Ian Birrell

The murderous gangs who run the world

Rosalio Reta was 13 years old when recruited by a Mexican drug cartel. He was given a loyalty test — shoot dead a man tied to a chair — then moved into a nice house in Texas. Soon he was earning $500 a week for stakeouts and odd jobs, but the big money came from

Africa’s Afghanistan

For centuries, the people of Timbuktu have sought guidance from their Sufi saints. They took pride in the mausoleums of these medieval Muslim holy men, who spread their faith around the world from a city built on the profits of gold, salt and slaves. When I visited six years ago, a teenager showed me around,

Big charity

The aid business has grown fat. It’s time there was proper scrutiny Such a simple question: should Oxfam spend a couple of hundred pounds a month opening up the swimming pool at its guesthouse in one of the nicer parts of Nairobi? It was posed by Duncan Green, the group’s head of research, on his

Another top ten albums of 2011 list

Picking my favourite albums this year reminded me of three things about the current state of music. First, the obvious point of how everything is driven by single tracks rather than albums, making the task harder each year. Second, how so much of the most interesting and innovative art is being made by women right

The ongoing NHS scandal

Shock! Horror! Another report reveals the shameful care given to the elderly in British hospitals. People in the twilight of their life reduced to begging for food and rattling the bars of their beds in a desperate attempt to get the attention of medical staff paid to care for them. The findings came in reports

Spotify Sunday: Shuffle…

Like many music fans, I could spend months pondering a playlist and coming up with dozens of variations. Since I assume I was invited to participate in Spotify Sunday as co-founder of Africa Express, I wondered whether to do an all-African list, but in the end decided to do a random shuffle of a few

Hell or high water

As his battered bomber hurtled towards the Pacific in May 1943, Louis Zamperini thought to himself that no one was going to survive the crash. If he had had the slightest inkling of what lay ahead of him, he readily admits that he might have preferred death, staying beneath the surface of the water rather

The making of the coalition

David Cameron was despondent on the evening of 10 May. Although the election result was pretty much as he had predicted privately, he feared that his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ of coalition with the Liberal Democrats was about to be rejected in favour of a deal with Labour. When we talked that night he

That turbulent decade

On 2 January, 1980, a new decade was ushered in with a strike by steelworkers. It was their first national stoppage for half a century, and after three tense months they were rewarded with a 16 per cent pay rise. Once again, a strike seemed to pay off, with weak managers sacrificing long-term gain to

Caught in the crossfire

Maqbool Sheikh dreaded hearing a knock at the door of his home. For he was the most intimate witness to one of the world’s most enduring and forgotten conflicts, the struggle over Kashmir. As the only autopsy expert at the police hospital in Srinagar, it was his job to conduct post mortems on those shot,

The hell I share with David Cameron

My daughter suffered two seizures the other night. One was shortly after midnight, the other a couple of hours later. Having been away on business the previous night, it was my turn to get up to comfort her, to check that the fits were not life-threatening and, afterwards, to settle her back to sleep. Five