One nation undivided under God

Up until 2005, Indonesia seemed sure to succumb to a wave of Islamist terror. But, in the post-Suhar

On the morning of 17 July 2009, the Dutch businessman Max Boon arrived at the J W Marriott in Jakarta for a monthly breakfast meeting organised by his consulting firm, Castle Asia. At 7.50am, as Boon and 17 other executives were sitting around a long dining table at the eastern end of the hotel, a man walked in and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. Five minutes later, a second bomb exploded at the nearby Ritz Carlton. Nine people died and 52 were injured, including the young Dutchman, who had to have both of his legs amputated and suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said to have wept when, a month after the bombings, he received a letter from Boon, now in a wheelchair, congratulating him on independence day - 17 August. "He may have lost his legs," declared SBY (as the president is universally known), "but not his heart, spirit or mind." Jakarta newspapers later ran photographs on their front pages of Boon being ­embraced by Yudhoyono. "Indonesia is not a dangerous place to live," said the Dutchman, who announced his intention to stay on in the country and to marry his long-term Indonesian girlfriend.

The July 2009 attacks were not the first on symbols of western corporate power and affluence. The Marriott had been hit before, in 2003, as was the Australian embassy the following year, while bombs were set off on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and 2005. Over 250 people died as a result of these attacks, all believed to have been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the south-east Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite being the fourth most populous country in the world, and the 16th-largest economy, Indonesia seldom features in the British media, except for the wrong reasons. Islamist terrorism. The massacre of Christians in East Timor. The western province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, making adultery punishable by stoning to death. Sharia courts handing down barbaric judgments, such as the one on a pregnant, married mother-of-two who was convicted of soliciting in 2006 - the evidence being that she had lipstick and face powder in her handbag as she waited for a bus home after work. The national parliament approving an anti-obscenity law that allows for sentences of up to ten years for "modelling" for pornography and four years for mere possession of pornographic material.

The impression is of a country teetering on the brink of extremism. The anxiety, expressed by the US senator Christopher Bond in his recent book The Next Front: South-East Asia and the Road to Global Peace With Islam, is this:

The region is home to one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims on earth . . . At 250 million, they outnumber the entire Muslim Middle East. The world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is Indonesia, 220 million [now 240 million], three times the largest Arab country, Egypt. But the Muslims of south-east Asia do not register in our mind's eye . . . Moderation is losing the high moral ground . . . Muslims we had considered moderate - or "mainstream" - began to take on the fundamentalist trappings of Arabs . . .

Bond concludes: "We can no longer afford this complacency and the ignorance it breeds." Yet, arriving at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, named after Indonesia's two greatest independence leaders (and retaining the old, Dutch spelling of Sukarno), visitors see little sign of religious affiliation of any kind. Far fewer women cover their head than in neighbouring Malaysia, where only 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, in contrast to Indonesia, with nearly 90 per cent. As you travel east into Jakarta, the city sprawls over a coastal plain of 255 square miles, from the docks in the north by the Java Sea down to the hills in the south. Mosques can be seen from the choked expressways, but the dominant architecture is of concrete, jostling for space with offices, malls and shiny new hotels.

Over coffee at the Pondok Indah Mall, Zuhairi Misrawi of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's 30 million-strong Muslim organisation, advances a theory of startling moderation. "In NU we believe that the struggle for Indonesia is more meaningful than the struggle for Islam," he says, "because we love our country. It says in the Sunnah that to love your country is to believe in your God."

Zuhairi, who is 33 and trim in his crisp black and silver shirt, is not a member of the political party associated with NU, the National Awakening Party (PKB). Instead, in last year's elections, he stood for the secular, leftist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), "to support the paradigm of nationalism through Islamic ideas".

