Spies and their lies

British intelligence has long used clandestine "deniable briefings" to release information real and

My secret life began, as if scripted by P G Wodehouse, with an invitation to tea at the Ritz.

The call came at the end of the first week of May 1992. I was the Observer's home affairs correspondent, and at the other end of the line was a man we shall call Tom Bourgeois, special assistant to "C", Sir Colin McColl, the then chief of the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS (or MI6, as it is more widely known) was "reaching out" to selected members of the media, Bourgeois explained, and over lunch a few days earlier with McColl, my editor, Donald Trelford, had suggested that I was a reliable chap - not the sort, even years later, to betray a confidence by printing an MI6 man's real name.

Would I like an informal, off-the-record chat? You bet I would. "I make no apologies for the cliché," Bourgeois said, "since we do need a way to spot each other. I will be in the lobby, with a rolled-up copy of the Times."

Over the eclairs and Darjeeling a day or two later, Bourgeois explained that while the service - "the Office", as it is invariably termed by insiders - had always had a few, very limited contacts with journalists and editors, it now felt the need to put these arrangements on a broader and more formal basis. After eight decades in which the very existence of MI6 had been an official secret, the Tory prime minister, John Major, had just avowed it in the House of Commons for the first time - part of a process of incipient glasnost, Bourgeois said.

From time to time, he went on, it might be possible to "give me a steer", and if things worked out we might progress from meeting for tea to luncheon. Of course, he would be extremely constrained as to what he might ever be able to say about real, individual spy cases. If potential MI6 sources started to think their handlers might start blabbing about them to the papers, the Office's work would soon become impossible. Nevertheless, there would be things I might find interesting that would not compromise sources or security. Anyway, here was his number.

As a youngish, ambitious hack, I was enthralled. Bourgeois, a tall, slim man with an air of effortless urbanity, seemed to exude clandestine glamour - and future scoops. He was also refreshingly upfront about why the Office was taking steps to open up; as I put it in a somewhat breathless Observer feature that weekend, with the end of the Cold War, it recognised "its place in society" was going to change. "For the first time, the service is aware that it needs to protect its image, and that as it prepares to move into new and expensive postmodernist offices on the south bank of the Thames, it needs public relations." Or, to put it more cynically, it needed the media to trumpet its continued usefulness, lest the Treasury respond to the vanishing of the Soviet threat by slashing its budget.

Even then, the conditions that Bourgeois laid down struck me as odd, and perhaps a little onerous. Our conversations would not merely be off-the-record, and hence attributable in print to an unnamed MI6 official. In public I would have to pretend they had never happened, and if I wanted to quote or paraphrase anything Bourgeois said, I would have to use a circumlocution so vague as to make it impossible for any reader to realise that I had spoken to someone from the Office at all. Should I breach these conditions, Bourgeois made clear, I could expect instant outer darkness: the refusal of all future access. MI6, in other words, would maintain a priceless advantage, a quality regarded as essential in intelligence operations of many kinds - what spies call "plausible deniability". And if, heaven forfend, the service told me something that turned out to be mistaken, or even tried to plant sheer disinformation for who knows what purpose, there would be no comeback, no accountability. I could put up, or shut up.

At the time, I pushed my misgivings to the back of my mind, accepting Bourgeois's assurance that eventually MI6 would like to have an ordinary public press office like the Home Office or Department of Health. After all, as he pointed out, "the friends" across the Atlantic, the US Central Intelligence Agency, had long had such a bureau - an entire public affairs division - without apparent harm.

Fifteen years later, this promised development has not come to pass, and both MI6 and MI5, the Security Service (whose deniable press officer I also came to know), maintain exactly the system that Bourgeois described at the Ritz.

Every national paper and broadcasting outlet has one - and usually, only one - reporter to whom each agency will speak, provided they observe the niceties. For these fa voured few, there will be access likely to grow as the journalist proves his or her "worth", along with considerable perks.

One of the things that made me uneasy about my lunches with MI5 and MI6, which usually took place at very expensive restaurants, is that, in a reversal of usual journalistic practice, the agency men insisted on paying, often with wads of cash, presumably to protect their "cover". Later, there were boozy dinners at headquarters with C or MI5's director general, flanked by their brightest and best; briefings not just from the deniable PR man but officials involved with operations; and, most useful of all, a mobile phone number in case of urgent need at evenings and weekends. (To my chagrin, I never got as far as one reporter colleague who was plied with champagne and strawberries as a guest of MI6 at the centre court for the Wimbledon men's semi-final.)

Underpinning the link between the spies and coalface hacks is further contact with editors. As befits editors' status, the spooks try a little harder to impress them. One editor told me how, a few weeks after he first occupied his chair, he was asked to lunch with the then MI6 boss, Richard Dearlove. Not for him a taxi, or a frisk by security in order to get in: his hosts sent a limo to pick him up, then whisked him from Britain's most secret underground car park direct to C's suite.

Full disclosure: both agencies decided to stop speaking to me several years ago, in circumstances that at first I found infuriating. (Quite why MI6 cut me off, I never found out, but I have been told that MI5 objected to several interviews I carried out with Britons released from Guantanamo Bay who said that MI5 staff had been complicit in their treatment and interrogation while in US custody. It wasn't that this was untrue, but it was apparently regarded as "deeply unhelpful".)

This article is not, however, the product of sour grapes. It is my honest belief that the way Britain's spooks deal with the media has simply become untenable, gravely damaging journalists and spies alike.

Questionable motives

In 2004, the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the only independent body with powers to call the agencies to account, announced that it planned to hold an inquiry into the relationship between the spooks and the fourth estate, suggesting it was time for a wide-ranging debate. In the event, few journalists offered to give evidence, and the committee's conclusions, published in its 2005 annual report, were disappointingly bland: "The government is trying to balance the need to inform people about issues that affect them, such as the terrorist threat to the UK, whilst still protecting the agencies' work. This is a difficult balance, which requires further thought." Indeed, it does.

Twenty years ago, the Independent, led by its now much-missed political editor, the late Tony Bevins, began a campaign to reform the Westminster lobby by withdrawing from the twice-daily briefings to correspondents by the then prime minister's spokesman, the doughty Bernard Ingham. Since then, political reporting has changed beyond recognition. When Labour came to power in 1997, Alastair Campbell's comments on behalf of Tony Blair became attributable to "the prime minister's spokesman" and, eventually, to him and his successors by name. But in 1987 the lobby rules were essentially the same as those that govern briefings from MI5 and MI6 today. Like them, lobby meetings were then not merely off the record, but deniable, and those who broke the rules risked expulsion from future sessions - so making it impossible, it was believed, for transgressors to do their jobs (though Bevins and his colleagues soon demonstrated otherwise).

The old system's drawbacks had long seemed obvious, and were often canvassed, especially in magazines such as this. The lobby rules were a licence to manipulate coverage and a way of settling political scores, a game in which journalists and voters held few cards. "Lobbies of all kinds are a conspiracy against the customer, the reader," says Peter Preston, who as editor of the Guardian also campaigned for reform. "They enable the reporter to say, 'Look how clever I am. I've got this amazing source, but I'm not going to tell you who it is, so you're just going to have to trust me.' The trouble is, the in formation may well not be trustworthy at all - from either a prime ministerial spokesman or MI6."

By definition, a reporter cannot publicly question information from a deniable briefing. They must swallow it whole, or not at all. As Andreas Whittam Smith, the Independent's editor when its campaign began, pointed out in an article he wrote looking back in 2002, the old lobby rules tended "to enforce a consensus". This suited everyone: while the PM's spokesman got his message out unmodified, "When a repor ter writes along the same lines as everybody else, he or she cannot be blamed if things turn out differently." Unfortunately, he noted, "Reporters as a group are often completely wrong." As spies can be . . .

My unhappy part

To my everlasting regret, I strongly supported the Iraq in vasion, in person and in print. I had become a recipient of what we now know to have been sheer disinformation about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his purported "links" with al-Qaeda - claims put out by Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. I took these stories seriously because they were corroborated by "off-the-record" intelligence sources on both sides of the Atlantic. I am certain that those to whom I spoke at MI6 acted then in good faith. I remember one particular conversation I had with an official in the early summer of 2003, not long before Andrew Gilligan's BBC broadcast about the government having "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqi WMDs in September 2002. Already it was becoming apparent that the threat had probably been a chimera. "Don't worry," my source said soothingly. "We'll find them. We're certain they're there. It's just taking longer than we expected. Keep your nerve."

Since then, the cloak of plausible deniability has allowed those same spooks to claim they never believed in WMDs at all, and that they were the victims of neocon and Blairite pressure. One source in particular I find particularly hard to forgive - a very senior US official who told me time and again that Saddam really did have operational links with al-Qaeda, only to state very publicly much later that the CIA had never properly endorsed this view, and that its dissemination was all the fault of the Bush administration and Chalabi.

MI5 also told me deniable codswallop in the febrile weeks after 9/11. At one lunch, an official insisted that the preachers Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada - now said by the same agency to have been Britain's most dangerous men throughout the 1990s - were "harmless rent-a-gobs" who might have a high public profile, but had no hard links with jihadist terrorism.

More recent media briefings seem equally questionable. After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, MI5 told its stable of reporters that the bombers had all been "clean skins" who had been completely unknown to them; later they said there appeared to be "no connection" between the 7/7 cell and the failed 21/7 group who tried to repeat the atrocities a fortnight later. Only two years later, thanks to evidence given in criminal trials, did it become clear that both claims were false. In fact, the two leaders of the 7/7 gang, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shazad Tanweer, had been observed by MI5 surveillance officers at least four times, and were known to be connected to another, now convicted, terrorist cell. But MI5 had decided to leave them alone while both men had apparently trained in Pakistan, at the same time as the 21/7 group.

By misleading journalists, and thereby delaying these disclosures, MI5 bought time. Had the truth come out in the immediate wake of the attacks, the Security Service might well have been much more sharply criticised, and the demand for a public inquiry might have become irresistible.

