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“I thought al-Qaeda was recruiting me”: can we spot when terrorism is a delusion?

If there’s one thing more controversial than the idea of a link between terrorism and religion, it’s a link between terrorism and mental health.

Amr isn’t sure when he started “acting weird”. It was 2007, and he was a “know-it-all” teenager in his first year of university, with romantic ideas about intellectuals. He smoked weed every day, tried magic mushrooms, and listened to a lot of classic rock.

“I was sending really strange texts and emails to a few people,” he recalls, ten years on. “They were like, ‘Oh, he must be stoned, must be high’.” Although Amr is a British citizen, of Syrian-Palestinian heritage, he grew up in Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, where his family still lived when he moved to London to start university. One grandmother in Hounslow aside, he was alone.

“All the Eighties and Nineties rock music that I liked, which was probably all written in drug-addled states,  they shared these metaphors – keys, doors, getting to the other side,” he says. “It started to build up. I believed there was this secret and by taking acid, shrooms, you would unlock an ability to access this other side.”

The rock metaphor soon spiralled into a full-blown conviction that there was a parallel world, called Three – the mobile network Amr was on at the time. “In this other world, we’re telepathic, and essentially this telepathy unaided doesn’t have a long range. But what Three does is it acts as a mobile phone carrier for the normal world and then in the world of Three you can use it to extend the range of your telepathic abilities.”

If Amr’s fantastical world sounds very Noughties, then it just got a bit more so. He began to hear messages, from a very Noughties villain. “It was a kind of Osama bin Laden figure” with a “radical Islamist look – old army fatigues, a big beard, a Kalashnikov.” In other words, “the bogey man”.


If there’s one thing more controversial than the idea of a link between terrorism and religion, it’s the link between terrorism and mental health. In September 2016, three psychiatrists warned in the British Medical Journal that linking terrorism with mental illness fuelled stigma. In the Independent, Will Gore warned against “creating a kind of homogenised bogeyman figure – a religious fundamentalist afflicted by mental illness”.

Counter to this is the complaint that mental health is too often used to excuse right-wing terrorism. This attitude is not restricted to the dusty corners of the right, as became apparent after the conviction of Thomas Mair, who attended far-right rallies before murdering the pro-refugee MP Jo Cox. Louise Mensch, the former Tory MP, suggested Mair’s trial was unfair because his mental health did not feature. BBC veteran broadcaster John Humphrys said: “It slightly muddies the water, doesn’t it, when we talk about that as terrorism?”

Counter-terrorism officials, though, remain extremely interested in mental health and its relationship to both Islamist and right-wing extremism. Under the Prevent programme, NHS staff are encouraged to refer individuals they believe to be at risk of extremism, by assessing factors including mental and psychological health problems. In October 2016, Prevent piloted a scheme where psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health nurses were recruited to work directly alongside its officers.

The initiative began after Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust looked at individuals referred for radicalisation, and found up to half exhibited “a broad range of mental health and psychological difficulties”. This applied across different ideologies “including Islamist and far-right extremism”. 


“There is something physical about being psychotic,” Amr says. “Your mind is racing at a million miles an hour, you’re sleepless. Maybe the first irrational thinking began by trying to explain that.”

Amr today is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, who works in the same department as Richard Dawkins, the celebrated atheist and author of The God Delusion. I meet him in a grand, carpeted room for academics at St Hilda’s College that looks on to expansive gardens.

Although Amr grew up in religious countries, he decided he was an atheist when he was still an adolescent. He believes his religious delusions began as a kind of skewed logic. “No one will believe something as irrational as a hallucination without a certain amount of reasoning,” he says.

Amr describes his hallucinations as close to reality, rather than dreams. His delusions centred on his mobile phone. “I was hearing messages as clear as you can hear my voice,” he says in the hush of the common room. “It sounds like audio. It sounds as if somebody was in the room, but they’re not physically there and it’s not your voice.” Terror group al-Qaeda was in fact only one of the shadowy recruiters he believed was calling – the others were the CIA, and the Israeli secret service Mossad. The only person he saw in the room was Princess Diana.

At one point, inspired by Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which imagines an alternative Christian history, Amr began to think he was Jesus. “In The Da Vinci Code, the main character is the descendant of Jesus and basically I replaced her with me. It all made sense because I was Palestinian.”

Amr’s sceptical view of religion extends to challenging the idea there is a firm line between faith and delusion. “How many people say I spoke to God last night?” he asks. “George Bush did it on national television. He said God told him to invade Iraq and nobody batted an eye.”


Delusions have been recorded for centuries, but the subject matter of the delusion seems to change over time. A 2013 New Yorker article chronicled the rise of a delusion concerning the film The Truman Show, in which a man realises he is actually the star of a reality TV programme. Noting the ubiquity of phone cameras and the rise of social media, the writer, Andrew Marantz, said: “In the 15 years since The Truman Show was released, its premise has increasingly come to seem nonbizarre.”

