Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family. Photograph: Getty Images
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Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. But politicians there are less keen to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

On Wednesday 11 October, a group of schoolgirls marched through an affluent area of Kara - chi, holding banners and placards that read: “We are all Malala.” Residents of such areas seldom walk the streets, as they fear robbery or kidnap, so it was a striking move. From Lahore to Islamabad to Peshawar, similar scenes played out all over Pakistan. Both women and men held processions, candlelit vigils and public prayer sessions for Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl and activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin who had boarded her school bus.

Malala came to public attention at the age of 11 when she began to write a blog for BBC Urdu.

It recounted what it was like living under the Taliban in the months after they took control of her native Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, in 2009. Written under the pseudonym “Gul Makai”, the blog described the child’s terror that her education would come to a halt. “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” the first blog began. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat . . . I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”

Both Malala and most of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that dominates Pakistan’s north western regions and who account for more than half of the population of Afghanistan. She was given her first name, which means “grief-stricken”, after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun warrior-woman. The Yousafzai, her tribe, are prominent in Swat, where her father, Ziauddin, runs a chain of schools. It was he, an educational activist, who put Malala’s name forward for the BBC blog after a producer approached him asking for suggestions.

The former princely state of Swat is a green oasis in the north-west of Pakistan previously popular with honeymooning couples. But from 2007 it became the victim of a sustained assault by the Taliban. After crossing over the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group gradually moved down from the hills towards Swat. A military operation in 2007 failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and by 2009 they had gained control of as much as 80 per cent of the region. Following a period of tacit acquiescence by Islamabad, a second military offensive was mounted in May 2009, after which the army declared that the Taliban had been eliminated from Swat. After this, Malala appeared on national television to discuss the subject of girls’ education. She became a potent symbol of resistance against the Taliban and last year the Pakistani government honoured her for her activism with the country’s first National Peace Award for Youth.

Even after she was put on a Taliban hit list at the start of the year she was undeterred. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala said on television. “I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us.’ There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’”

On Tuesday 9 October, Malala was sitting on a school bus in her home city of Mingora, waiting to return home from morning lessons. A bearded man entered the bus and shot her at close range in the head and leg. (Two of Malala’s classmates were also injured.) She was given emergency treatment and taken to a hospital intensive-care unit in Peshawar, 105 miles from Mingora.

The extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and warned that, if the girl survived, another attempt would be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” said a TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

Fifty clerics from the Sunni Ittehad Council, one of the country’s Islamist parties, responded by issuing a fatwa that condemned the shooting as “un-Islamic”. They said that US drone attacks were no excuse for the Taliban’s action and that Islam does not prohibit the education of women.

The bullet grazed Malala’s brain and lodged in her neck. After it was removed, she was flown on 15 October to England, with her condition still critical. On arrival, she was transferred to a specialist unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her treatment is being paid for by the government of Pakistan.  She is in a stable condition, even communicating by writing notes, but doctors have warned that she is “not out of the woods yet”, due to signs of infection.

****

In rural Pakistan, and especially in the areas of Taliban insurgency, a woman who defends her rights is taking a risk. On 5 July, a social worker and women’s activist, Farida Afridi, was shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as punishment for being an “agent of change” in the tribal areas. The incident passed without much notice.

One woman activist who agitated for change and lived to tell the tale is Mukhtar Mai, from a village in the Muzaffargarh District. In 2002 she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in an act of so-called honour revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after a gang-rape, but Mukhtar refused and fought the case. Six of her rapists and attackers were sentenced to death for the crime but all were later acquitted by the courts. However, her struggles were reported widely in Pakistan and abroad, and she has become a prominent advocate for women’s rights.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Muzaffargarh, where she has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre. “I feel so good about the public response to Malala,” she said, her voice firm. “She’s just a child and yet she’s fought for a nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet; thousands of Malalas were wounded. Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me. I pray for her.”

Mukhtar frequently receives death threats. “I get calls every couple of weeks. They ring on
three [different] telephone numbers and say obscene things and make threats,” she says. “I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done.”

Her girls’ school was attacked by militants days before the Malala shooting. When the assailants did not find her there, they smashed the windows and beat up senior teachers. “There is always danger but the work I need to do is more important than my life. My life is in God’s hands.”

Like Malala, Mukhtar shows immense bravery, resilience and defiance. The failure of the state to provide protection for these women is symptomatic not only of a wider failure of criminal justice but of Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism.

****

Malala’s shooting was condemned by politicians from various parties. Billboards have been erected around Karachi by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) displaying a photograph of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, next to an image of Malala, with the slogan “Your daughters will keep fighting”. However, many doubt that these declarations of outrage will translate into further action.

“There is no clarity from the military and security establishment on whether they wish to take on these people and ensure that they respect the rule of law, or whether they wish to use them as allies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Until they resolve this contradiction, the Taliban and affiliated groups will seek to expand political and social space. The attack on Malala is an example of just that.”

The rallies held across the country were a moving testament to public support for Malala and what she stood for. But they were nothing compared to the state-backed protests against the anti Islamic Innocence of Muslims film that swept Pakistan’s major cities several weeks previously. Mainstream political parties can easily mobilise people in their tens of thousands but they are choosing not to, perhaps because they rely on Islamist groups for votes and backing in parliament.

Nowhere has the Pakistani state’s inconsistent attitudes to militancy been felt more acutely than in Swat. In February 2009, after the Taliban had taken control of the valleys and cities of the region, the PPP-led government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that gave them de facto control of the Malakand Division, an administrative area that contains Swat. The deal was made in the mistaken belief that this would stop them from trying to take more ground. The brief period of Taliban rule in Swat was nightmarish. Men were required to grow beards and women forced into wearing burqas. Those who did not comply were publicly lashed or beheaded. More than 400 of the 1,576 schools in Swat were closed, 70 per cent of them girls’ schools. The Taliban did not stop there. Buoyed by their tactical victory, they ventured deeper into Pakistan, launching audacious attacks. Eventually the army was forced to take action. The subsequent military campaign, from May to July 2009, resulted in the displacement of two million people. Although the army claimed to have dismantled Taliban networks, most of the commanders were not captured, and three years later the leading players remain at large.

In April 2009, before the army moved in, a YouTube video prompted outrage comparable with that of recent weeks. It shows a 17-yearold woman, in a burqa and lying face down on the floor, in the Swat town of Kabal. One man holds her down by the arms and head, a second holds down her legs, and a third, facing the camera, grimly lashes her as she screams for mercy. A crowd of men, largely silent, looks on. Much as with the Malala attack, the video was a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban insurgents, and it energised public opinion. In May 2009, the military moved to recapture the Swat District.

****

One recent afternoon, I visited a government school in central Karachi, a sprawling, rundown building that is facing demolition by the state. Young girls in uniform headscarves filled the playground, so that there was hardly any room to move. Open sewage ran through one section of the grounds and the roof of one of the buildings was open to the sky. Yet parents and residents of this low-income, largely Pashtun neighbourhood are fighting to keep the school open.

The fight to save the school is just one example of the premium placed on education across Pakistan – regardless of gender. “People will perhaps agree that the price of going to school is that their daughters cover their heads, because there is a political instinct to appease rather than to confront,” says Hasan from Human Rights Watch. “But it is another thing to say she will not go to school. That is something that urban Pakistan has no time for.”

The type of education on offer is not always ideal. Madrasas, or religious schools, are frequently incubators of militancy in the urban centres. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many preach a harsh version of Islam that is at odds with the forms that are established parts of the culture in south Asia. But the reasons for their influence are not always ideological. “If you find a poor male, who is out of a job, who is hungry, who can’t feed his family, he’s prey for being picked up and being turned into a militant,” says Najma Sadeque, a journalist and feminist activist. “Most send their children to madrasas because it’s a place where they can get free meals. It’s as basic as that. By not ensuring food security, not looking into economic and social problems, the government is just breeding more and more of this militancy.”

Although the main battleground of the Islamist insurgency is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rest of the country is far from exempt. “Militancy and extremism run the length and breadth of Pakistan,” Hasan says. “That’s why it is so difficult to address, because it has permeated society. This is not a geographical thing. It’s a social landscape issue. That requires a series of remedial short-term, long-term and medium-term measures.”

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

While the dominant mood remains one of disgust and outrage about what happened, several newspapers have questioned why so much attention is being given to Malala when hundreds of nameless women and children have been killed in US drone attacks. Others repeat the widespread theory that the Taliban are being funded by Washington as a ploy to keep Pakistan unstable. “It is not just a question of one little girl’s life. It is a question of the survival of the state,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me. “The threat has to be addressed and names have to be named.”

Above all, the attack on Malala reiterated how much the Taliban hate educated and independent women. This virulent, visceral hatred is as much founded in tribal codes as it is the product of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said that it was “condemnable” to justify the attack on Malala with talk of US drones and that her shooting should bring to an end all talk of negotiating with the TTP.

“The whole issue of good Taliban and bad Taliban is not valid because all Taliban are bad for women,” Haroon told me. “They have the same ideology, the same policies, the same patriarchal mindset. It doesn’t make any difference to us which type of Taliban. They are the same as far as women are concerned.”

There is fear in Pakistan. Many people do not travel without a chauffeur or an armed guard; others avoid going out on Fridays, when crowds amass around prayer time, in case of bomb attacks. But in spite of all this, women’s rights activists are refusing to be silenced. “The future is brighter,” Mukhtar Mai, the prominent advocate, says. “Women have found their voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out.

“There are dangers, but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. The women here are fighting for release from their pain.”

Samira Shackle is a former NS staff writer now living and working in Karachi.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pressed the button.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten