was shown by the recent mass rape of around 200 women in Luvungi, only 20 miles from a UN base.

Congo works on Darwinian arithmetic. The strong oppress the weak, as they have done for as long as Europeans have been present in this part of Africa. However, in Dungu and in many other places like it, a thin blue line of UN peacekeepers is all that separates the people from the cruelty and violence of the Lord's Resistance Army and from many other rebel groups like them. It is a bleak truth that, without the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, Congo would collapse again into a chaos of violence and destruction; and with its mineral-hungry neighbours still meddling in the country and ethnic hatreds simmering, Congo's war will once more be Africa's war.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo