In Iraqi security officer guards a church. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
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Paradise lost: is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

A religious revival is just one of the factors leaving Christians deserting the Middle East. Diversity must be upheld.

The stark cliffs of the Zagros Mountains on the Iran-Iraq border, and the dusty hills and plains that lie between those mountains and the city of Mosul, might seem an unlikely location for paradise. Yet Christians living here in past centuries believed that a local river called the Great Zab had once flowed from Adam and Eve’s garden. Patriarchs of the Christian Assyrian Church of the East living on its banks once signed off their letters with the salutation, “From my cell by the river of Eden”.

These days the Patriarch’s letters are sent from a less romantic spot: 7201 North Ashland Boulevard, Chicago. Successive waves of persecution have driven out the leaders of this ancient, prestigious and little-known church – including Mar Dinkha IV, the present and 120th Patriarch of Babylon, who was consecrated in Ealing, west London, and is based in the United States. As for the Great Zab, this summer it ended up as the de facto border between Kurdish forces on its southern side and the so-called Islamic State (IS) to its north. From being the garden of Adam and Eve, Iraq has become the land of Cain and Abel. Yet even its melancholy recent history can remind us that the religious conflict that scars the modern Middle East is far from inevitable.

In 1987, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.4 million. Since then, the country’s population has doubled but its Christian community has declined to 400,000. Many of these people are now internally displaced because of IS, a Sunni Muslim militant movement that drove them from their homes in August 2014 in its effort to establish an Islamic “caliphate”. The former Christian inhabitants of Mosul and the surrounding towns are now refugees in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region nearby, protected from the summer heat and winter snow only by UN-provided tents erected in local churchyards.

“We were given just a few hours to leave Mosul,” one of the refugees told me last summer in the sun-scorched streets of Erbil,
capital of the Kurdistan Region. “We fled to Qaraqosh [a Christian town just east of Mosul] and then Islamic State came there, too, and we had to flee Qaraqosh.”

He was one of a group of men sitting by the road under the shade of a wall; this was how they spent their days, because the tents in which they slept provided barely enough room at night and were left during the day to the women and children. Unable to afford cigarettes, the men passed the time chatting and then at mealtimes headed to the church-organised canteen that handed out free food. Not that there was much help on offer for them, the refugee said. Nobody cared about them and any aid that was supposed to reach them was being siphoned off. “Nothing like this,” he said dolefully, “has ever happened before.”

Except, it has. The Christians of Iraq have endured worse and survived. Their community in Baghdad was battered in the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and destroyed by the central Asian warlord Tamerlane in 1402: he gave orders that the only things that should be left standing in Baghdad were hospitals and mosques.

Those who survived Tamerlane fled north into the Zagros Mountains, joining others who lived in a band of territory along the northern edge of Iraq and Syria and the southern edge of Turkey. There, in 1915-16, they were caught up in the massacres inflicted by the Ottoman authorities on the Armenians. An estimated 250,000 Syrian and Iraqi Christians were slaughtered, or starved, or died of exposure during forced marches. Others fled to Iran, from where they were in turn displaced to Iraq. Their abandoned homes can still be seen in the now-tranquil towns of southern Turkey.

Unlike with either of these historical horrors, Islamic State’s ability – though not its ambition – to spread murder and oppression among Iraq’s Christians has proved limited. Since its initial successes, IS has been unable to make further inroads into Kurdistan, or fulfil its vainglorious boast that it would capture Baghdad. Muslims, not Christians, have borne the brunt of its brutality. Nonetheless it may manage to achieve what Tamerlane and the Ottomans did not: the final extinction of the Christian community in Iraq.

Deprived of their ancient heartland in and around Mosul, Iraq’s Christians are now divided between Baghdad and Kurdistan. Baghdad houses roughly 100,000 of them; but the very government of Iraq is run by religious partisans from the Shia Muslim sect. A Yazidi activist who tried urging Iraqi parliamentarians in Baghdad to save his people (the Yazidis, who preserve ancient pre-Islamic traditions, are even more vulnerable than the Christians) told me that the lawmakers’ response was that his people could save themselves best by converting to Islam.