According to a 2007 paper in the World Culture Psychiatry Research Review, “Paranoid-hallucinatory Syndromes in Schizophrenia”, different cultures have different delusions. While hallucinations in Christian countries might include the belief the individual was a god, this was unheard of among Pakistani patients. Lithuanian and Polish patients, on the other hand, were most likely to feel apocalyptic guilt. In the UK, a study of old medical case notes found that religious delusions were more common in the 19th century than today.

“There are changes,” says Andrew Sims, a veteran psychiatrist and the author of Is Faith Delusion? “I remember talking to a friend of mine about the moon landing. It was two to three weeks later and he said ‘I have already had a patient who believes he has landed on the moon.’”

Sims, though, argues that the difference between a religious delusion and faith is clear. “We would make the distinction between the content of the delusion and the form of the delusion.

“The form of the delusion is the delusion. The content is usually something highly significant in that person’s life. We get delusions of religion, we get delusions of people believing they’re being stolen from.”

So what about Christians who claim to hear voices? “If a lot of other people in the religious community have the same sort of experience, and he is saying he is hearing these voices, not an outside voice but an inside voice in his head about what he should be doing, that is more likely to be a religious belief.”

Delusions also do not tend to be shared. “In the old days you might find two patients who believed they were the Virgin Mary,” says Sims. “But if Mrs Jones believes she was the Virgin Mary she would not believe Mrs Brown was.”

The distinct characteristics of delusions may be apparent to psychiatrists, but in the wider world, they can be missed. In 2015, Alan Pean, a black Houston student with a history of delusions, tried to drive himself to hospital for psychiatric help, but crashed his car, and was taken to the emergency room instead. His father, a doctor, tried to alert staff to the fact his son was not just physically, but also mentally disturbed. But when Pean refused to follow the nurse’s orders, rather than referring him for psychiatric help, she called security. After an altercation, a police officer shot Pean in his hospital room. Pean, who survived, told the radio programme This American Life he believed the officer had not seen him for what he was – mentally ill – but assumed he was an “angry black guy”.


One day during his delusionary period, Amr went to Hyde Park and ended up at Speaker’s Corner. Using his Palestinian background, he managed to talk his way on to an Islamist soap box.

“I remember getting up and saying ‘I’m not with them, I don’t believe in God by the way.’” Then he went “into an inarticulate rant about Palestine and Israel, maybe got one half-arsed round of applause”.

The stint at Speaker’s Corner was just the start of Amr’s delusions driving his actions in the real world. As they got more intense, he spent several days wandering around London, performing invented rituals.

In one, he lined up his shoes in a park and ran around it barefoot. He sought out zebra crossings, which he believed were connected to the alternate world, and tried to mimic the way The Beatles had walked across the one at Abbey Road. He even slept under a bridge. Much of this was designed to stop the telepathic signals reaching him. “I didn’t want the voices,” he says. “I remember trying to resist them.”

Eventually, worried he would give in to al-Qaeda, Amr decided to turn himself in to the police. He showed up at a station on a Sunday, and tried to hand in his passport to a sleepy receptionist. “I suppose what I was trying to do, retrospectively, was transfer agency away from me because I felt so helpless,” he says. The receptionist, though, handed it back. “He said ‘I understand, come back tomorrow, it’s a Sunday,’” Amr recalls. “Which baffles me to this day.”

Rebuffed, Amr retreated to his room in university halls. He lit candles, stripped naked and began mixing Islamic prayer and meditation. “I went into some weird, intense, solitary moment where I was almost seduced.”

Still unable to rid himself of the voices, he went down to the foyer. There were only two other people there – an Egyptian receptionist, and a woman in a hijab in a glass-walled computer room. “I thought, ‘Aha, they must be the conduits',” Amr says. “I walked over to the computer room, and screamed through the glass at the woman. When the receptionist noticed, I went over to him and screamed for several minutes straight.”


The relationship between mental health and terrorism has been scrutinised by Emily Corner and Paul Gill, two crime scientists from University College London. In a 2017 article, they described this relationship as “far more complex than typically presented”. Lone wolf terrorists were more likely to have a diagnosed disorder than the general population, but were also 13.5 times more likely to have one than group-based terrorists. Of 76 individuals involved in attacks between 2014 and 2016, a history of psychological instability was noted in 21, or more than a quarter.

In another analysis of individual referrals, Corner and Gill found just 10 per cent of those with psychosis were religiously inspired, compared to 15 per cent who had right-wing beliefs and 32 per cent who held a single-issue ideology. 

