MOISES SAMAN/MAGNUM
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The price of a life

In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.

1. Taken

On the morning of 3 August 2014, a 58-year-old chef known as Abu Majed faced the most agonising decision of his life. Earlier that summer, Islamic State (IS) fighters had overrun vast areas of northern Iraq. Now, they were closing in on the villages and towns that surround Mount Sinjar, a jagged ridge of rock that rises abruptly from the flatlands and extends for tens of kilometres towards the Syrian border. Abu Majed’s village, Khanasur, had few defences and would fall to the militants. How should he protect his family?

A popular, humorous man, Abu Majed learned to cook in Baghdad in the 1970s before returning to Khanasur to open his gazino, an outdoor restaurant where young people liked to gather for grilled meat, beer and whisky among trees strung with fairy lights. He had five children and was fiercely proud of all of them. They were at the top of their classes at school and his two eldest wanted to study medicine. To Abu Majed – who, like almost everyone else in Khanasur, had descended from a long line of subsistence farmers – these ambitions were remarkable.

Abu Majed’s restaurant had been a haven during many turbulent years in Iraq. He kept it open through the repressive reign of Saddam Hussein and during the violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the threat now posed by the jihadists was greater than anything that had come before – especially because the villagers of Khanasur are Yazidis, an isolated and marginalised religious minority that has lived for centuries in north-west Iraq.

Having heard reports of the jihadists’ brutality elsewhere, Abu Majed was certain that IS’s main target would be the Yazidi men. The best option was for his family to split. After sending his wife and four youngest children – then aged between eight and 15 – to shelter with another family in the village, he walked with his eldest son towards Mount Sinjar. Abu Majed was still on the ascent when his phone rang. On the screen, he saw his daughter’s number. “They’ve captured us,” she whispered.

Abu Majed decided to turn back to try to rescue them, accepting that it would probably be a suicide mission. When he and his son arrived the following day in Khanasur, it was deserted. Devastated and distraught, they returned to Mount Sinjar, joining tens of thousands of fellow Yazidis stranded on the summit with no food, clean water or protection from the fierce sun.

They were trapped. The mountain was surrounded by IS fighters who had rampaged through the nearby villages, slaughtering thousands of Yazidis and taking thousands more hostage. Sometimes they gave people the choice between converting to Islam and death; some converted and were murdered anyway.

A few days into the siege, Iraqi and then American, British and Australian military aircraft began dropping food parcels and water on to the mountain. Often they unloaded from a great height to avoid coming under fire from IS militants and the bottles would burst on impact, water seeping into the yellow dust. When the helicopters could fly low enough, dozens of people struggled to climb aboard so that they could be airlifted to safety – but few made it off the mountain that way. Abu Majed and his son saw old people and infants succumb to starvation. “People were saying, ‘We wish we would die here. Maybe they [IS] could just strike us with chemical weapons.’”

On 7 August, four days after Abu Majed fled to Mount Sinjar, the US launched an aerial campaign to break the siege. At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forced a way through IS lines and opened up a humanitarian corridor a week later. On 14 August, a ragged column of people walked down the mountain and across the sun-bleached landscape into Syria. At great risk, Abu Majed and his son slipped back into Khanasur to salvage a few precious family photographs. Then they walked for 14 hours to the Syrian border. There, they hitched a lift in another family’s car to reach Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

In March, I met Abu Majed in Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people in the fertile mountains of western Kurdistan, where an uneasy peace prevails. At checkpoints evenly spaced along the city’s main tributaries, grim-faced soldiers scrutinise passing drivers with unsettling diligence. There is a feeling of claustrophobia: the memory of IS’s advance is still so recent and the front lines are close.

Abu Majed is short and bald, with a wide moustache and a narrow, drawn face. He cried several times as he told me his story when we met in an empty café, and each time he would stare down at his untouched tea until the tears stopped. Then he would quietly apologise. He lives alone in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the nearby town of Shariya and cooks for a battalion of Yazidi soldiers. The work is unpaid but it is a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. His eldest son, who fled with him to Mount Sinjar, is a boarder at a pharmacy college. The rest of his family are hostages.

Abu Majed last heard from his wife and three youngest children in October 2015, when they borrowed a smuggled phone from a fellow hostage for a few minutes – just long enough to tell him they were still alive and in Tal Afar, an IS-controlled city in north-west Iraq. He had not heard anything from his eldest daughter, Majida, since March 2015. Then, a few weeks before we met, he received a telephone call from a people smuggler.

 

2. The Yazidis

The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in August 2014 and between 5,000 and 7,000 were taken hostage. In the months that followed, news began to spread – through hushed phone calls from hostages and the testimony of escapees – of IS’s systematic violence against its Yazidi prisoners. The men and older boys were separated from their relatives and usually killed. Women and children were kept in cramped and filthy conditions, in prisons and old school buildings, where they were deprived of food and water and forced to convert to Islam. Unmarried or younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters. Boys, some as young as eight, were sent to training camps to become jihadists. This January, the UN estimated that 3,500 Yazidis were still in IS captivity.

The IS fighters who brutalise Yazidi boys in training camps or rape and humiliate female slaves have a brutal sense of religious righteousness. A pamphlet released by the group in 2014 instructs that: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim community] any harm or damage.” It specifies that it is “permissible” to have “intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty”. Should a woman attempt to escape, she should be punished in a manner that “deters others from escaping”.

In March, the US joined the European Parliament in ruling that IS’s crimes against Yazidis constituted genocide. The Yazidis use the word ferman to refer to the atrocity (it is an Ottoman term meaning “royal decree”) and say that throughout their almost 7,000-year history, they have survived scores of attempts to wipe out their people. In 2007, they were the victims of the second most deadly terrorist attack in modern history – after 9/11 – when Sunni militants killed more than 500 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two Yazidi villages near Sinjar. They describe the events of
August 2014 as the 73rd ferman.

There are perhaps half a million Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraq, though there are smaller communities in Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Syria. They have historically remained cut off from the rest of society. This is partly because of long-standing discrimination. Under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis of Sinjar were banned from teaching their own language – Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish – and in the 1970s, they were displaced from their ancestral farmlands and homes on the mountain and forced into “collective villages”. (Abu Majed’s village of Khanasur is one such settlement.)

Their isolation is also partly through choice. You can only become a Yazidi by birth and Yazidis cannot marry non-believers, or even outside their own caste or sect. They are discouraged from sharing their religious beliefs, which are largely transmitted orally, with outsiders.

One morning, I visited Lalish, the holiest site in the Yazidi religion, to which all followers must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The shrines are built on a hillside, about 30 kilometres south-east of Dohuk. Visitors and pilgrims take off their shoes in the car park, because every stone in Lalish is sacred. There were a few families and young men with selfie sticks but before the ferman Lalish would have been much busier on a fine spring day. The grey stone shrines, with distinctive conical rooftops, are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions. Sheikh Adi was an 11th-century prophet – or, perhaps, a god – who organised Yazidi society into castes: the laymen, called the murids, and their assigned spiritual guides, known as the sheikhs and pirs.

In a courtyard, I met Sheikh Hussein, whose family has looked after Lalish for generations. He has a thick beard and was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh knotted into a turban and a baggy khaki jacket with matching Kurdish pantaloon trousers. He chain-smoked slim cigarettes. He told me that he believed the ferman was a punishment from God, because Yazidis had grown distant from him. “What happened to Yazidis was because people don’t remember God, but now people remember God,” he said.

The Yazidi God, Melek Taus, takes the form of a peacock. Parallels between Melek Taus and Azazel, or Lucifer – the angel who, according to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, rebelled against God – have contributed to the belief that Yazidis are devil-
worshippers, a slur that has been used throughout history to justify their persecution. Yazidis do not worship the devil, although unlike Christians, Muslims or Jews, they do not believe that God is purely good. If God is omnipotent, they argue, surely he could defeat the devil? The Yazidi God can be angry and cruel.

 

3. The smugglers

When the chef Abu Majed was contacted by the people smuggler, he was initially suspicious. The smuggler was an Arab Muslim from the town of Sinjar, to the south of the mountain, and IS’s massacres have deepened many Yazidis’ mistrust of their Muslim neighbours. Yet his ethnicity and religion were advantageous: the smuggler could move across IS territory without attracting too much attention and could speak to jihadists in their own language, Arabic.

The smuggler told Abu Majed that his eldest daughter was being forced to work as a nurse in a hospital in Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria. He offered details that seemed to fit with the little information Abu Majed had gleaned from speaking to former hostages. The smuggler said that for $18,000 he could buy his daughter from IS and bring her home. Abu Majed has decided to trust him. He has no money but told me that when he receives confirmation from the smuggler that the deal with IS has been agreed, he will start “begging” for funds from his relatives, friends, NGOs – anyone who could help him.

With few other options, despairing Yazidis have resorted to dangerous and expensive ways of rescuing their loved ones from IS captivity. Some, such as Abu Majed, try to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars to pay middlemen – many of them Arab Muslims – who promise to buy slaves from IS fighters in order to liberate them. 

Others have placed their faith in another class of hostage smuggler – often fellow Yazidis – who say that they have devised elaborate schemes for rescuing slaves and sneaking them out of the jihadists’ territory. Their networks extend deep into IS-controlled Iraq and Syria but the operations are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are sheltering in sprawling camps.

Sinjar district is nominally part of Iraq but many Kurds believe that it should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has sought to extend its influence over the area. In November 2014, the KRG set up its “Office of Kidnapped Affairs” in Dohuk to maintain records of missing people, to ensure that survivors receive assistance and to organise hostage rescues. One afternoon, I arrived at the pink villa where the office is based to meet its director, Hussein al-Qaidi, a Yazidi former NGO worker and meat trader.

Al-Qaidi told me that 2,426 Yazidi hostages have been liberated since August 2014, including 1,204 children and 895 women. He said that more than 1,000 of them had been rescued directly by the office, which runs a network of people smugglers able to work within IS territory. A few Yazidis had escaped without help and in the remainder of cases hostages’ families had independently paid a smuggler to bring their relatives home. In these instances, the Office of Kidnapped Affairs refunds the money.

Al-Qaidi would not detail how rescue missions are conducted, saying that this would threaten future operations. Most of the families I spoke to believed that they were making payments to IS to free their loved ones but al-Qaidi insisted that his office never deals with IS operatives directly. “If you believe this money strengthens Da’esh, it’s not true. It does not go to Da’esh fighters,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Qaidi said that the Yazidi hostage crisis had created a perverse trade and a group of “war businessmen” who were pushing up the price of smuggling missions. The KRG is the office’s sole funder and its finances are in a desperate state because of the low oil price, the cost of the war against IS and monetary disputes with the Iraqi government. KRG officials and front-line Kurdish fighters – the peshmerga, or “those who face death” – have not been paid for months. Three families I spoke to, who are internally displaced and yet had somehow raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay smugglers, said that they were still waiting for refunds from the office. The smugglers told me that, for months, no government repayments had been made.

When I asked al-Qaidi what he would do if his office could no longer afford rescues, he said that he had a “plan B”, which he could not divulge. He did say, however, that his office was about to make a big announcement. He was working on a rescue mission to save 19 Yazidi hostages and if I called the next day, he might tell me more.
The following afternoon, I visited a Yazidi couple who have become a crucial part of the smuggling chain and sometimes work as volunteers for al-Qaidi’s office. They live in an apartment in an upmarket gated complex in Dohuk. Khaleel al-Dakhi, 38, is a former lawyer, tall and slim with a cool, confident demeanour.

Moments after we met, he held up his smartphone to display the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a tight, red T-shirt, with long, fair hair that she had flicked over one shoulder. He waited for a moment, seemingly enjoying my confusion. Then he told me that she was a Yazidi sex slave who had been put on sale for $11,000.

The photo was sent to al-Dakhi by a Yazidi friend who was posing online as an IS fighter in order to buy and liberate hostages. The friend had obtained a password for an internet chat room through which Yazidi slaves are traded. He forwards information on to al-Dakhi, who keeps a record of where women are being held and by whom.

Al-Dakhi and his wife, Ameena Saeed Hasan, are from the same village as Abu Majed but were already living in Dohuk when IS invaded Khanasur. Hasan had worked as an MP in Iraq’s national parliament until just weeks before the Sinjar crisis. In late 2014, her phone rang incessantly as IS hostages called her to plead for help. At first, she focused on gathering information on where hostages were being kept and how they were being treated, which she passed on to the Iraqi government. Then, she realised, “The government didn’t do anything.”

Using Hasan’s political connections and al-Dakhi’s business ones, they were able to mobilise a network of sympathetic Arab Muslims living in IS-controlled parts of Iraq to help them carry out rescues. They, too, were reluctant to discuss their techniques in detail but said in general hostage smuggling works like this: first, the hostage will provide Hasan or al-Dakhi with precise details of their location and their captor’s routines; then, the couple will co-ordinate with their smuggling network to locate a nearby safe house to which the hostage can flee and from where a smuggler can collect them. The hostage will often be passed between several different smugglers, chosen for their ability to blend into the community, and kept in a number of safe houses until they can travel to the IS border. Al-Dakhi liaises with the peshmerga on the front-line checkpoints so that the escapees are allowed into Kurdistan.

He often drives to the border, or even into the militants’ territory, despite the danger. When the women first see him, they sometimes rip off their headscarves, or kneel to kiss the ground, or break into a run. “They’ve been through all these terrible situations. They have suffered so much and in those moments they can’t believe they’ve made it,” al-Dakhi told me.

