Egyptian opposition supporters shout slogans as they gather outside the Presidential Palace in Cairo on 11 December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The myth of the Islamist winter

Egypt and Tunisia aren’t sliding into chaos – they are simply learning how to be democracies.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

The Islamists are obliged to search for allies, as they control neither the army nor the religious sphere. And if they are able to find allies among the Salafists – the religious conservatives – and the military, these two groups are nevertheless not prepared to allow them to become dominant. The Islamists have to negotiate. There is a classical logic of power at work here: the dominant political group finds it hard to accept that power could change hands and so seeks to preserve its position by any means necessary. Moreover, there is no revolutionary dynamic among the populace that would allow it to prevail by appealing to sentiment in the street.

It is interesting to consider the precise nature of this authoritarian turn because it bears little resemblance to the “Islamic revolution” often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the Renaissance Party, in Tunisia. It is, on the contrary, a conservative and paradoxically pro-western “counter-revolution”. Consider Egypt. If the president, Mohamed Morsi, is denounced in Tahrir Square as the new Mubarak (and not the new Khomeini), it is because his opponents have grasped that his aim is to establish an authoritarian regime using classical means (appealing to the army and controlling the apparatus of the state).

The electoral and social base of the Egyptian regime is not revolutionary. Instead of trying to reach a compromise with the principal actors of the Arab spring, Morsi is attempting to get all the supporters of the new order on his side. The coalition he is building is based on business, the army, the Salafists and those elements of the “people” that are supposedly tired of anarchy.

Morsi’s economic model is neoliberal: he is surrounded by “Chicago boys” who swear by the free market. He is in favour of deregulation, the end of subsidies and an opening to the global market. His government has just signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund that includes a loan with interest and which it has justified on grounds of necessity. Morsi has accepted the outlook of the IMF, not because he has been forced to do so, but because it is an approach he shares. This will bring further privatisation and competition. And because the price paid by swaths of the population will be severe, the government will need a functioning apparatus of repression and to break the trade unions. It will also have to gain the acquiescence of the army, in exchange for immunity and the right to regulate its own affairs, particularly in the economic sphere.

Meanwhile, to get the Salafists on its side, a cosmetic Islamicisation of society, on the Saudi model rather than the Iranian, ought to suffice: enforced wearing of the veil, continued discrimination against Coptic Christians, a requirement to respect religious norms in public and restrictions on non-orthodox religious practices (specifically, Sufi ceremonies, carried out by followers of Islamic mysticism).

Wider stage

In order to have their hands free domestically, the Islamists must make themselves indispensable to the west – which explains the mediating role that Egypt played in the recent crisis in Gaza. Morsi has performed brilliantly on the international stage, gaining the approval of the Americans in the process. He has fought the radical Islamists in the Sinai and has distanced himself from Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. He has been able to restore the prestige and influence of Egyptian foreign policy without lapsing into an aggressive Nasserstyle pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. Although there were irregularities in the elections that brought him to power last year, and which led to a legal challenge from the judiciary, no one seriously doubts that they were won handily by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse. Demonstrations by a cross-section of society that were much larger than expected have undermined confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood. And voices have been raised inside the Brotherhood against this sudden burst of authoritarianism.

Time is against Morsi, because the economic measures that he wants to introduce will make the government increasingly unpopular. And, on the other hand, continued popular protest will require him to call on the army, which will support him, but at a price – the political and economic autonomy that the military is asking for runs counter to the Brotherhood’s programme of economic liberalisation. In short, the new regime is politically isolated.

Besides the street and the political stage, the other battleground for the Muslim Brotherhood is control of the religious sphere. Like al- Nahda in Tunisia, it has discovered that this is considerably more diverse than it had thought. Moreover, figures who had previously been relatively docile where the state was concerned, such as Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, have reasserted the autonomy that they were granted by the Arab spring. This means that the only way for the government to wrest back control of the religious sphere is to place it under the authority of the state (specifically, to submit the mosques to the diktat of the ministry of religious affairs).

State control of religion would in fact go beyond institutions and extend to religious orthodoxy, leading to limitations being placed on Sufi practices and theological discussions. Even if the Muslim Brothers succeed in the first part of the operation – nationalising faith institutions – the price they will have to pay for it will be high, because the imams won’t appreciate being turned into civil servants. They also run the risk of destroying the religious dynamic of their movement: if the state controls religion, what use is a religious “brotherhood”? And if religion is identified with the state, there is a grave risk that the unpopularity of the government will affect faith institutions in turn, as has happened in Iran.

The Brotherhood will come to be identified with its political wing alone. As in Iran, the nationalisation of religion risks giving rise either to a resurgence of non-orthodox practices or to the secularisation of society. The Brotherhood will lose its soul. And, in the process, it will have lost the Coptic Christians, the liberals and many women, all of whom are apprehensive at the prospect of state-enforced Islamicisation.

The Muslim Brotherhood has taken an enormous risk in trying to prevail by force. The first victim of the way it has exercised power has been its ideology. Islam is not the solution but at best a discourse designed to rally the Salafists, one that disguises a politics more redolent of Pinochet in Chile than of Khomeini in Iran.

If the so-called liberal opposition (which also contains some less-than-democratic elements) sees that it can’t afford a direct confrontation with the government and instead presents itself as a credible political alternative, the Muslim Brothers will pay dearly for a flirtation with authoritarianism that is serving to “secularise” politics in Egypt. Religion is becoming just one instrument of control among others – rather than a social, economic and ideological alternative. This is, in short, the failure of political Islam.

Playing the same game

In Tunisia, the same game is unfolding. Al- Nahda is neither as strong nor as deeply rooted as the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement is more diverse, with a branch that is, if not more liberal, then at least more realistic. And because of their commitment to violence, the Tunisian Salafists are not credible allies. What is more, society has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency, though it is often difficult to discern the motives and strategy of these local actors (criminal and clan activity plays a role that ought not to be underestimated). Tunisia also has the most powerful trade union movement in the Arab world. The UGTT (the Tunisian General Workers’ Union) has a national network of highly organised activists capable of channelling popular protest. Al-Nahda is coming into conflict with the unions, either for the same reasons as in Egypt (a fascination with the free market) or for reasons more specific to Tunisia (it wants allies on its left but cannot bear to compete with a truly popular movement of grass-roots activists).

Additionally, al-Nahda does not control the security forces. The army certainly wants to preserve order, but it will not take the risk of identifying itself with repression against the Tunisian people. Finally, al-Nahda has not succeeded in controlling the religious sphere and has fewer means at its disposal to try to do so than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In October, a petition was circulated, signed by hundreds of imams who had voted or would vote for al-Nahda but who opposed all attempts to bring the mosques and other faith institutions into the orbit of the state. As in Egypt, al-Nahda proposes to use its own ministry of religious affairs to control the religious sphere, although this statism could rebound against the movement.

Missed popularity

The difficulties encountered by the Islamists have led to a marked decline in popularity in both countries, exposing them to the risk of defeat should elections be called. But the most pressing question is that of the political alternative to the Islamists. The leaders of new political parties have a credibility problem: they are only tenuously connected to the protesters in the streets, they are often associated with the old regimes and they retain an elitist conception of political life. The opposition, in short, is a long way from being able to assemble a credible coalition. The Tunisian opposition in particular suffers from its identification with the secular elite in the capital, Tunis, who are implacably opposed to any re-Islamicisation of society. It also suffers from a democratic deficit, as it has always supported a policy of repression against religious militants. Finally, it finds it easier to campaign in Paris than in the streets of Tunisia. Yet if there were a credible and unified opposition, it could beat al-Nahda in the elections. Consequently, Tunisia’s chances of staying democratic are better than Egypt’s.

In both countries, however, the Arab spring has changed things irrevocably. Beyond the aspects that I emphasised in my first article for the New Statesman nearly two years ago (a new political culture linked to the emergence of a new generation; the diversifying of the religious sphere; a change in geostrategic context that has resulted in the Islamists no longer finding themselves automatically in the anti-western camp; the “embourgeoisement” of the Islamists; the reorientation of a revolutionary movements towards conservative parties), a new factor is contributing to the normalisation of the Islamists – the exercising of power. The Islamists are succeeding neither in delivering the goods in economic and social terms nor in giving the impression that they are architects of an authentic social project that goes beyond the stamping of “Islamic markers” on a society over which they have increasingly little control.

The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account. To get through the period of austerity and the economic difficulties that go with it, they should have done more to secure a “historic compromise” with the liberals. The alternative to such an alliance is not “Islamic revolution”, however. What is taking shape instead is a coalition that is con - servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics, and thus open to the west. In this respect, the model is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which has learned to work with existing institutions and civil society. This has allowed it to reconcile a strong state with a liberal economy, a conservative Islamic party with an open society.

In contrast, if the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to reinforce the state apparatus for its own benefit, it will lose across the board. The Brothers will lose support among the “faithful” to the Salafists (who are less compromised), and in the business community they will lose out to the liberals – or to the army, now that the old guard of marshals and generals has been eliminated. As for the spirit of protest, that is not about to be extinguished.

Translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire.

Olivier Roy is head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of “Holy Ignorance” (C Hurst & Co, £20)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
Show Hide image

“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 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?