Corner dismissed the idea of a causal link between mental illness and terrorism – “we have been very clear that mental health doesn’t cause violence” – and the paper she co-authored criticises sensationalist media reporting of “mentalhadists”.

Nevertheless, she notes there have been a number of cases where intervention could have pre-empted an incident: “They were making violent statements, and the reason they went on to act violently was because they didn’t get help.”

The Prevent programme is often criticised for its blunt approach – including from medics who fear it is damaging patient-doctor relations. But Corner, who has interviewed a number of Prevent practitioners, praises it for helping to identify those in need of medical attention.

It is ironic, perhaps, that mental health services could be protected in the name of counter-terrorism, when elsewhere they are in line for NHS budget cuts.

Corner is keen to see all mental health services improved, with more emphasis on the early stages of identifying problems: “When you go through the NHS, unless you’re actually unwell at that stage, booking an appointment for care takes months and months and months.”


After Amr finished screaming, the stunned receptionist called the university dean, who sent him to hospital. He received anti-psychotic medication and was eventually released into the care of his parents. The delusions did not vanish immediately. “Even after I was released I still believed a few things,” he says. He still heard voices. “I eventually joined the CIA because they promised to help with my exams.”

This particular belief helped him to re-join university – “They gave me the answers while I was taking my exams, but the condition was you had to stop talking about the theories.”

Eventually, only Princess Diana was left, whom he considered a guardian. “She would appear crouched on lamp posts.” Then, even she disappeared.

Ten years on, Amr has not experienced delusions again. He feels lucky that he received treatment in time, and wonders how the media would have reported it if his delusions had driven him to do something newsworthy.

“Let’s go to this alternate world, headline, British Muslim – because that’s what I’m going to be, never mind I stopped believing in God at age 12 – from an Arab background who grew up in the Middle East, politically outspoken and opinionated. Was seen in Hyde Park Corner shouting about Palestine, Israel. Has emails of all sorts of opinions, acted weird for several weeks.” He pauses. “If I ran into a crowded space shouted Allahu Akbar…”

He also wonders if he would receive the same medical support today. “With funding cuts to all these services, what we’re ultimately doing is relying on band aids. Entire communities or groups of vulnerable people are barely kept in check.”


“Most people may be intuitively inclined to attribute the willingness to carry out suicide attacks to the offenders’ individual traits,” writes the psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari in his book Driven to Death. “This intuition presumably reflects the notion that there must be something psychologically wrong with, or at least peculiar about, young, physically healthy people who kill themselves willingly.”

Mental health does not explain terrorism, even lone wolf attacks. But mentally ill people watch the news like everyone else. Those experiencing psychotic episodes in 2017 may well have delusions about Islamic State, just as in 2007 an atheist student could have them about al-Qaeda.

The academics I spoke to felt the British police were well-trained in the distinction between a delusion and a genuine ideological motive. As armed police become more common on the streets, this training will be even more important.

Wider society, intentionally or unintentionally, still often blurs the two. On 5 December 2015, Muhiddin Mire, a 30-year-old British Somali man, ran into London’s Leytonstone Tube station with a knife. As he attempted to murder the musician Lyle Zimmerman, he was heard shouting: “This is for Syria.” When Mire was arrested, police found images of Isis on his phone. The incident was initially reported as a terrorist attack.

At Mire’s trial, though, two psychiatrists described how Mire had been previously hospitalised for psychosis, and about a year before the attack had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given anti-psychotic medication, which he was believed to have stopped taking.

Mire was also reported to have visited a local mosque, where he asked to be exorcised of “spirits”. He believed he was being followed, and that Tony Blair was his guardian angel. Mire’s brother told Channel 4 that in August 2015, four months before the attack, “he started calling me up and saying odd things. Not radical…saying he’s seeing demons and stuff.” He called the local authorities and the police to try to get his brother help, but did not succeed.  

Mire’s sentencing illustrates the difficulties society still has distinguishing illness from ideology. He was found guilty of attempted murder, rather than terrorism, and sentenced to life in a psychiatric hospital, rather than a prison. Nevertheless, during the sentencing, Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC said while he accepted the man was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the offence, his "brazen" actions were "an attempt to kill an innocent member of the public for ideological reasons". The Daily Mail called him a “jihadi attacker” in its headline on the story.

Six months after Mire’s trial, the newly-elected US president Donald Trump released a list of “terror attacks” he claimed had not been reported by the European press. The Leytonstone stabbing was one of them.

Zimmerman, the victim of the attack, had a different view. “I was very clear in my mind within a day or so of the attack that it was just a mental health tragedy,” he said at the time. “This guy had had a really profound history of mental illness and his family had been trying to get him help.”

If you're affected by any of the mental health issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Mind helpline on 0300 123 3393.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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.