He is adamant that no money goes to IS. “We don’t buy hostages, we steal them,” he said. He estimates that he and his wife have rescued over 100 women and children, but they say that it is becoming ever harder to carry out a successful mission. IS has split up many groups of hostages. Increasingly the women are on their own and do not have access to a phone. Smugglers are demanding higher payments because of the rising danger. Six smugglers in al-Dakhi’s network have been killed. On one occasion, an IS fighter pretended on the phone to be a young Yazidi boy and then murdered the smuggler sent to rescue him. Another time, a smuggler was killed by a militant who disguised himself as a female hostage by wearing a black niqab.

 

4. Freedom

I contacted the Office of Kidnapped Affairs several times to ask if the rescue of the 19 Yazidis had been successful and each time was asked to call back. Then, I chanced upon the man who brought the hostages home: Abdallah Sherim, a 41-year-old Yazidi who felt compelled to help with rescues after 56 members of his extended family were kidnapped. I met him near Dohuk, in his brightly painted house on a small hill that overlooks Khanke IDP camp, where rows of blue-and-white tarpaulin tents are pitched close together in the churned-up roadside mud.

Sherim used to work as a trader between Sinjar and Aleppo in Syria. When his terrified relatives began to call him from captivity, he contacted his former business associates, who helped him find Syrians he could trust to assist him in carrying out rescue missions. He claimed to have liberated more than 200 Yazidis, including 24 members of his family. He showed me photographs of two nephews he had smuggled home a year earlier. They had since been resettled in Germany and had sent him snaps in their new football kit.

As we spoke, one of his sons turned up the volume on the TV. It was showing Nuce Ezidixan, a Yazidi news hour that is broadcast daily. Just as I was about to ask him to turn the volume down, I saw on the screen al-Qaidi from the kidnapping office – and then Sherim. They were posing next to the 19 liberated hostages: five women and 14 children. Al-Qaidi did not mention on the television, as Sherim later did, that nine of the smugglers involved in the mission had been captured. Nor did he mention the $6,500 per person the rescue had cost, money the families had raised themselves.

One of the 19 hostages rescued by Sherim’s network and then paraded on Yazidi TV was the 25-year-old Jehan (she asked that I did not use her full name). She is tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, hoarse voice, and was wearing a long, flowery dress and a threadbare brown headscarf. Her hands were tattooed with the words ya allah – “O, God” – over and over. Her name ran up her right forearm in crude Roman capitals and on that hand was also written, el-hurriya, in Arabic script: “freedom”. All the female hostages had inked that same word on to one another’s hands but when her friend had tattooed her arm, six or seven months earlier, Jehan could not imagine what it would feel like to be free.

I spoke to her in the Rwanga IDP camp in western Kurdistan, where she was staying with the uncle who had paid $6,500 for her release. The camp houses as many as 15,500 people in white prefabricated cabins. It was dusk and groups of women squatted outside their front doors, preparing piles of foraged leaves to cook with oil and serve with rice or bread for dinner.

Jehan’s family rose stiffly from the floor when I arrived. Three sides of their single-room cabin were lined with faded mattresses and a neat pile of blankets occupied one corner. It was becoming chilly and we huddled close to a small kerosene stove. Jehan said that since her release, three days earlier, she had been unable to sleep. She could not stop worrying about her four siblings and her mother, who were still missing and believed to be in IS hands.

They were from Kocho, a village that IS did not attack until 15 August 2014, a day after the siege on Mount Sinjar was broken. When the jihadists stormed Kocho, the men were separated from the women and then shot. The UN estimates that up to 700 men and boys were murdered that day. Jehan was taken with other women, girls and infants by bus to the city of Mosul, 150 kilometres away, where she was later sold into “marriage” to an 18-year-old Libyan fighter with ambitions to become a suicide bomber. They lived together in Raqqa for six or seven months. He forced her to say Islamic prayers and made her promise to teach them to her family. In his will, he granted her freedom. According to IS’s religious leaders, if a fighter liberates his slave, he is guaranteed a
place in heaven.

When her “husband” blew himself up on a suicide mission in Syria in mid-2015, Jehan was free to move wherever she wished within IS territory. Perhaps she could even have planned an escape but she did not know then if she had any family to go home to. Instead, she stayed with an aunt who was kept as a slave in the city of Tal Afar. She moved several times and spent her final months in IS hands living in a guest house in Raqqa. It was populated by would-be jihadi brides who had joined the extremist group from all over the world: the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Turkey and Pakistan. The women could browse paper files resembling CVs, which listed fighters’ interests and achievements alongside their photographs, to find a husband. She says that her role in the guest house was simply to study the Quran.