On other occasions, spook briefings have often seemed related to questionable policy goals, such as tougher legislation in the name of counter-terrorism. There may well be arguments for such measures, just as there are strong civil libertarian arguments against them. But, for years now, the agencies have tried to load the scales of this debate with a torrent of deniable briefings about blood-curdling threats from al-Qaeda which, thankfully, have yet to materialise, from dirty bombs to plots to "take down the internet", to say nothing of a long series of stories about Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

The 7/7 attacks proved that the terrorist threat was not chimerical. Yet, for many months before, it seemed barely a week passed without the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner broadcasting items that had clearly been briefed by MI5 and could be reduced to a single sentence: "Be very afraid."

Spy agencies, Preston says, "are always on a war footing, and almost nothing they ever say is checkable or necessarily true". In this sense, their present relationship with the media is more dangerous than the old lobby system: under that, at least, there were other accessible sources through which Downing Street's claims could be measured. Usually, Preston says, with spies there is none. "That doesn't mean it's always all spin and propaganda. But it could be, and some of it will be. It's often there for a reason we know nothing about - internal feuding; inter-agency rivalry; being pissed off over something with the Americans - it could be anything."

Pure disinformation

It's easy to see why deniable briefings hurt the cause of reliable journalism, and make it much easier for the agencies to manipulate the media. Less obviously, they can damage the agencies themselves. It doesn't take long for a journalist to pick up the codes through which the comments of MI5 and MI6 are attributed, such as "Whitehall security sources". Over the years, I listened as the spook spokesmen expostulated about national reporters who used such tags and attached them to quotations and stories that, they insisted, were pure fiction, saying that their authors had never spoken to officers at all. Alas: unable to confirm anything on the record, the agencies could not issue denials, either.

Why have the media put up with this situation without protest for so long? One reason, aside from the lunches and limos, is that editors are extremely reluctant to lose the access they have: the spooks' stories may be unreliable, but they often make good copy, and if everyone else is peddling the same errors, it doesn't much matter if they turn out to be untrue. Another, as a seasoned BBC correspondent put it to me, may be a judgement that if MI5 and MI6 sometimes peddle disinformation, many viewers and readers may not very much care, as "we're all on the same side".

Yet there are powerful counter-arguments and, says John Lloyd, the former NS editor who is director of journalism at the Reuters Institute at Oxford, they have become stronger as the agencies have shifted roles. "During the Cold War, their main concerns were remote from most people's lives," says Lloyd. "Now, when they're concentrating on domestic terrorism and subversion . . . their public exposure is much greater. This kind of secrecy becomes more objectionable the more they become part of daily life. It will always be difficult for reporters to verify or refute secret intelligence, but we should at least be able to state openly what the source of a story is. Increasing their accountability will also increase the confidence the public has in the agencies."

Time for a change

Some in the intelligence world itself agree. One senior, recently retired MI6 officer says that, from the spooks' point of view, the disadvantages of the present system now far outweigh any benefits: "The need is for a properly staffed, formal press office. Then, if there is a trashy story, we can put our heads above the parapet and say: 'This is rubbish.' It's a basic professional service that we should be providing, and it can be very easily done in a way that eliminates the risk of revealing damaging information about our sources and methods.

"As for talking only to a select few reporters, it's simply wrong in a democratic society where we're supposed to be accountable - and also counterproductive, because it's going to make the rest instinctively hostile. America, Australia and Canada have managed with on-the-record press officers for years. Unfortunately, the current chief [Sir John Scarlett] seems to take the view that no news is good news. Given our current preoccupations, that's not only wrong, but naive."

A normal press office might, the former officer reflected, have saved the life of David Kelly, the weapons expert who killed himself after being exposed as having talked to Gilligan before he broadcast the claim that Alastair Campbell had "sexed up" the Iraq dossier. "What people forget is that Kelly briefed a lot of reporters about WMDs, not only those we thought were held by Iraq, by tacit agreement with his employers. Much of the fuss and speculation that followed the invasion, and maybe his death, might have been prevented if there had been an on-the-record press officer available."

Adopting the US model may not be the answer. Milton Bearden, the former head of the CIA's Soviet and eastern Europe division who also led the CIA's covert campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, warns that journalists' relationships with spooks leave much to be desired. "The energy in the UK seems to be devoted to keeping the media at bay," Bearden says. "In the US, our style has been to spin them into submission. You don't want to get starry-eyed about the way we do business [at the CIA headquarters] in Langley, Virginia." He says he knows of cases where reporters have been taken into agents' confidence - and spun pure disinformation, no less pernicious for being on the record. "There is a structural problem here. The interests of journalists and those of secret intelligence agencies just don't always coincide."

What seems certain is that the debate heralded by the Commons intelligence committee two years ago is long overdue. Meanwhile, I would like to extend a standing invitation to the staff of MI5 and MI6 to join me at the Ritz, or any other London eatery of their choice. In the unlikely event that anyone decides to accept, I make only one condition: I'll pay.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies

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 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies