Ian Birrell

The freedom fighters who dared to take on a communist superpower

In May 2020, as the planet grappled with the pandemic, China’s state media declared that there were ‘obvious deficiencies’ in Hong Kong law enforcement needing to be addressed. Any delusions this might have referred to intensifying police brutality in response to massive pro-democracy protests, let alone the unleashing of Triad thugs to attack participants, were

The conman who duped thousands with a patently absurd story

In the early months of 1981, investors in a Swiss fund stuffed with cash, diamonds and gold began arriving at a five-star London hotel to await an audience with the fiscal wizard making them fabulously rich. Dr John Ackah Blay-Miezah would turn up in his grey chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, clad in an immaculately tailored suit and

The agony and frustration of reporting from the Middle East

For 25 years, Abed Takkoush assisted foreign reporters like Jeremy Bowen when they arrived to cover the chaos and conflicts in Lebanon. He drove them around in his battered Mercedes, pointing out with grim relish the places where dark deeds had taken place: the assassinations, atrocities, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians that scar this mesmerising

Abolishing slavery was no cause for smugness

When the 13 colonies of the United States declared independence in 1776, the first country to recognise the new nation was France. Other leading European powers, such as Britain and Spain, acknowledged its arrival at the Treaty of Paris, two years after a decisive victory by American forces. Yet when Haiti asserted independence in 1804,

America sees red: how fury prompted the slide into Trumpism

After leaving college more than two decades ago, Evan Osnos landed a job on the Exponent Telegram, one of two daily papers published for the 16,400 citizens living in the West Virginia town of Clarksburg. Like many local reporters in those far-off days before the internet, he covered pretty much everything in his community, from

Sacrificing to the false god of gold

Deep in Peru’s Amazon rainforest sits a desolate zone, stretching for miles and pockmarked with chemical-tainted water that glistens orange and blue. This was the centre of the country’s illegal gold-mining operations, where tens of thousands of desperate people dug into the soil in search of a precious mineral that could make the difference between

The courage of a madman: Maurice Wilson’s doomed assault on Everest

Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 of the planet’s peaks higher than 8,000 metres, is probably the finest high-altitude mountaineer in history. His list of astonishing achievements on dangerous ice-clad crags includes the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without use of oxygen. Yet as he sat exhausted at 26,000 feet with

Trump’s autocratic antics risk becoming the new normal

It is easy to forget the abnormality of Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. Before his election it would have seemed unthinkable to have the leader of the free world bragging of being a ‘very stable genius’ on social media, then taunting the despotic ruler of a nuclear-armed nation as ‘Little Rocket Man’ and

A dark journey into a fanatical underworld

Two years ago, the counter-extremist analyst Julia Ebner decided she needed to delve deeper into the extremists trying to disrupt and destabilise our democracies. So the Austrian researcher invented five identities and joined a dozen secretive digital worlds of white nationalists, radical misogynists and jihadi women to explore their networks, their strategies and their recruitment

How politicians failed to learn from the charity sex abuse scandal

When Tamsyn Barton was summoned before MPs last month to be quizzed on her suitability to run the official aid watchdog, she was asked about priorities in the post. She insisted she planned ‘to build back public trust in the effectiveness of aid,’ admitting support for the government’s £13.4bn spending spree was waning. This rising concern

Millions of shattered lives

The fateful day five years ago began like any other for the family. A pot of black tea with cardamon seeds sat on the table as Sara roused her youngest children and prepared them for school. But there were tiny clues. Leila, just turned 16 and wearing a floor-length dress, unusually offered to help. Her

Every horror imaginable

The group of kidnapped women were terrified. They had been brought back to the camp as booty and were being urged to convert to Islam with machetes pressed to their necks. They did their best to gabble words that sounded like the prayers they were being taught before one fighter noticed a captive with a

Korean notebook

When I arrived in Seoul, I joked to my editor that I hoped this was not going to be like Ukraine. I went there for three days and ended up staying for five weeks because a war broke out. This time the threat of war is implied, rather than real, although a Korean conflict would

A truly monstrous regiment

When George Omona first saw soldiers in the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, he was amazed. The scary fighters who had terrorised people for decades across a big chunk of Africa turned out to be emaciated teenagers with dirty clothes who could hardly hold the big guns they carried. Some were unarmed children, barely ten years

Getting away with murder

Cher Hughes loved the beauty, the white sand beaches and sun-kissed climate of the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro in Panama. So she sold her thriving sign business in Florida and spent the profits on creating a new life on the Caribbean archipelago. She and her husband built a beautiful home filled with fine

Trapped in hell

The mechanic, blinded in one eye by shrapnel, spent three days searching for his family in the destroyed buildings and broken streets of Darayya. Finally he found his father’s body in a farmhouse, alongside those of three boys, already starting to decay. ‘Can you tell me why they would kill an old man?’ he asked,