It is hard to overstate the strength of nationalist feeling in Indonesia. This archipelago of 17,500 islands was united under the repressive rule of the Dutch, who established their first trading post on Java in 1603 but did not conquer the last parts of their East Indies colonies until the 20th century. While the British returned to Malaya and Borneo after the Second World War, the Dutch were not welcomed back in Indonesia. Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence. The Netherlands' armies did not land until months later, and spent much of the following four years in a brutal attempt to reclaim their empire that outraged world opinion. During the chaos, various "independent" states were set up by the Dutch; both a Soviet republic and an Islamic state were briefly announced by other groups. Even after the Dutch finally departed and Sukarno declared a unitary state in 1950, the mainly Christian area of the South Moluccas proclaimed independence and rebellions broke out on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Nationalism came to represent a "unity in diversity" - or bhinneka tunggal ika - that was as much an aspiration as an achievement for this multi-ethnic, multi-religious land. The words are the national motto, and are inscribed on the country's coat of arms. Two attempts to insert the Jakarta Charter - calling for sharia law to be made mandatory for all Muslims - into the constitution have failed, first in 1945, and again in 1998, during the transition to democracy after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

Faith has always been regarded differently here. "We are totally unlike Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa," Zuhairi tells me. "We even have to import our terrorists." He was referring to the JI leaders Azhari Husin and Noordin Top, both Malaysian, who were shot dead during police raids in 2005 and 2009.

Yet Middle Eastern fundamentalism has made inroads into Indonesian Islam, which is traditionally syncretic. "Before, many people were nominally Muslim, but really they were Hindu or animist," the PDI-P parliamentarian Budiman Sujatmiko says over dinner one evening at the Sultan Hotel, whose towers overlook the huge Gelora Bung Karno, the stadium in which President Obama was expected to have delivered a speech during a visit to Indonesia this year, twice postponed.

The language of fundamentalist Islam, whether being proposed by those who truly believe in it or by those merely using it for electoral advantage, is more widespread. "They are both the problem," Sujatmiko says. "Don't ask me which is better or worse."

The opportunists include the business-based Party of the Functional Groups - Golkar - which dominated the Suharto era. Elections were rigged in Golkar's favour, but the semblance of a vote allowed the dictatorship to claim the country was a democracy. Although its support has collapsed post-Suharto, it still won 14 per cent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Support for the key "fundamentalist" (that is to say, Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) grew from 1.4 per cent in 1999 to 8 per cent last year.

For millennia, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism were the religions of the archipelago. Islam had arrived by the 13th century, but it never claimed all of the islands. Bali remains predominantly Hindu, while Christianity, brought first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, is widespread in the eastern isles. Even where Islam took hold, it overlay rather than obliterated pre-existing belief systems. President Suharto, who ruled from 1967-98, was a Muslim, but he also consulted a dukun, or soothsayer, and made much of his wife's royal lineage to draw on the mystical authority historically vested in Javanese rulers. One biographer referred to him as "Indonesia's last sultan".

Under Sukarno, who instituted "guided democracy" in 1957 (the last free elections before 1999 were held in 1955), and then Suharto, "the Indonesian state . . . was practically hostile to Islam", wrote Bahtiar Effendy, professor of political science at the State Islamic University, Jakarta. In consequence, Muslims adopted a "docile religious-political stance". The waves of radicalisation that swept through the Muslim world, first in reaction to the perceived failure of the pan-Arabist nationalist experiment in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, crashed into an impermeable obstacle in Suharto's authoritarian New Order (whose fervent anti-communism gained it such favour in the west that both the US and Australia backed his invasion of East Timor in 1975).

Although most of the population was Muslim, religion was expected to take second place to Pancasila, the five-pillared national ideology that includes belief in "one God" but deliberately does not specify which. Opposition of all kinds was firmly repressed, resulting in either banishment from the country, as in the case of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (who later emerged as JI's spiritual leader), or internal exile, such as the thousands of suspected communists imprisoned on the penal island of Buru in the far east.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Suhar­to regime finally fell, brought down in the middle of the Asian economic crisis by demonstrations, riots, splits in the armed forces and an emboldened opposition. As the political sphere opened to all comers, a multiplicity of parties emerged: 181 between May and October 1998, 42 of which were specifically Islamic.

“We weren't prepared," says Zulkieflimansyah, chief economic strategist for the PKS. Zul and his progressive-minded allies, who want PKS to be inclusive and moderate, thought Suharto wouldn't step down until 2010. They weren't in place when the dictator fell, and the "seniors" who were - PKS has four cabinet ministers today - weren't so forward-thinking. "They were very influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. So people said we were Taliban."

This impression was not helped by PKS's involvement in the passing of the very broadly defined anti-pornography law in October 2008, which was deemed a threat to the erotic dance cultures of Bali and Java and an attempt to impose Islamic values on the non-Muslim east. "Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable," complained one protester at the time.

The Salihara arts complex, in the narrow, winding, low-rise streets of south Jakarta, is one place where the effects of the bill were feared - but never realised. Goenawan Mohamad, a renowned poet and founder-editor of Tempo magazine, says: "The trend to conservatism is unmistakable, more and more women wearing hijabs and so on. What's most worrying is the Islamic militants who might attack your theatre, or seize your books."

Tempo was twice closed down during the New Order. Goenawan's friends were jailed and one was kidnapped, never to be seen again. It must be unnerving to receive death threats. "The first time, yes," he says. "But after that, if I say something blasphemous, people go, 'He's not a famous Muslim intellectual, so what?'"

Goenawan, who is 69, mentions people's attachment to the Pancasila ideology and the strength it gives to those who oppose any attempt to curtail pluralism or free expression. It reaches back into a much older Javanese culture, which has always been very sensual. "It goes far deeper than Wahhabism," he says. "When we say 'unity in diversity', the Muslims can't say anything. We are an archipelagic culture. We have a lot of shores that have always been open to strangers."

Although Pancasila was used partly as an instrument of oppression under Suharto, it also exists to protect liberties.

The day I arrived in Jakarta, anti-government protesters paraded a buffalo named SiBuYa through the streets. The closeness to the president's initials, SBY, was not coincidental. "Under Suharto they would have been shot," Goenawan says.

Confidence may be widespread among Indonesians that their gentle tradition of Islam will endure. The outside world, however, worries. It is little more than a year since the bombs went off in Jakarta; today, hotels and shopping centres insist visitors pass through security scanners before entering. The early release of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, jailed in 2005 in connection with JI terrorist attacks, infuriated Australia and the US. Detachment 88, the country's elite special force unit named in honour of the number of Australians who died in the first Bali bombings of 2002, has had great success in rounding up JI members. What was Indonesia doing releasing the group's spiritual leader so soon?

Goenawan says that criticism was mistaken. "It's good that he's out. Otherwise he would be a hero. Instead, he's a grumpy old man, a joke. Freedom helps. The Muslim Brotherhood flourished under Anwar al-Sadat because Egypt had no democracy. Only a small minority have ever voted for parties here that want an Islamic state. Democracy has the means to quell this."

Through pluralism and confidence in its own traditions, Indonesia, this nation state of 240 million people, offers a different model to the world of what it means to be a democratic, Muslim-majority country. There is unanimity that pursuing the goals of justice and alleviating poverty will ensure that the country's moderation is preserved.

The links with the Middle East will always persist, particularly through al-Azhar University in Cairo and the hajj to Mecca. Al-Azhar is generally considered the oldest university in the world and was historically the greatest centre of Sunni scholarship - so Muslims from Indonesia will always travel there to be educated in theology.

Indonesia has its own centres of Islamic scholarship and moderate networks of pesantren, or Muslim boarding schools. Saudis may fund mosques, it is argued, but the extremist ideology they hope to export along with the buildings fails to take root in a soil too rich and varied for dry, husky seeds from Arabia.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for one, is optimistic. "As I travel around the world," she said during a visit to Jakarta in February last year, "I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

Zulkieflimansyah makes an even greater prediction. "If we can show that Islam and democratic values are compatible, we are confident the future of Islam can be written here in Indonesia," he says. "Otherwise there is no hope."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days