The Kurdistan authorities are keener to keep their Christian residents, and apparently their leader, President Masoud Barzani, has discussed a proposal to build new Christian towns within the region’s borders to accommodate the refugees from Mosul. But Kurdistan cannot provide work for all the refugees, and because of its oil economy and the high demand for housing locally, the cost of living there is much higher than in Mosul. For “90 per cent” of the Christian refugees, as more than one of them told me, there is no solution except emigration from the Middle East.

Who are these Christians of Iraq and where did they come from? And how have they come to be on the verge of disappearance from their own homeland?

The Church of the East – which is now split between those who follow Mar Dinkha IV, and others who accept the Pope in Rome as their ultimate spiritual leader – was originally the community of Christians who lived in the Persian empire. Most of them were related to the people of Syria and they spoke a version of Aramaic, which they wrote with Syriac characters. Their form of Christianity evolved in ways that marked them out from their western counterparts.

When looking to expand and spread their beliefs, they looked not west towards Europe, but east, towards India and China. They were the first to introduce Christianity to the Chinese and the Mongols and to this day the Mongolians use an alphabet based on Syriac characters. Genghis Khan’s daughters-in-law were Christian and eventually the Church of the East had a Mongolian patriarch. A network of monasteries and churches spread eastwards from Baghdad to Beijing, encompassing a bishopric of Tibet and another in Kashgar, a Silk Route city in western China.

Much of this happened while the patriarch of the Church of the East was living under Muslim rule, following the Arab conquests of the 630s AD. Along with followers of other pre-Islamic religions, Baghdadi Christians were used by the Muslim Arabs as decipherers of Greek science and occasionally as ministers and advisers. The patriarch was permitted to debate theology with the Muslim caliph.

And yet, subsequently, the fortunes of Christians in the Middle East declined. Perhaps it was inevitable, as their numbers dwindled and their power waned, that they would be exploited by rapacious governments. This was exacerbated by conflicts between Christian and Muslim states, including the Crusades. However, it also coincided with the collapse of the Arab caliphate and the rise of others – such as Turks and Mongols – who had the zeal of new converts, saw religion as the binding force that legitimised their own rule and were not attracted by the rationalist tendencies that had once been popular in Baghdad. In an Arab world ravaged by conflict and ruled by outsiders, few intellectuals remained who could resist populist dogmatic conservatism.

A similar change has happened in the Arab world in the past half-century. In the 19th century, as the Ottoman empire decayed, resurgent nationalism went hand in hand with religious emancipation. The rulers of Egypt, for example, wanted to promote an Egyptian identity in which Christians, Muslims and Jews could all participate. Between 1860 and 1930 Egypt had three Christian prime ministers. To be sure, the ruler was always a Muslim, because Egypt was a monarchy; but let’s remember that Britain to this day has never had a Catholic prime minister and that Spain only revoked the 1492 expulsion of its Jews in 1968. So, parts of the mostly Muslim Middle East were heading towards religious equality faster than Europe.

As nationalism spread across the Arab world, other Christians took prominent positions. One, Michel Aflaq, was a founder of the Ba’ath Party, which ruled Iraq and still rules part of Syria. Christians led two Palestinian nationalist movements and some played a part in the Kurdish national movement. Others were leading communists, attracted by an ideology that also offered equality to religious minorities. Even as late as 2003 Iraq still had a Christian, Tariq Aziz, as its deputy prime minister. (He is in prison, enduring desperate conditions.) This is not, by the way, an endorsement of any of those entities, which could be ruthless to those who opposed them. But they were at least movements that were open to any who wanted to join them.

In the Middle East over the past few decades, by contrast, the most popular movements have been religious. Islamic zealots came to power in Iran’s revolution in 1979, the postwar Iraqi elections of 2005 and Egypt’s presidential elections in 2012. Religious observance has risen, too. In the 1950s attendance at the yearly Ashura procession in Karbala, Iraq, was so thin that a senior cleric felt the need to launch a movement to rekindle religious sentiment. In 2014, two million people attended the festival. Meanwhile, the clerics’ political movement, called the Islamic Dawa Party, has taken over the government of Iraq.

Why the religious revival? In my years in the Arab world working as a diplomat, I often debated this question with Arab friends, almost all of them believing Muslims, who nonetheless felt alienated by the rise of fundamentalist Islam. Is it caused by poverty, or the lack of democracy, or the failure of the rule of law? No: the revival has happened also among Muslims in the west, and in relatively democratic and prosperous countries such as Turkey, as well as autocratic ones. (Indeed, some of the poorest of Muslims – in remote parts of Afghanistan, for instance – are among the least radical.)

Is it because of colonial injustices, sometimes described as “Muslim grievances”? To some extent: yet these grievances were once seen as ethnic, or class-related, rather than religious; and often the victims of these colonial injustices, most obviously in Palestine, included Christians as well as Muslims. Is it because the conflict between Shias and Sunnis has heightened people’s sense of their religious identity? Yes, but that only raises a further question of why the conflict happened along religious lines in the first place.

The more fundamental reasons are fivefold. First, money: formerly provided to left-wing movements by the Soviet Union, now plentifully available from Iran for Shia revolutionaries and from the Arab Gulf for those who are most hostile to Iran, many of them Sunni Islamists. Second, the defeat of nationalist governments by Israel in the 1967 war and the subsequent failure of secular authorities and movements to capture the public imagination and loyalty. In Egypt, according to recent Gallup polling, religious authorities (Christian or Muslim) command the respect of 92 per cent of the population, far ahead of any other institution. Third, the connivance of western governments – and Israel, in fact – in the rise of
Islamist movements in the 1970s, when they were seen as a safe alternative to nationalists and communists. Fourth, the weakness of the education system in many Arab states, whose heavy focus on rote learning reinforces dogmatic literalism, and which often does little to educate students about cultures and religions other than Islam.

The last reason is perhaps even more significant. The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has written about what he calls the “intense religiosity of the urban migrant”, who sees religion as a way to protect himself and his family from the temptations of urban life. The rise in religiosity in the Muslim world has coincided with mass migration to the cities. It has also coincided with globalisation, which has undermined indigenous Arab cultures, leaving religion as the sole clear criterion of identity and the focus of national pride. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover how many of IS’s supporters had previously appeared to be thoroughly westernised: this is perhaps the very reason they feel such a passionate need to recapture their sense of being separate and different.

Although the rise of religious exclusionism and violence is a large part of the reason for Christian migration, it also happens for more ordinary reasons: economics, for example. The precipitate shrinkage of the Iraqi Christian community after 1987 did not begin with the 2003 war, nor with the rise to power of Islamist parties in 2005, nor even the 2014 massacres. It began instead with the sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which prompted middle-class Christians to seek refuge in the US, where many had relatives, following previous waves of persecution.

There are still more than ten million non-Muslims in the Arab world, the great majority of whom are Christians. And even if almost all of them leave within the next half-century, they will survive in exile, at least for a few generations, though transplanted to western countries devoid of any of their ancient shrines and monasteries. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians now live in the sprawling suburbs of metropolitan Detroit in the US. They have tried hard to hold on to their heritage – largely marrying among themselves, and even maintaining their Aramaic language among their children and grandchildren.

The Middle East is greatly poorer for their absence. After the failure of their attempt to hold violently on to power in Lebanon, the Christians have become an increasingly neutral group politically. Their presence is often a liberalising factor, because, as a people exempt from Islamic law, they are a reason why states cannot seek to impose sharia on all their citizens (a reason, of course, why they are targeted by extremists). Without the Christians, the region will be even less liberal and more monochrome, and will risk becoming more isolated.

The Middle East would also lose a part of the heritage and history that all its people, Muslim or Christian, have in common. For the Christian communities have preserved parts of their nations’ heritage: Aramaic in Iraq, pharaonic hymns in Egypt. Their diversity (there are innumerable sects) reflects the region’s history, each sect tracing its origin to the political developments of one era or another. The schools that Christians run in the Middle East, open to Muslims, have educated generations of Arabs.

There is one further and wider point that the survival of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities makes. By their continuity and sheer existence in the Middle East, these communities remind us that the Islamic world has not always been the bloody tragedy that it is today. It has seen much violence over the centuries, true;
but it has also been strengthened by its own diversity, and coexistence between the various religions. It was at its best and most flourishing when it treated diversity as a strength and not a weakness. We all lose if that lesson is forgotten.

Gerard Russell is a former British and UN diplomat. He is the author of “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East”, newly published by Simon & Schuster

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East