Towards the end of 2015, international air strikes on Raqqa intensified, causing terror in the guest house. In February, the five Yazidi women staying there persuaded IS militants to transfer them, together with their 14 children, to a small village. There they were less closely monitored by the jihadists and one hostage succeeded in calling her husband. In turn, the husband called Sherim, the rescue co-ordinator in Dohuk, who engineered an escape plan.

One day at noon, an Arab woman knocked on the door of the house – as they had been told by Sherim to expect – and drove the 19 hostages to the village of Tal Hamis. They spent a week hiding there, before a sheep farmer collected them and took them to his tent, where they stayed for one night. Another Arab smuggler walked them towards the town of Kobane, which has been under Syrian Kurdish control since January 2015, following a fierce four-month battle with IS. The smuggler instructed the women and children  to follow his footsteps exactly to avoid stepping on landmines.

In Kobane, a Kurdish smuggler met them and drove them to a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, almost 500 kilometres away. There they met Sherim, who accompanied them for the final drive to Dohuk.  Jehan has since been questioned by Kurdish government agents and received medical check-ups but no other support, she says.

Hussein, the uncle who paid for her release, was one of the hundreds of men from Kocho rounded up for execution. He was shot three times, once in the back and twice in the leg and then lay, still as a corpse, among the dead bodies of his friends and neighbours until he could escape. He has been living in Rwanga for over a year and he is heavily in debt. Before he paid for Jehan’s release, he had already spent $20,000 buying back his wife. One of Jehan’s sisters recently managed to call him: she is being held as a slave in the Iraqi city of Fallujah but no one can afford the cost of her release. Another of Jehan’s uncles, named Salem, told me that he had spent $70,000 to buy back his relatives. The family raised the money by borrowing from displaced families in Rwanga and now some of their debtors are asking when they will be paid back. “We’re dead with our eyes open,” Salem said.

On a stormy morning, I travelled from Dohuk to Sinjar. Beyond the main checkpoint out of Kurdistan, there were few cars. We followed a potholed road that runs along the Syrian border. We passed Arab and Yazidi villages flattened in the fight against IS, grey houses whose concrete roofs had sometimes shattered into great, heavy plates and other times had curved and distorted to resemble folds of cloth. The driver listened to a new Yazidi radio station that played prayers, traditional love songs and poetry. “This time, it was a real ferman,” the voice on the radio said, speaking over the militaristic music. “The volcano of hunger came to our mountain . . .” The IS front line has now been pushed back to the south of Mount Sinjar. As they departed, IS left behind booby traps to kill or maim the first Yazidis to return to their abandoned homes or search for their relatives’ remains.

Some Yazidis feel that they can never go back  to their former houses, in villages of ghosts. Many have left for Europe, some illegally and others through special programmes: Germany has resettled around 1,000 Yazidis. Many people in IDP camps told me that they could never feel safe in Iraq again, each repeating the same story. They said that hours before IS invaded, the peshmerga stationed in the area, who were affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, repeatedly promised that civilians would be protected and told them not to leave their homes. But the peshmerga unexpectedly retreated, taking their weapons with them. Before the Yazidis were attacked, they were betrayed. And long before that final betrayal, they were neglected and sidelined by Iraq’s Muslim majority.

There are other Yazidis who say they will never leave their homes, their shrines and the mountain that protected them during the darkest days of the ferman. The mayor of Snune, the largest town north of the mountain, told me that of the 23,000 families that lived in Sinjar Province in 2014, around 5,000 have come back. They have little to return to: few areas have running water, or electricity, or functioning schools and health clinics. Most are surviving on food handouts from NGOs, Iraq’s government or Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

Finally we reached Khanasur, the home village of the chef Abu Majed. Other than the checkpoint, guarded by two teenage female Yazidi fighters, the once bustling main street was empty. The shops, beauty salons and cafés were boarded up, the shutters spray-painted with the names of peshmerga battalions from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. At the edge of the village, beyond an abandoned football pitch, we found Abu Majed’s restaurant. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted to reveal the long, rugged form of Mount Sinjar.

By peering over the high concrete wall, I could see the roof of the simple bungalow in which Abu Majed and his wife and five children once lived, as well as the tops of the trees in the restaurant garden, which were still strung with unlit fairy lights. A goatherd approached from the nearby scrubland, shaking her head. “Poor Abu Majed,” she said.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad

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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad